It had been the longest week of my life in the history of ever. Late nights staying up to work and overwhelming anxiety looming over me, chipping away at my mental and emotional state.
As I dragged my tired ass into the local coffee shop, the barista stopped me mid-order to say, “Hey, I really love your nails.” My stiletto-shaped nails have always been a point of pride for me. That week, they were painted in a metallic dark purple. I still remember picking out the shade because it made me feel closer to my femme identity, while embracing a bit of my long forgotten teenage goth self.
I looked up at her and smiled back, wide. The first genuine smile I had in about a week. “Thank you, they’re actually my natural nails!” We ended up having a brief moment discussing all things fashion and beauty until my coconut latte was ready.
That 1-minute interaction became the highlight of my week. And it made my heart feel ten times larger.
There’s something powerful in giving and receiving compliments. Studies show compliments have the ability to create positive energy in people and, for lack of a better word, light up your brain in all the right places.
Research also shows how receiving compliments can improve performance and may help our learning skills.
For me, compliments have the ability to strengthen and nourish the soul when I need it most. Whenever I see a friend totally rocking a brand new lipstick shade, I’ll tell them how incredible they look. Or if another friend has a show opening, I’ll make an effort to go and tell them how great their performance was.
We all can agree genuine compliments are always nice to hear, but they don’t always come easy. We can get caught up in what it means to be honest and sincere and wonder if our delivery matched our intent. It’s a real skill, but also one we don’t necessarily have to overthink.
“Sometimes people need a compliment even when they’re having a bad day, you know what I mean?” says Shay Neary, a plus-size model based out of New York City. “They just need something positive to happen that day.”
But to make the best of our words, we turned to seven influencers. With so many compliments, online and off, vying for their attention, these folks have started to have a stronger criteria for understanding what makes them feel truly affirmed.
1. Give a personality affirmation
For Neary, it brings her joy making other people feel good about themselves, to remind them “they have worth even if they don’t always feel like they do.” Neary tries to go a bit deeper, specifically for people’s personalities.
“I think those TMI’s of life, the things we hide because [we think] they are too much for people are really what makes us all so special, you know what I mean?” So when you go to compliment someone, try to think long (and hard) about what you know will bring out a smile in them.
For Neary, her two biggest go-to’s are: “I love the way you talk about things” or “I love your laugh.”
2. Reflect happiness, not appearance
Actress and screenwriter Jen Ponton believes in staying away from complimenting appearances. This, she says, allows people to become more creative in the ways they choose to acknowledge and compliment people.
“I think a lot of it should be a reflection of one’s self or happiness,” she says, a point which really echoes Neary’s sentiments as well. “That’s like the safest ground baseline rule. Whomever we choose to compliment, we should really shine a light on who they are as a human being.”
She also believes that compliments should affirm the way people want to be seen, which means focusing on using non-gendered language or stereotypes.
3. Emphasize their impact and your growth
When Alexis Krase realized she could help other curvy folks find vintage and secondhand fashion clothing that would empower and fit them better than most retail shops could, she opened Plus BKLYN. In making this conscious, creative choice to provide a welcoming space, she developed many deep relationships with her customers. “We’re actually having an impact in a way that matters,” she says.
One of the deepest compliments Krase remembers is one that reflected the value and effort she put into the store. “The existence of this place has helped change my perception of my body. It made me feel good and I wanted to let you know that.”
4. Say it as soon as you feel it
Jordan Daniels, a queer, fat, Jewish, and Black photographer from California, has also tried to stay away from physical compliments in the last year. Instead, he focuses on uplifting people’s spirits.
One way of doing that, he says, is to share words of appreciation. “I [say] I like your energy. It just feels really inviting and amazing.”
Another tip? Compliment an act as soon as you see or experience it.
Daniels shares how he went on a retreat where he didn’t know anyone. On the second day of the retreat, someone came up to him to share how they noticed and appreciated how he was conscious of others’ safety and comfort. “[A compliment like this] carries a bit more weight when I’m not close to them,” Daniel notes.
5. Mirror what makes the other person happy
There are times when complimenting on appearances can be genuine too. Melissa Blake, a freelance journalist and disability advocate, had a Twitter thread go viral after a YouTuber made a video calling her ugly. For Blake, selfies have been a part of her activism to help people understand there is a real person behind the selfie.
“It’s really sad that in 2020 we still have this really antiquated view of people with disabilities [as individuals] all cloistered away from society,” says Blake, who originally used the thread to fight back against her trolls. “I’m trying to show [that’s not the case] with these selfies.”
Keah Brown, an author, journalist, and disability rights activist, took this approach when creating the hashtag #DisabledAndCute, which empowered the disabled community to aspire toward self love and celebration. Whenever people were feeling down, they could read through the hashtag for hope, inspiration, and connection.
“After I got all those nasty comments, […] all these people in my threads were coming together and complimenting each other too,” says Blake. “All because I asked other people to post their selfies as well!”
We’ve all run into situations where someone thinks they’re making a compliment, but in reality, it’s just an insult. Compliments like those tend to include parts of what makes the giver uncomfortable. Brown gave a bit of insight into how this works.
“People will often say, ‘I don’t know how you did X, Y, Z because I was in your shoes. I would never be able to do it because I couldn’t,” shares Brown. “People think it’s a compliment [but it’s] not a compliment because you shouldn’t be ignoring parts of people.”
While Brown normally tries to be nice for people who mean well, she acknowledges that “meaning well doesn’t stop the hurt.” Sometimes, in these cases, Brown will repeatedly ask the person to explain how their compliment was a compliment. “They [get] backed into a corner of realizing how backhanded their compliment actually was.”
And for the worst compliments, such as ones that imply one would be dead if they were in another’s shoes, Brown often responds back with a little rant about how disgusting that method of compliment is. “[I’ll say] I’m glad I’m not you then, huh?”
Understanding how to compliment without pushing parts of people down requires education and a desire to change, Brown emphasizes. “It’s more of a societal issue, and I find that it’s harder with people who don’t want to make any behavioral change.”
Mina Gerges, an actor and model based out of Toronto, Canada, has plenty of experience with disingenuous compliments. After his partnerships with Calvin Klein and Sephora, he’s noticed a change in behavior.
“I have had this happen to me several times, where they completely dismiss you until they find out how many followers you have online.” Gerges goes on to explain how the change can feel jarring and insincere. “I had a friend that was like that before. They would want to appear on my social media feed […] so that they could bump up their own social media presence. But it just goes to show that you’re just invested in how you can benefit off of being associated with me.”
However, this hasn’t deterred Gerges from accepting compliments either. “You never know what people’s intentions are. I like to see the best in people. So thankfully I haven’t been put in that situation in a very long time.”
Ama Scriver is a freelance journalist best known for being fat, loud, and shouty on the internet. You can follow her on Instagram.