I took an etiquette class several years ago in which the instructor told us that compliments must never be specific, because they already embarrass people as it is. The embarrassment only increases with the specificity of the compliment. This is not good for me.
I have a tendency to compliment people — specifically. I can’t help it. I grew up with two parents who verbally affirmed me on a regular basis, so it seems like the most natural thing in the world for me to do. Nonetheless, I know my compliments often embarrass people, who usually shoot the compliment down somehow.
“You look nice today,” I say.
“Oh my gosh — I just threw this outfit on after getting out of the shower,” says the family member.
I compliment my co-worker’s presentation — he reminds me that he actually messed up on his second point.
I tell an acquaintance she’s got a great sense of humor, and all she can do is chuckle and say, “Well, I don’t know about that.”
I get it, though — when I’m complimented in person, I struggle too. If the compliment goes on too long, I start feeling awkward — like the person wrote me a song and is looking me in the eyes and singing it. I find myself clenching my jaw a little bit, pushing my tongue up against the back of my bottom teeth, breathing more shallowly and wishing it would end. And when the compliment is over, I have to restrain myself from complimenting the person back.
The reason I do, however, restrain myself from complimenting the person in return is that oftentimes, I’m not really complimenting the person so much as paying them back. And when I do so, I suck the life out of their compliment, which was really a gift of grace to me.
Grace — whether it comes in the form of a compliment, someone opening the door for us or someone paying for our lunch — is beautiful because it’s free; it’s unexpected. It feels undeserved. And if grace is going to remain the treasured gift it ought to be, we can’t pay the giver back, and we certainly can’t reject it, which is exactly what we do when we shoot down compliments.
If we struggle so mightily to receive the grace of a compliment, no wonder we struggle to receive the grace of Jesus, who extends himself to us on the cross and says, “I love you, I like you, I want you — and it’s not because of anything you have to offer Me. Please don’t try to pay Me back or reject this gift of grace. I’m yours.”
With all that in mind, the next time someone compliments you or me, let’s consider using it as practice in our ongoing struggle to receive the unconditional love of Jesus and simply say, “Thank you — I needed that.”