In the evenings, sitting alone in silence, poring over and analyzing the patterns and missteps of the day's social interactions, my mind often rests on the subject of compliments. What compliments I gave and how they were received. What compliments I was given and what they revealed about the mind and motives of the complimentor. If you too like to pick apart the minutia of the day's conversations, you may be interested in considering the hotchpot of ideas below.
The three parts of a compliment
There are three parts to a compliment. I will use the compliment "I like your red car" to illustrate the three components.
First, there is the phonetics that are spoken and their literal meaning, your red car pleases me.
Second, there is the reason or purpose for the compliment being given, I like cars. I like your car. We both value cars, and this car, and me stating I dig it, evidences this. Perhaps we can discuss cars. Perhaps we can discuss other things.
Finally, there is the effect the compliment has on the person it was offered to and how it changes the dynamic between the people involved, I do have a nice car. I am successful. So and so has reminded me of my success and good taste. Perhaps so and so is interested in the fact that some bastard keyed my car a couple days ago.
The second part, the pragmatics of the compliment
What interests me are the many reasons why a person decides to utter a compliment and what this might reveal about their intentions. The purpose might be to make the other person feel good about themselves, but why does the person want to do this? It may be a way to implore for help, “Samantha you're smart at this kinda stuff”, says Richard, hoping for help with his task. It can be used to create solidarity, by complimenting a person's taste in music you are also saying “we have the same taste in music, we share a commonality”, with this use, the compliment is facilitating conversation. If you complimented someone untruthfully and were hoping to extract something from them, then you are using compliments as a deceptive tool. Another way compliments can be used is as a part of day to day etiquette, like acknowledging someone has changed their appearance by offering them a positive comment about the change, by doing this you are positioning yourself as friendly and polite. Compliments can serve one or many of the functions above (and many more as well). When picking people's words apart it's good to think about what they might be trying to accomplish with the things they say, the moves they make.1.
Compliments, like criticisms, are essentially evaluations. They are evaluations where the person giving the compliment is assuming some sort of agency or at least professing an understanding of the particular topic. “Your basketball playing has really improved” is, among other things, an attempt by the person to place themselves as someone whose opinion about your basketball ability might matter (why do they need/want to position themselves this way? what work is this doing?). Evaluations are nice indicators of what someone’s value system is. When they are trying to position you, they indicate what the person believes you value.
Context is super important (that's why I bolded it). Consider the compliment "You have great legs". When a husband says this to his wife while she dresses for work in the morning it means and does one thing. If the same husband says this to his wife in front of a colleague of her's at a office party
it would serve a completely different purpose. One is used to show appreciation the other to sexualize and diminish 2.
Here is a different example of the importance of context from my personal life. There is a woman in one of my classes I want to hook up with. I want to broaden the topics we discuss. I want to move beyond discussions about homework and exams and on to personal topics (hopefully ones replete with sexual innuendo!). I see her in the hall and she has a new hairdo and I decide to compliment her on it so she will think, hmmm why is this guy complimenting me on this?, how do I feel about this compliment?, then I can gauge her reaction and make decisions about whether non-classroom topics are open for discussion. I will use the act of complimenting to increase intimacy between us.
Instead of going up to her in the hall that instant, where we would be alone (and since it's a presumably quick, both standing facing each other exchange, we would be in close proximity) I wait until we are both waiting at the door before class begins. I compliment her nonchalantly in a way that suggests the compliment fits in the etiquette and politeness category and I do it near a group of other women. This way there is less of a chance for a creepy vibe and the compliment can be dismissed3. Another way would have been to find some way to talk about hair first ("can you believe so and so got such a terrible hair cut, hey you got a haircut, it's nice"). In different contexts the same compliment will be received and do completely different things.
1 what's so nice thinking about this stuff is that most people are not willful of their day to day words and actions, mostly acting out of subconscious directed habit, so when you analyze them you are normally getting them in a purer form. As well, since people view themselves as giving you a compliment, rewarding you, they assume your attention will be directed on yourself and feeling good about their praise. Because of this they will be less guarded with what giving this particular compliment at this particular time says about who they think they are, who they think you are and what they are trying to accomplish.
2 I'm making assumptions in my examples about the fictious people's motives and intentions. I'm not saying when a husband compliments a wife about her legs at office parties it's always problematic. If his wife was a leg model and expressing concern to her colleague who is a leg photographer then the husband is jusitified in complimenting her legs, unless the photographer has just given her serious professional advice about improving aspects of her legs, then the compliment would be inappropriate because of the agency it assumes, about his wife's legs.
3While the act of complimenting went off well and she did sit beside me on the bus the next day and start up a conversation with me (a good indication the compliment went off well since before we would just exchange smiles), we never got togther. I'm not sure why. I have yet to figure out "How to hook up with someone when there is no vibe".