Something I have never been good at is starting conversations with, or speaking to strangers, oddly something you would think as a researcher, social worker and a blogger that I wouldn’t have difficulty with, but oh do I have this issue outside of the professional context. It’s something I’ve been working at and am getting better at. However, I still don’t do so well in those short exchanges such as checking out at a store for example, where I want to go beyond the simple exchange that occurs as part of the process.
One way I recently decided to get over this was to compliment others, something I figured would also lighten up their day and maybe start a brief conversation. Well, I’ve found myself simply complimenting their looks, such as a way someone’s hair was braided or a particular tattoo that I found creative and beautiful. I would plainly say things like “I love your side braid”, now that just focuses on looks right? This got me thinking: “Do I do this in my more long term conversations with strangers, or in my every day life with people I know?” I watched myself in my interactions over the past few days and realized that even in those two instances I still fall back on complimenting looks alone in a good 1/4 compliment exchanges. I know this is something that not only I have an issue with, hell half of the compliments I get recently are about how much weight I’ve lost and how skinny I am (this is after stressing about planning a wedding for the past year and a half). Maybe it’s laziness, maybe it’s because that’s mostly the type of compliments I receive, but it didn’t settle well with me.
So, I thought hard on how I could get beyond complimenting looks alone. This led me to reflecting on something I was told in a conference I attended on Body Image and Healthy Eating For Young Girls:
“Compliments are great, but when we simply compliment looks then we are reinforcing the status quo of our cultures focus on looks and beauty. We must get beyond that, we must focus on character, creativity, and inner beauty and compliment that instead. This can help turn the tables and remind girls, anyone really, that they are more than just their looks.”
The answer is simple, and is really all a matter of perspective. For those you know, focus on complimenting them on a skill they have, or something they’ve done recently that you admire. But for those you don’t know, or if you find complimenting on skills or inner creativity difficult, simply change your wording. It is easy to say “I love your side braid” but is has so much more meaning to say “You must be a very creative person, I really like your hair! It’s just so different” (just to give an example). Focus on complimenting the person for being themselves, making the decision that lead to the visual cue that you enjoy or appreciate.
Visual cues are a lot of what we experience on a daily basis about individuals, so especially with those we meet only briefly it is difficult to go beyond that, but it is still important to remind people every day that they are more than just their looks. What we portray to the world is what we want, and reminding individuals that they made that decision and that even if it isn’t something found ‘beautiful’ by culture as a whole someone else understands that decision process and appreciates it can be empowering. Of course this doesn’t solve the problem entirely, but it’s a step in the right direction in my eyes. In a world where so many focus on looks, sometimes with negative consequences such as Body Dismorphic Disorder, this simple change in perspective on compliments could go a long way and of course it’s much better than not communicating at all with your fellow human beings.
Written by Georgianna Dolan-Reilly, LMSW
SJS Staff Writer