As a young girl growing up in the US, I took compliments for granted.
If I put on a dress, family members were sure to coo over how pretty I looked. If I got good grades in school, I was told how smart I was. Even if I polished off an entire birthday cake, I was complimented on my healthy appetite.
Born between the "I'm OK, you're OK" generation and the "every little thing you do is magic" generation, I was given what I felt was a healthy dose of compliments — enough to encourage my self-esteem without people going unrealistically overboard.
And I learned how to dole them out as well. Telling my mother "You look pretty today, Mama," earned me a smile and a kiss. Applying a similar tactic as a schoolgirl, I knew that telling my teacher, "You look great! Did you do something to your hair?" would keep me in her good graces.
Compliments, I learned, served as a sort of currency in the US. Flattery, they say, will get you everywhere.
Culture shock: Germany honesty
Compliments are so frequent and so ingrained in everyday life in the US that I wasn't even aware how large a role they play in the culture until I moved to Germany over a decade ago. For most of my first year here, I thought there must be something wrong with me. No one liked my clothes or my hair or my shoes. No one told me they'd appreciated a lecture I'd given at the school where I taught. I could walk into a bar and people would not tell me I had pretty eyes. I could wear an unusual skirt and the closest thing to a compliment I'd receive was, "That's an unusual skirt."
At one class I taught, to adult learners of English who also needed intercultural training, one of my students remarked, "You're skinny for an American." In the US, that is what we might refer to as a backhanded compliment and so I started a discussion with my students, explaining that actually, in the US, such a statement would be considered quite rude.
In return, Germans in the class said that honesty is perhaps the greatest compliment, and that they find the American art of complimenting an exaggeration. There is a strong belief here that people in the US are superficial and thus their praise untrustworthy. I suppose there could be something to that. How could I have known whether my teacher was being honest when she said I was a sweet girl if I knew she'd told all of her female students they were sweet girls?
How relevant is truthfulness?
By the end of the discussion, though, I realized it didn't matter whether or not a person was honest in his or her compliments. To me, compliments are not about truth. They are about practicing politesse as much as they are about determining hierarchies and power balances. For example, you might not compliment a superior at work, for fear of looking like a suck-up, but you should compliment a subordinate on a job well done.
There are also layers of context embedded in these phrases that only the giver and receiver can interpret. When you receive a compliment from someone like your grandmother, you know to reply humbly, "Oh shucks, that's kind." But from a friend, you'd say, "Oh this dress? Got it at the Dress Barn on sale last year." If the compliment is from a stranger or otherwise unwanted you'd simply say, "Thank you," and wonder, perhaps, if that person wanted something from you.
Beyond that, compliments in the US can be a way to break the ice with strangers. As Alanna Okun recently wrote in an essay for "Racked," about the art of giving a compliments while drunk: "Nobody on the planet will make you feel as dope as a fellow woman, three glasses of wine deep, … her compliments are effusive yet genuine; her glowing assessments of your shirt or shoes or face are enough to buoy you for an entire night out."
There is also, of course, the seedy side of compliments. There's the Eric Clapton song, "Wonderful tonight," which feels like the ultimate in compliments. Who wouldn't want someone to croon, "My darling, you look wonderful tonight"? But its meaning gets a bit twisted when you learn the person the song was written for is the wife of another man; suddenly the compliment's intentions have subtle, underhanded meanings.
Not that many men in Germany are freely handing out compliments. Sigrid, a grandmotherly German married to an American, said she'd initially been attracted to her husband because of his willingness to pay her and everyone else he met a compliment.
"There's no easier way to make a person smile than to say something nice," he'd once told her. "As a German, I'd never encountered anyone like this before. It was so flattering that he even seemed to notice the color of my blouse. No German man had ever done that!"
No criticism is a compliment
Despite all the nuances in the American complimentary culture, I find it much more difficult to get by without compliments in Germany, where, even years later, I struggle to sort out what replaces the role of the compliment as currency. As one fellow American noted, "Consider it a compliment if you haven't been criticized." In other words, interpret silence as praise.
Perhaps Germans don't miss this the way that I do because it is something that is culturally ingrained in Germany beginning in childhood. One of the most popular child psychologists read by German parents today is Jesper Juul, a Danish psychologist and author of advice books whose ideas on child-rearing are quite different from what I experienced as a child.
Instead of praising kids, he says that children really only need recognition from their parents. Don't tell a kid the drawing he made is good, says Juul in his book, "Your Competent Child." Instead, acknowledge the kid has made a drawing and ask him questions about it.
This sounded odd to me. Why wouldn't I tell my child her drawing looked amazing? Americans use that phrase all the time: "You look amazing," "This dinner you cooked was amazing," "That article you wrote was amazing."
Instead, according to Juul, I should say, "Oh, look, you did a drawing?" A dog would get more encouragement than that for putting his paw out to shake. I'm not saying a child should get a "Good boy" and a gold sticker and applause every time they use the toilet, as many Americans are wont to do nowadays. But there has to be something more than just silence.
Angela, a co-worker, said that perhaps it's a misunderstanding I have, not differentiating between a compliment, which centers on appearance, and praise, which is encouragement for a process. "Don't get the two mixed up," she warned me as I was writing this article. But it's hard not to when, in English, the definition for compliment is, literally, a statement of praise.
Though it has taken me more than a decade, I have finally come to terms with the fact that in Germany, I won't be complimented on everything I do and when — if — I garner attention for praise, it will likely be more sincere than anything I'd have heard in the US. Like the one a young girl recently gave me after I visited the beauty salon: "You look much better now that your gray hair is gone."