Compliments can be seen as a wonderful gift, an insincere jab, or a manipulative ploy. Why is it that these kind words are sometimes twisted to hurt others and aid only the speaker? How can we know the difference?
A friend related to me how a professor taught his class the difference between flattery and encouragement. The definition has stuck with me ever since. Not only does it aid me when others speak, I also use to guard my own language. Compliments mean kindness and honesty, according to my Aspergian brain. However, even someone on the autistic scale can twist words to be self-serving.
Flattery, as described by this professor, only aids oneself. You want something from the other person. Maybe your desire is a raise, good grade, gift, or other material good. Perhaps it is simply friendship or respect. Whatever the motivation, the words are focused on oneself instead of the person being flattered.
What you want from that person might not exactly be bad. Desiring others to like you is a normal feeling. We all flatter others. This is part of how people act in social settings. Rarely will someone be blunt and announce, “I want you to think that I am attractive” or “You have lots of money and should buy me a nice Christmas gift.” Instead, people tend to use less obvious hints to pursue their goals. Flattery is one of the ways developed to achieve one’s goals without asking outright for something.
While this is a normal part of human interaction, it is also a dangerous slope. Honesty can be brutal and needs to have compassion and discretion linked to it. However, flattering others to gain something can escalate from a social norm into manipulation. People who weasel their way up the ladder make us cringe. Yet, we can easily follow suit in simpler but still harmful ways. When we tell someone how lovely she looks only in hopes that she will return the compliment, is that self-centered comment helping anyone? What about flirting with a worker in hopes that he will lower your bill? When does flatter become harmful?
Encouragement, on the other hand, is rooted in the word “courage.” You give people the courage to continue to pursue their goal or see themselves in a true light. This type of comment focuses on the other person and tries to build them up by giving them strength to continue doing or being what you admire in them.
This might sound different than anything you have heard before because I was shocked to hear this definition. Yet, the more that I think about it, the more it makes sense. We are trying to build up the courage in those that we truly compliment. “You did a wonderful job singing today. Your voice has grown so much in the past year.” That gives the singer the courage to keep pursuing music. “Your eyes are so deep.” Even that can help the person to love herself or himself more.
Thinking about flattery versus encouragement has been very interesting. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Also, there are types of compliments that do not fit into either category. What are those, and how should they be defined? Or do you think that it really is only between these two types?