A stranger complimented me 10 years ago that I’ll never forget. I was at a diner in Brooklyn with my then 3-year-old and a few of her friends. I was making them laugh by acting silly — inserting two long French fries under my upper lip so I looked like a walrus, for example.
After lunch, a woman came up to me and said she had enjoyed my “show.” She was recently widowed, she said, and it felt good to laugh.
Offering a compliment has been shown to benefit both the giver and receiver, but we often hold back because we’re worried about how we’ll come off, said Erica Boothby, a social psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied the positive effects of compliments.
Many of us, Dr. Boothby said, grapple with questions like: Will I make the other person feel awkward? Will the compliment seem fake, or pandering?
“The reality is, these messages are usually much more welcome than we expect,” she said. “And we are overly, unnecessarily pessimistic.”
I want to help us all feel more confident delivering praise, so I asked Dr. Boothby and other experts for suggestions.
One of them, Milo McCabe, gave me a “compliment lesson” outside the New York Public Library’s flagship location last week. He is a British comedian who plays a midcentury “matinee idol” character named Troy Hawke in viral videos. Donning a smoking jacket and a pencil mustache, McCabe is well known for complimenting athletes at sporting events. (“You have the poise of an apex predator, but the eyes of a kindly woodland creature,” he once told Nathan Aké, a Manchester City soccer player.)
First, size up people’s body language to see if they seem open to being approached, said McCabe, who arrived for our lesson in character. Then, he added, look for appealing quirks.
If someone has made an effort to dress up, for example, this should be noted immediately. “I adore that pastel blue blazer,” he told one older man, whose face lit up. “With purple socks? Stunning. Confident.”
McCabe told a woman that she had admirable posture. “You do the Alexander Technique all day,” he said. She smiled and straightened up even more.
Keep it upbeat, keep it short, and keep moving, so people are reassured that you don’t have an agenda, McCabe told me.
And be sincere, even with strangers, Dr. Boothby said. “You shouldn’t go around giving empty compliments you don’t genuinely feel.”
If you’re complimenting someone you know, try to make it distinctive, said Barbara Fredrickson, the director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Love 2.0.” Instead of saying that you like the person’s laugh, say how it makes you feel. (“Hearing you laugh makes me want to laugh, too.”)
Or, if you’re complimenting something someone has done, explain why you admire it, Dr. Fredrickson said. “Instead of just saying, ‘Oh, what a great dinner you made,’” she said, “you can say, ‘You’re always so good at finding a new recipe and being creative.’” Personalizing your compliment with context, she said, makes the person feel even more valued.
It doesn’t need to be a lavish compliment, either, McCabe said. You can use humor to praise everyday acts. (Taking his suggestion, I told my husband, “You change the coffee filter like a champion.”)
If you have a positive thought about someone, Dr. Fredrickson said, consider sharing it. Even better, look for opportunities to slip a compliment into your conversation.
Most people are “in the grip of their inner critic,” McCabe said. “But if you can give someone a good compliment — that you mean — you kind of give their inner critic a right hook.”