What's In A Compliment?


Compliments get a bad rep as the currency of superficiality—but every so often, when it's genuine, a compliment can recast our own our own opinions of ourselves—the way that we imagine ourselves, and how we look to others. Almost like a watery equivalent of “namaste,” a good compliment recognizes another person as a living, breathing part of your shared reality.

In my life, there have been a few compliments that have really shifted my own perspective on myself. One was being told, even in the climaxing end-times of my prickly, sardonic, teenage years, that I had a tender and good heart. For me, that marked the end of an era of snotty faultfinding and the beginning of an open-hearted, open-minded paradigm shift. It’s like one compliment gave me a quantum leap of personal development.

Some are less personal—I had a buddy in high school who was the wittiest guy I’ve ever known. I’ve got my other influences, but he was someone who molded and formed my idea of what it meant to be smart and funny. Also, the first guy I knew who reported having dermatologically-diagnosed “sensitive skin,” So, one muggy sixth period, this guy and I were bantering and I said something that I’m sure I thought was blisteringly clever (the content of which totally and mercifully escapes me now). In response, my buddy called me “the master of subtlety,” He said it with a kind of sly smile that meant I hardly knew how to take it—not quite as throwaway sarcasm, not quite in uncomplicated earnest.

Subtle is not something that I was, and it was something that I didn’t know I wanted. In that moment, I realized that I wanted to inhabit an ambiguity—to be both bombastic and obvious in some turns, and to be deftly nuanced in others. In a phrase, this guy gave name to an entire aesthetic that I would aspire to—something that I still find infinitely intriguing.

A few years ago, I caught up with that guy. Nowadays, he is married, has moved away, and runs a prospering little startup. He has absolutely no recollection of our encounter, and can’t shed light on one meaning of his phrase over the other. Sometimes, you can’t ever know the impact that you have on others. But you can certainly remember the effect of others upon you. So, let’s hear all about it. Don’t worry—it’s not vapid if it’s transformative. What’s a compliment (or remark) you’ve received that has changed or shaped your life?

—Trace Barnhill

Art by Samantha Dion Baker.