The Art of Compliments

The photo is taken from the perspective of a person looking at their arm, stretched out in front of them with their thumb extended upward and their fingers curled into their palm, in a "thumbs up" sign.
Photo by Donald Tong on

I always tell my gentleman associate that his eyes are SO ROUND. He thinks I’m making fun of him or something, but I’m not. I’ve never seen such perfectly spherical eyes as his. He asks me what shape I think my eyes are. He says that everyone’s eyes are round. And I always say not like yours. Yours are really round.

I’m not sure when I noticed this, and I accept that it’s a pretty weird thing to say, because indeed, most eyes are round. But when I think about the compliments people give about eyes – they’re so blue! They’re an amazing chocolatey brown! They’re piercing gray. I’m not sure what makes a colour a good compliment and shape a strange one.

Anyway, what I mean when I say that is that his eyes remind me of perfect, beautiful marbles, unique and unblemished. Absolutely spherical and mesmerizing. The kind of marbles that you gaze into and muse on the perfect internal curl of colour and the absolute artistry of the glassblower who created it.

Yeah, I love his eyes.

I’m also a big fan of the freckles on his feet and ankles. He’s not a fan of people touching his feet, so I have to admire them without touching them. He also thinks I’m making fun of him when I say something about how his feet are decidedly froggy, and he should kiss me, to see if he turns into a prince. Yeah, I know, the metaphor isn’t *quite*there. It’s not like a cursed prince only has part of him turned into a frog. But the biggest restraint I show in the entire enormity of my life is not touching the freckles on the top of his feet.

Compliments are funny that way, though. If you feel self conscious about something, you’ll always think that someone is (at best) being insincere, and at worst, mocking you.

When I was in high school, we wore kilts, being RC kids. Mine fell a few inches above my knee. Many others in my cohort rested way higher than that. There was a girl, beautiful by all accounts, who was tall and lithe with long dark hair. She looked at me one day and said that I had great legs. Right out of the blue. I was stunned. I had no idea why she said it – we didn’t chat. Turns out, she really, really liked how the muscle, right above my knee, looked when I flexed my quadriceps. Hers didn’t because while she was lithe, she wasn’t strong. I thought for sure she was making fun of me. So I guess I can understand where my gentleman associate is coming from.

Fast-forward. Since February, I’ve been part of a leadership training program at work. There have been panels of the senior leadership team that discussed specific aspects of leadership, there have been seminars in things like having difficult conversations and there have been hours and hours and hours and hours of time dedicated to our Action Learning Plan (chosen from a few pitches that project managers have given to us).

This afternoon, we present our project and graduate from the program. There’s a day full of reflection and next steps scheduled, culminating in the presentation. We got a note that one of the sessions would have some pre-work. I guarantee we all balked at the idea of something MORE put on our plate right now. No one likes homework sprung on you when you’ve already got more on your plate than you can reasonably do in the time left in the week.

But there’s prework to do of the kind that maybe shouldn’t feel like work, but when you’re overloaded, it really really does. The direction were as follows:

Identify one or two specific traits, characteristics and/or skills that you have come to appreciate about your fellow group mates/participants. Using the attached [to the email] sheets, write each participant a short message describing what you appreciate most about them.

Ugh. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I really REALLY appreciate some of the things that my group mates brought to the project. These are some whip-smart people, and it’s been great having an opportunity to work with them. But they also deserve more than just a cursory “Your smile really lights up the Zoom gallery” or “Really appreciated your Powerpoint skills!” kind of gratitude note. But giving me a scant 30 hours (already alotted to other things, including, yaknow, sleep) to come up with something genuine, gracious, and eloquent is going to be a task. There are a few folks in the group that I didn’t work closely with – when we split into subgroups to do the content audit or the research part or the analysis, the luck of the draw did not put us in the same groups. So what do you say that doesn’t sound like the forced march of Valentines in lower school. Everyone gets a valentine, or no one gets one. I don’t begrudge the folks I don’t know their contributions. We all worked our tails off to get a very ambitious project to completion – I know that for sure. Some people work at the front of the pack, designing user experiments, and some were the workhorses, running those experiments and gathering the data we needed to step into the next phase. We couldn’t have done it without both types of people doing all kinds of tasks. But what if the finance guy in the group doesn’t appreciate my attempt at humour about my previous experience with accounting, and what how can I lessen the gap between the really great observations and mediocre ones?

When I was in university, I was on Residence Council, and at the end of the year, when we transitioned to the new council, the outgoing president (under whom I served my time) thanked everyone, saying something nice. There was one woman who didn’t do her job all year, and the outgoing president knew he had to say something. Still he didn’t want to overstate her contributions to lessen the accolades for the rest of the people to whom he was more sincerely grateful. So he said, “And Nicole did, uh, a job” For the rest of our years together at University, it became our vernacular for measuring someone’s effort, and finding them lacking.

I certainly don’t want my gratitude statements to come off like that, even if a few are by necessity milder than others. “I know you worked hard – I just don’t know what you did” isn’t right either.

What’s a girl to do? Writing something eloquent is important to me. Making these team members feel appreciated, making them feel seen, and expressing gratitude for what they brought to the effort *IS* important.

The question I have to ask myself is, would I rather take my time, work extra hours in order to do this right, according to my gratitude bar, or just add a sentence or two and call it done? Yeah, I did the former. When you don’t feel appreciated, it can be crushing. When you do, it can buoy you against imposter syndrome and professional doubt. I have a file full of kudos that people have given me, and when I’m in the throes of¬†feeling like a fraud and days are full of work angst and weeks are full of suck, I review that file. When you have to work an extra hour or two, at least in my life, you get that time back later. And doing the absolute minimum is never a good work ethic.¬†

So, a writer writes. I went to the meeting, armed with my gratitude valentines. Some folks on the group just spoke to it. Some prepared something for everyone. Some spoke to the group in general. But you know, it was an incredibly moving experience.

Friends, when you have the opportunity to think about what others bring to your life, doooo iiiittttt. When you have a chance to tell them, cannonball in. You’ll never regret that part.

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