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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Reflection: A Compliment a Day

Selin Hos ’25 reflects on the power of giving compliments.

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If you know me personally, then maybe you’ve heard me mention a certain guiding principle of mine. It’s not something I mention often, but it is one that I consistently adhere to. I try to let my actions speak just as loudly as my words, so the guiding principle is this: If I think of a compliment, then I voice it. 

In theory, this is such a simple process — you think something positive about another person and then you share it with them. Yet, it is often so difficult to execute. Imagine a world where we actually said all of the kind things that run through our minds — one where we verbalized all of the little thoughts. What if we told people when we liked their shoes or their hair or that the color of their shirt really suits them? It’s a small, almost throwaway action for the person giving the compliment, but it can often mean the world for those that are receiving them. Isn’t it wonderful  that we all have the power to take a few seconds out of our day to positively impact the life of another person?

So why don’t we compliment others more often? I find it endlessly fascinating that we often choose to censor ourselves instead of paying the kindness forward. When we self-censor, the compliments become few and far between. We end up unintentionally creating a culture that characterizes compliments as weird and awkward, when in reality compliments are simply appreciated. And on one of those days when everything goes wrong, they can mean more to someone than we could ever know.

That being said, there are moments when it is not socially acceptable to give compliments. My friends and I were recently talking about the nature of compliments, and I mentioned that I have this philosophy. Now, trust me in that I’ve found myself in strange places giving absolute strangers compliments as they’ve passed. I complimented a stranger on her dress while she was washing her hands next to me in a public restroom and raised my hand in a high school class to tell my history teacher that I liked his shoes. And you have to understand that it is awkward every single time that I do it. One of my friends, John Balson ’25, told me a while back that while he would say something if he notices it, he would never interrupt a conversation about, say, physics homework, to say, “I just noticed your shoes, and I really like them.” But I can’t help but wonder, why not? 

Compliments may be received differently depending on the person who gives them. I’ve often found it quite interesting that the same compliment, such as, “Wow, you are beautiful,” can be interpreted differently depending on the context of one’s relationship to the individual. And it is even more interesting to think about how systems of power and privilege can play a role in the interaction. I can think back to times in my life when I’ve been “complimented” in a similar manner by men driving by in cars. I was 14 when I got catcalled for the first time. I was simply taking photos with my friends in front of a mural on the street, and I remember that we started laughing as he drove away. But I also remember that there was something a bit heavy behind the laughter. After all, we didn’t know what to do. We were 14. 

The intention behind the compliment also matters, and I think that because of the prevalence of situations like the one I mentioned, people worry about how their compliment will come across. It is true that compliments can be interpreted differently depending on the influence of existing power structures, such as age, gender and sexual orientation within a situation, but I also believe that the intention holds a significant amount of weight. Not every compliment that I have ever received from a man has made me uncomfortable, and while flirting compliments are often considered essential.

What we say in our compliments is also food for thought. After all, what are we truly complimenting about one another? Is it only that we admire the superficial things about each other, like what we wear or how we style our hair, or is it that we are afraid to tell each other  how much we value them? Although we may never admit it, there is an unspoken rhetoric that to be open and vulnerable with your love is to be weak. Showing any signs of your humanity in public almost shatters a carefully curated image of yourself. Sometimes we treat someone who is falling apart as less than human — as if all of our lives aren’t spent trying to figure everything out.

The world is tough, and our lives within it are tougher so. But we each have the individual power to lessen that strain, even if it is only for only a second. Most of our lives are spent being impacted by and impacting others in ways that we will never fully be able to comprehend or control, but we can control how we treat other people and how we make them feel with our words and actions. 

Tell those that you love them just how much you love them. Tell them that they mean the world to you, that they are a good friend and an even better person. Tell them that you are proud of them. Celebrate their successes, and be there for their failures. As my dear friend Houston texted me earlier this morning, “I love my friends, and I think they’re all very worthy of compliments.” I can’t help but agree. Your words matter. How you speak in this world matters. Take the time to do good by other people, and you will ultimately have done well for yourself. We all have a part to play in making the world a kinder place.