The Charm of the Compliment

Knowing how to effectively give one -- and receive one -- will enhance your work environment.
Publish date:

Do it right and you're a star. Do it wrong and you're a brown-noser. What is it?

Giving a compliment, and in today's world there's nothing more important, or more poorly cultivated.

Time was when youngsters who expected to move up in life went to charm school, where they learned the rigors of giving and accepting compliments among other monumental matters.

Miss Conduct laments the demise of the charm school tradition, which she pegs somewhere around the first iteration of the flared-pants craze, and perhaps not coincidentally, the death of the first peace movement. In Miss Conduct's opinion, the only good thing to come out of it is her own job security.

Fortunately, because Miss Conduct missed out on charm school, she had to come up with her own basic rules of etiquette, and darned if they don't hold up:

    Treat everyone as if they were your boss.

    Your boss is perfect in every way.

    Always be entertaining. If you can't be funny, then flatter, even if it involves creative application of the truth.

    But how to apply Rule No. 3 to the charm of the compliment in the office?

    A successful compliment combines context, content and style in a seamless, snappy package that lifts everyone within earshot and sticks in their brains, like a really good jingle.


    The context of the homage is the first consideration.

    Time and place are the most significant factors, closely followed by the characters involved. You wouldn't interrupt a companywide meeting to issue an off-topic comment, so you mustn't do so with an off-topic compliment, either.

    However, you'd be a hero for giving props to your support team and boss as a preamble to a big presentation.

    Here the watchword is attention: If the compliment draws more attention to you than to the recipient, it's inappropriate. If it draws attention away from you, it's laudable in its own right, because all the most fun people are self-deprecating. In other words, context is the music in our compliment jingle-writing.

    The context of a compliment also includes the social and business hierarchy in which it is issued. Most compliments flow upwards (as per Miss Conduct's Rule No. 1), and that is what makes applause for the people who work for you all the sweeter.

    But you know who hardly ever gets a compliment? The intermediates, or next-to-the-big-bosses. They work harder than you realize and mostly hear complaints for others, so extra plaudits for them never go astray.


    What you choose to compliment constitutes the second hurdle. In our jingle analogy, the context is the melody.

    Any appropriate compliment is helpful, but the best compliments address those accomplishments or characteristics that the receiver values most about him- or herself.

    It can take careful observation to determine what these might be, but there are a

    few things everyone loves to hear.

    Nearly everyone likes to be found smart, important or valuable. Therefore, kudos on a clever maneuver, witty remark, clutch goal, nice "save" or even great foundation-building work will find their mark more often than they miss.

    One compliment that nearly everyone likes to hear, however, is nevertheless difficult for Miss Conduct to recommend without reservation in a business context. Like a loaded gun, in the wrong hands it carries not only socially disastrous but sometimes dastardly expensive legal repercussions. It's the attractiveness compliment, which can backfire depending on several unknowable factors in the recipient, such as personality and cultural upbringing.

    Therefore, it's best to avoid anything more detailed than "you look well," unless you know the recipient better than your mother. Or opt for something like "you're always so pulled-together," which can be taken as a compliment to the recipient's poise as well as his or her sartorial flair. That's a twofer, and therefore twice as likely to target one of the recipient's core values.


    Like the jingle mentioned above, what separates a really great compliment from an ordinary one is the style with which it is delivered.

    The fewer words the better, and in the business world especially, being pithy is favorable to poetic language. "Hear, hear," and "Nice!" constitute excellent benisons, and while they are none too detailed, they do not run the risk of embarrassing any recipient.

    By the way, if the art of the compliment doesn't come easily to you, don't worry. It's a skill, and like riding a bicycle, once acquired it sticks with you as badly as the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall (practice, practice, practice).

    And what of the art of accepting a compliment? This is even trickier than composing one, and it takes even longer to master.

    It's a simple process, but can be difficult to put into action: The recipient of a compliment should just respond with a smile and say without any preamble, prevarication or embarrassment, "Thank you." That's the secret -- or so Miss Conduct has read.

    Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and