A compliment is a compliment, right? What if you were told that it really depends on how you say it.
English is a complex language, there are many nuances and subtleties that make a very straightforward conversation take all kinds of fascinating turns. And for non-natives it’s not as easy as just saying what you mean, you need to say it in a way that makes it easy for a native to understand the context of what you’re saying.
Today, we’ll be tackling how to compliment politely and how you can be sure you’re always giving genuine compliments.
This will also ensure that those you compliment receive a compliment, and don’t think you’re being rude or insincere.
What is a Compliment?
The Cambridge dictionary definition of a compliment is “a remark that expresses approval, admiration, or respect”. This means that if you want to share your positive opinion of someone with them you’d compliment them.
However, because English can be a complicated language, not every positive opinion you share is going to be taken as a compliment.
It really depends on how you say what you’re saying that will determine whether someone thinks you’re giving a genuine compliment or if they think you’re insulting them.
That’s because, in English, people often use positive opinions to be sarcastic, ironic or snarky – all of which turn a compliment into an insult.
But, you can avoid people thinking your compliment is an insult by using the right tone to convey your message.
What is tone in the English Language and why is it important?
In this context tone is the pitch of your voice. For example, you can say the same word several different ways and it will have several different meanings, simply because you changed the pitch in your voice and where you placed your emphasis.
This doesn’t mean you have to change the overall pitch of your voice. But for the meaning of what you’re saying to be understood it helps to change your pitch slightly in certain conversations. That’s because English speakers will assess your motives by the way you express yourself. If you don’t sound sincere, people will become sceptical of you and will probably think you’re being rude and impolite.
Because the pitch and tone of your voice determine how polite or impolite you’re being. It can also reveal if you’re being rude, saying something ironically or sarcastically, or doing something bad.
That’s because when people are being sarcastic or snarky they hardly change the pitch or tone of their voice, and will, therefore, sound very monotone. Making those they’re in conversation with, aware that they’re not being very polite.
How to use tone to convey a Compliment
The tone in which you speak will determine whether your compliment is taken at face value or whether someone can misinterpret what you’re saying. For example, if you were to say to someone “nice shoes” in a monotone voice they will think you’re up to no good. However, if you heighten your pitch when saying it, they’ll respond with a smile and “thank you”.
The best way to explain this to non-native speakers of the language is that when you’re giving a compliment always say it cheerfully. You need to sound happy, and a bit excited when giving a compliment for people to feel complimented.
You should also place emphasis on the part that conveys the compliment. So in this example that would be the word “nice”. If you say “nice” in a tone that’s more cheerful than “shoes” people will instantly be aware that you truly think their shoes are attractive. However, if you place your emphasis on the word “shoes” they may think you’re being impolite, and insincere.
Using Facial Expressions and Body Language to Compliment
But in English, language isn’t limited to the words you use but extends to how you look when you’re saying something.
If people aren’t sure or don’t understand what you’re saying they’ll look for clues from your body and face to determine if you’re being sincere and giving a genuine compliment, or if you’re being rude.
They’ll look at your eyes, your mouth and your arms or hands.
If you’re giving someone a genuine compliment, always give them eye contact. You don’t need to stare (look at them for too long). But while you’re talking to them look at them and then give the compliment.
Smile. If you want someone to respond to your compliment always smile and show them that you’re being friendly.
Arms or Hands:
Either stand with your hands to your sides or stand in a casual position. Try to avoid folding your arms or raising your hands to your face as this can seem threatening and cold.
7 Additional Tips For Giving Genuine Compliments
1. Give Ample Personal Space
For most people who’ve grown up in native English countries like Britain, personal space is important. Therefore, if you’re going to give a compliment to anyone try to stand at arm’s length from them.
2. Don’t Laugh
Although you should sound cheerful and happy when giving a compliment, under no circumstances should you laugh. Whether you laugh before giving the compliment, while you’re in conversation with the person or after.
Because laughing can make the person you’re complimenting think that you’re mocking them and being rude.
3. Keep Compliments Short
Compliments don’t need to turn into full conversations. You can compliment someone, wait for them to respond and either continue with the rest of the conversation or walk away. The longer a compliment is you can make the person you’re complimenting feel awkward.
4. Greet Before and After
If you’re not talking to someone but really want to compliment them for whatever reason, always be sure to greet them before you compliment them and then greet them when you’re leaving. If you’re already in conversation with them, it’s just polite to greet when the conversation is over and you’re leaving or walking away.
Complimenting people may come naturally to you, or it may not. But, if you’re not a native English speaker the best way to be sure people feel complimented is to keep practising. Try complimenting at least once a day, so you can see which of your compliments are accepted and which are not.
6. Change Your Approach
If you want people to leave a conversation feeling good, you should consistently try changing your approach to complimenting. Before you compliment someone it’s important to determine if that’s the correct situation to do it, or whether you should leave it. You should also remember to only insert a compliment into a conversation at the appropriate time. If someone is sharing sad news with you, perhaps now isn’t the right time to compliment their shoes. But, if they’re feeling down you can cheer them up by complimenting their character or work ethic.
7. Be Prepared For Rejection
Some people are naturally suspicious. What that means is that regardless of how great your complimenting skills are, they’re not going to respond the way you expect them to. Some people may also be grumpy, miserable or having a bad day – all of which will stop them from being able to accept a compliment. If that’s the case don’t take it personally, simply move on and find other people to compliment.
There’s really no formula to compliment someone, have them accept a compliment, and feel flattered by it.
But, in English complimenting people becomes even more difficult as it requires that you navigate a number of rules of etiquette of correctness and propriety. Because it’s all about the subtleties and nuances of the language that are hard to explain, and that will determine whether people say “thank you” when you compliment them or feel awkward.
Particularly in countries like Britain, where people can use seemingly positive words and phrases to mean negative things and insult people. But, by following the tips listed above and practicing your tone, pitch and emphasis you’ll be well on your way to making several British friends because of your amazing complimenting skills.