What are some compliments you can give strangers without seeming like a creep?
February 22, 2008 4:13 AM   Subscribe

What are some compliments you can give strangers without seeming like a creep?

In an attempt to be a little more outgoing and to make other people's "day" I want to start giving nice comments/compliments to people who I come across in my day-to-day life, generally total strangers. I don't want to come across as a creep though.

Comments like:

"you're looking well" - great for friends, not so good for people who you don't know.

"I like your hair" - a woman saying this would be fine. A man saying it seems like a chat-up line.

Any ideas?
posted by refactored to Society & Culture (49 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This is another instance where you should listen to your grandmother.

Never make unsolicited personal remarks about anyone. (Okay-- your kids and your spouse. But that's it.) Not negative, not positive, never to coworkers, barely to friends and certainly not to strangers. "You're looking well" is fine (even if they are not looking well)-- innocuous and impersonal, while suggesting that you are paying attention. "How are you" is better, to which the appropriate response is not an actual litany of how you are, but a return: "How are *you*!"
posted by nax at 4:19 AM on February 22, 2008

I have the kind of face that always looks like I am smiling. Fairly frequently, random people will say "you look so happy" or "thanks for the smile," or whatever. It's incredibly irritating. I don't know you, I don't want your opinion about how I look, or whether I seem happy or smiley, or anything at all. If you want to talk to strangers, commiserate about how long the line at the drugstore is or something. But don't spout off random compliments. It comes across as creepy because it is creepy.
posted by miss tea at 4:35 AM on February 22, 2008

If they're total strangers, saying anything is just going to come across as weird. If they're familiar strangers, the type that you see around occasionally, but don't actually know, a simple "Good morning," or "Good afternoon" will suffice. Acknowledgment and a smile will brighten their day.
posted by explosion at 4:37 AM on February 22, 2008

Sorry to jump right back in, but yeah, miss tea, exactly. Unfortunately I have the kind of face that looks either angry or sad when in repose and I get people demanding that I "cheer up" to which I usually want to respond cheer my foot up your , um, well you get the point. Irritating and creepy, and it just puts me in a bad mood (thus matching my face).
posted by nax at 4:40 AM on February 22, 2008

I agree with nax to the extent that an overly personal and unsolicited remark to a stranger might be a tad inappropriate, but so much of it has to do with context. I have a good friend who can quite genuinely complement people's he's just met, and a lot of it has to do with his attitude, his tone of voice, and the fact that he doesn't look at all imposing or false about it. If I introduce him to a new friend he might, for instance, complement a piece of clothing or that person's haircut, but in an innocent and almost incredulous way ("whoah, look at that jacket," etc). Also keep in mind that you can complement people indirectly by showing affection. If someone gives you directions on the street or a retail employee provides some good advice, there's nothing like honest, uninterrupted eye contact, a smile, and a, "thanks, friend," or "cheers," or, "thanks a lot, you've been very helpful."

Cheers, refractored, *graps your hand*, it's been a pleasure.
posted by farishta at 4:41 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Geez louise, ignore the Negative Nancys above.

I enjoy doing this as I think it can brighten someone's day. If it's obvious that someone takes pride in a certain something, complement them on it. Since I'm a guy, it's easier doing this guy to guy ("Hey, nice car/briefcase/shoes"), but if it's a woman I'll generally do it when I'm leaving. Leaving as in exiting an elevator, leaving a building, etc. Just toss off the complement and go.

Once in a blue moon someone won't appreciate it, but 98% of the time I get a genuine "Thanks!"
posted by unixrat at 4:42 AM on February 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

If you're coming up with compliments (and for this meaning of the word, that's how it's spelled) ahead of time, before you have even encountered the person you wish to compliment, then it's not sincere, anyway. If you have a spontaneous positive reaction to something about a person, then maybe tell them, unless you think it might come off as creepy. If there's a chance that it could be misconstrued, you're probably safest just keeping the thought to yourself.
posted by amro at 4:52 AM on February 22, 2008

From a different perspective, compliments aren't necessarily the only way to pick up someones day. A quick smile and comment about the weather can help instill some sense of community and brighten one's day just a bit. The alternative is being awash in a sea of people with heads-down, no friendly faces, just trudging throughout the day. Especially this time of year, with little daylight, freezing temperatures and snowstorms, people are generally down on spirits.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 5:03 AM on February 22, 2008

First, I want to counterbalance the suggestion that all comments will be received negatively. I actually enjoy talking to strangers and adore hearing something nice said about me. I think you should absolutely start complimenting people. I'm sorry, but if you get bothered when someone says you have a nice smile, then you shouldn't be smiling in the first place, because you're obviously a grouch.

I find myself simply saying to people "Wow, your hair looks great!" or "I love those boots!" or "Those jeans are fabulous!" when the mood strikes. Such comments are generally received quite well. On the other hand, I'm a gay man, and I think that society has fostered the expectation that I will dole out fashion wisdom at random, like a fancy little leprechaun or something. As a straight dude, I think you can still pull it off, though.

I like unixrat's suggestion: drop little compliments in at the end of conversations, or as you walk away from/past someone. This makes it clear that you just want to make her smile, not get her number. A quick "I like your shoes" as you pass someone on the street will (provided she hasn't already posted in this thread) brighten her day without making her wonder what the hell else you wanted.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 5:05 AM on February 22, 2008 [9 favorites]

Here in the south it is common for total strangers to acknowledge each other with "How's it going" or something similar if they catch each other's eye. Comments on the weather or other obvious part of the surroundings are also common between strangers here. Personal comments are less common but not unusual, especially after one has broken the ice with a more general comment (think Forrest Gump waiting for a bus and telling his story; some people were genuinely interested and wanted to hear more, others listened to be polite and thought he was strange, but none were particularly rude.)
posted by TedW at 5:07 AM on February 22, 2008

I think that some of my most successful compliments have been not for people's possessions (because, like, where's the personal achievement in having a nice briefcase, or nice eyes) but in the way they do their job or interact with me. I usually converse with the check out operator (it's that kind of town), and if they go out of their way for me, have better spacial skills in packing my padded freezer bag, I'm going to go, "wow, how did you fit that all in there?" Or a cab driver who's friendly and cheerful, maybe it'll feel right to thank her or him for brightening up my day, nothing too effusive, just a hey, I sure got the right cab, you made my day. People at the tax office who give me good news, I invite them down the pub (I know they're in another town, and they can't say yes, but I know that they know that I'm grateful for the way they've helped me.)

Yeah, sometimes it falls flat, sometimes I look like a pretentious, sycophantish, dick, but hey, most of the time it works out. I don't do it every day, but sometimes, I get to make someone else's day, and that feels just fine.

However, these are a few things I never do: Oh, you're looking so well, when's the baby due? (Or even no baby bit, because a lot of people take looking well to mean, "Sheesh, you've gained a huge amount of weight!") And I don't do the, "you've got such beautiful eyes/teeth,/smile/other genetic attribute that you're not responsible for, and hey, let me just admire you for your external appearance, because we know objectification is in for all genders in the new millenium." I do occasionally do the "what a great skirt/shirt/boots, where did you get it?" but only if I'm serious about buying it for myself. Otherwise, for me, it comes across as fake, and, again, wow your possessions are cool, but I wouldn't want them myself.

I had other stuff to say about not talking down to people, but I got tired and forgot it.
posted by b33j at 5:08 AM on February 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Seconding unixrat. Also, be genuine and never expect anything in return.

Remember, we're talking about compliments, not observations. "Cheer up" and "cheer up" aren't compliments.
posted by gjc at 5:11 AM on February 22, 2008

Ignore nax and listen to unixrat. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with complimenting a stranger or talking to them positively about their appearance.
posted by fire&wings at 5:30 AM on February 22, 2008

I think it is unwise to compliment strangers and coworkers. I tried that for a while a few years ago and probably came off as a creep.

OP: you didn't note your gender. It's generally unwise for straight guys who not looking for action to compliment a woman on her hair. In fact, a straight guy who is indeed looking for action should also avoid complimenting a woman on her hair.

Smiling and just being friendly works wonders for cheering up coworkers, children, strangers, and of course, stray dogs and cats.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:52 AM on February 22, 2008

I think the key here is sincerity. I compliment strangers occasionally, but only when I genuinely have something positive I want to say. To me, if you really aren't trying to pick someone up and if you really mean it, it shows. Complimenting physical objects is always safe because if someone's wearing it or using it, chances are they really like it, too. Complimenting physical features is more prone to being misinterpreted from man to woman as a pick up line, so perhaps if you're worried about that enough to ask us all, you can avoid that for now. Complimenting someone's actions (like b33j talks about) is probably the most uplifting type of compliment to receive... knowing a complete stranger recognizes that you are doing a good job is a definite ego boost. Of course, this isn't always practical when you're walking down the street... ("Wow, you certainly walk with purpose!" Um, no.)

Maybe start with some pointed internal observations of strangers. What do you admire about the people you pass in anonymity every day? Then begin noting those things out loud to them. The idea of handing out a compliment when you're leaving an elevator or some other such timing when a response isn't required is also a favorite of mine... because some people (ie, nax and miss tea) just don't take compliments well.

And, as a Southern girl, I am always a fan of the polite commenting on the weather or another shared experience (standing in line, waiting for an elevator, etc.). :)
posted by uvaleg at 5:55 AM on February 22, 2008

I think you could just do something polite for someone instead of complimenting them and you'll get the positive response you're looking for. For example, I love it when a random stranger waits the extra seconds to hold a door open for me even if I'm not right behind them, or when someone reaches something off the top shelf in the grocery store because they see me struggling, etc. There are plenty of things you can do to make someone's day as long as you are aware of other people, which I'm sure you are. Just make sure you don't linger around after you do your random act of kindness or you will come off as creepy, haha. Just be friendly and then be on your way, and I'm sure you'll leave your recipient happy.
posted by anniepants at 6:02 AM on February 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

I would rather be complimented for something I've done than for the way I look, especially if it's coming from a stranger.
posted by srah at 6:07 AM on February 22, 2008

I love when people wear interesting jewelry well, and have *never* had a stranger react negatively when I say something like "that's a great necklace" or "I like that brooch - it's very striking/elegant." Maybe keeping it to something small and specific like that helps.

unixrat is right, offering a sincere compliment about someone's clothing or accessories is a great way to brighten someone's day.

I would rather be complimented for something I've done than for the way I look

But what I'm complimenting you for *is* something you've done - you found and bought that fabulous brooch/necklace/purse that caught my eye, and thus are obviously a person of style and distinction. :)
posted by mediareport at 6:16 AM on February 22, 2008

there's an entire sub-culture devoted to complementing strangers.
posted by mpls2 at 6:19 AM on February 22, 2008

Nice dog!

this can lead into further conversation and since you aren't complimenting a person, it avoids most personal space issues. works best when there is an actual dog around.
posted by bluenausea at 6:24 AM on February 22, 2008

Just make sure the compliments are genuine. When people compliment me, it sometimes feels a little awkward, but I still appreciate them.

If you're stuck in an elevator with someone and you think their coat is really nice, say that, and then tell them to have a nice day when they get off the elevator (or when you do). Say little nice things to checkout people, and other people who serve you. Say thank you and be pleasant to waitstaff, compliment them on something that they did well.

But being friendly, smiling at people, saying hello and thank you and generally being courteous will go a long way to making people feel better. And if you run into someone for whom holding the door open is not seen as a nice thing, it's not your fault. Just be cheery and wait for the next person, who will appreciate it.
posted by that girl at 6:26 AM on February 22, 2008

I would rather be complimented for something I've done than for the way I look, especially if it's coming from a stranger.

I find this to be a good rule of thumb, but it's helpful for me because I'm not that great with recognizing appearance stuff anyhow. I work with a lot of different sorts of people and I find that when I'm having a small "how's the weather?" conversation with them, it's not at all tough to

- respond affirmatively to something they said about what they did "Oh hey it really sounds like you handled that well" or "That seems like just the right thing to do in that situation" or even "The people here are really lucky you're their librarian" [yes, I work in libraries]
- thank them for something they did for you in a way that goes beyond just "thanks" This can be complimentary like "You really made sure I felt welcome here, I really appreciate it" or "everything about this was really set up perfectly and it made my job so much easier"
- just imply to them that their brain is working well or that if they had a concern about something, they took care of it.

For me, this is the sort of thing I like to hear so it's the sort of thing I like to dole out. I have had people tell me to smile (my resting face is sort of neutral) and while I generally find it weird every so often the right kind of person can just nail it and actually make me smile and cheer me up. Keep in mind that some people can't take compliments well so saying something about their appearance might fluster them or result in no outward response.

I'd also stress what other people were saying, it's not so much that people would think you were creepy [in my world] but that if you suddenly started with the effusive compliments people might think you were up to something, either chatting them up or trying to butter them up. Be mindful that that line may not be the same place for other people as it is for you, as evidenced by the differing responses in this thread, and realize that if you're out to make someone's day the way to do that may be to just smile and say hello and keep walking, not to stop and say anything. Best of luck in any case, it sounds like a nice thing you're trying to do.
posted by jessamyn at 6:27 AM on February 22, 2008

Ignore nax at your peril!
posted by nax at 6:42 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

should have added, ;)
posted by nax at 6:42 AM on February 22, 2008

Agreeing with those who said complimenting strangers is just swell, but wait until you're really moved to do so. An out of the blue sincere comment is something will stick with someone for a long time (if my experiences are any judge). I think most people can tell when a compliment is sincere with absolutely no ulterior motives.

For instance, waaaaay back in college I worked a cafeteria line. A gal, whom I had seen about (she was a tall striking looking person) said appropos of nothing, "Your eyes are really pretty." It wasn't a comment leading towards anything nor did we ever really talk again. But I was (and am!) entirely flattered by it.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 6:56 AM on February 22, 2008

Random Act of Kindness (tm) are fine, if delivered in an innocent, cheerful manner. I think it's possible to do "drive by compliments". Just like unixrat said say something nice when leaving, or while moving on (without looking back). It will be clear by your behaviour that it's not meant as a "chat-up line". If you start with a compliment or while the other person still has time to react he or she may believe you expect a certain behaviour or, well, indeed want to chat them up.
posted by Nightwind at 7:08 AM on February 22, 2008

Since I'm a guy, it's easier doing this guy to guy ("Hey, nice car/briefcase/shoes"), but if it's a woman I'll generally do it when I'm leaving. Leaving as in exiting an elevator, leaving a building, etc. Just toss off the complement and go.

I'm a girl, and I do this too. Makes me happy and seems to make them happy too. I always do it in passing, and it's always something I really mean. I'll walk past a woman and say, "Great boots!" and just keep on walking. People have done it to me, and I enjoy it. One guy in the subway walked past me and said, "Beautiful dress." He didn't stop to flirt with me. I think he just wanted to brighten up my day, and I appreciated it.

And I like it when people tell me I have a great smile. I've had people tell me that my smile made their day. They're happier, I'm happier - everybody wins.
posted by Evangeline at 7:21 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

If a guy is wearing a tie, "that's a really nice tie" is always appropriate because men tend to be either obsessed with ties and getting the right one and really care about them, or hate ties and always nervous that they're wearing the wrong one and/or pretending not to care. "It looks really good with that shirt/jacket," for extra credit.

I don't know what the equivalent would be for women? Noticing shoes makes you sound creepy; noticing hair makes you sound gay.

Whatever you say, say it kind of casually, in passing, then move on to something else as fast as possible, don't dwell on it or sound self-satisfied after you get the "thanks."
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 7:24 AM on February 22, 2008

Here's one that works--use that person's name when you say hello to them. Dale Carnegie in his writings points out that people love hearing their own name, and he's right. Once I started calling people by their names, I was amazed at the difference--people would warm up to me just enough to begin a further conversation, and they would always seem a bit nicer to me afterwards.

Also, nthing mediareport--jewelry is a good one for women, because it's not an actual part of her body and therefore comes across as non-threatening. And women love to talk about their jewelry. :)
posted by Melismata at 7:30 AM on February 22, 2008

Another thing that guys often compliment each other on are cars/bikes/anything mechanical (guns, cameras, and so on). I have met a number of people who initiated the conversation by commenting on my motorcycle. While I always appreciate any compliments, just make sure you know what you are talking about; one time when I was out riding a young guy came up to me and asked if that was my Fat Boy out front. I said it was and he went on and on about how coole it was, but the showstopper was when he said "My dream bike is a 1938 Fat Boy" When I raised my eyebrow and said "Oh, really?" (the FLSTF Fat Boy was not introduced until roughly a half-century later) he responded "Yeah, I really know my Harleys" I left it at that, not wanting to make him feel like an idiot, but we still laugh about it ten years later.
posted by TedW at 7:45 AM on February 22, 2008

Many's the time I've been creeped out by some Dale Carnegie type who had obviously made up his mind to start complimenting people more. It's glaringly obvious. Frankly, unless I'm attracted to you or at least not repulsed by you, I don't really want you paying that close attention to my appearance. Jessamyn's advice is spot-on, though--just be a supportive, affirming person in conversation with people. Much less likely to go awry.
posted by Enroute at 8:00 AM on February 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a woman, to me it feels a bit creepy being complemented (by a stranger or acquaintance of any gender) on my blouse/shirt or my pants, because it means that this person was looking at my boobs or my ass. I KNOW in my head that everybody looks at everybody else's boobs and asses, but I don't want to be reminded of this by a stranger. I've got no problem being complemented on my shoes or my hair or my glasses (got new purple ones recently that I LOVED hearing positive comments about). Even someone complementing my jewelry feels a little bit awkward to me, if it's something (like a smallish necklace or brooch) that would require someone to really stare in the vicinity of my chestal region.

So yeah, maybe I'm a little bit prudish there.

To make a stranger's day (or at least to try to give them a little lift), I try to do things that acknowledge their presence, like making brief eye contact and smiling or nodding, holding the door, saying thank you to a cashier, not talking on my cell when in the middle of a transaction, those kinds of things we think of as common courtesies, which aren't always very common. I don't bring out complements unless something REALLY catches my eye, or if I'm going to be in their presence for a little while - stuck in a long grocery line, waiting rooms, etc.

For acquaintances or coworkers I don't know well, I at least try to say "Hi, Name_of_Person, how's your day going?" or somesuch. Remembering someone's name is uplifting.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:46 AM on February 22, 2008

It seems at least half the people responding don't like random compliments about their appearance. Probably, at least some of the rest are somewhat neutral on receipt of a random compliment. Thus you are unlikely to "make someone's day" in this manner.

I work in a big office building, and I see a lot of people every day that I don't really know, but I know them by sight [I've also spent a lot of time on public transportation under similar circumstances]. I would not be creeped out by a compliment from such a person, male or female, but I would be creeped out if the same person kept complimenting me every time they saw me, especially if it was about an aspect of my appearance or possessions.

I find a cheery "Hey, how's it going?" or some POSITIVE comment about the surroundings (not that the bus service is always so slow) to be much less offputting and more likely to put me in a good mood. If the weather is bad, remark that it's supposed to be warmer by the weekend. If the bus is slow, remark that you're glad to have the time to read your paper or relax before work.

If you can't make a sincere compliment about the person you're talking to, make one about someone else. "That bus driver is always so friendly, don't you think?" Hearing positive things about other people lowers any defenses I might have and makes me feel more positive in general.
posted by desjardins at 8:52 AM on February 22, 2008

I find it really creepy when someone addresses me by name constantly during a conversation, because I know it's a tactic and I feel I'm being "handled". After that, I don't think of them as trustworthy.
posted by Evangeline at 9:02 AM on February 22, 2008

Complimenting unusual jewelry usually goes well, particularly larger pieces that are more noticable, many (but certainly not all) people who wear this sort of thing like to get compliments on it. Some women will be uncomfortable hearing compliments from men on anything worn near the breasts, so that's probably best to avoid.

Actually grabbing onto someone's necklace (or anything else they are wearing) and sticking your face into their chest while you comment on their jewelry should be avoided at all costs, no matter what your gender.
posted by yohko at 9:02 AM on February 22, 2008

If I'm working behind a counter, or in line near you at a store, then just any regular chitchat will do to help me feel a connection to the world -- it doesn't need to be a compliment. Otherwise, generally I prefer for strangers not to interrupt my thoughts when I'm out running errands or on my way somewhere. It's tricky to be flirtatious with women and not make us wonder if we are going to get stuck talking to you or followed by you. And if you're not being flirtatious, your compliment about looks/clothes may come across as smarmy and as if it's trying to raise my self-esteem (who told you it was in need of raising?). That's why, as others mentioned above, the compliment-while-leaving is the safest kind to give a woman if you're a man, because she doesn't have to worry about your intentions.

But if it's about being social and making human connections, I don't mind if you notice the book I'm reading and mention that you liked it too (obviously: no spoilers, and don't interrupt my reading). I've even written down recommendations from people who seem to share my taste. You can remark on my cute Honda Fit and ask me about its MPG. I don't mind talking about my camera, my rainboots, the Times crossword...
posted by xo at 9:06 AM on February 22, 2008

Someone once walked by me on an escalator and said 'Hey, I love your bag!' as they passed. I can almost conjure up the sudden flush of delight I felt when they said that, especially as I, too, love my bag.

I don't make a point of looking for things to compliment, but if I see a woman (never been a man, I don't think) wearing something very striking, and I think that striking thing is beautiful, I might toss off a quick compliment as I walk by. If they're wearing it and it stands out from the rest of their outfit, they probably mean for it to be noticeable, whereas comments on their general appearance/hair/face/etc seem too personal for absolute strangers.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:16 AM on February 22, 2008

As an introvert and mild misanthrope, you'd make my day by leaving me the hell alone.

Just a data point.
posted by stevis23 at 9:27 AM on February 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm like mediareport in that I notice other people's jewelry and compliment it. I may or may not be like mediareport in other ways.
posted by ersatzkat at 11:08 AM on February 22, 2008

I find random hellos confusing, to be honest. They don't brighten my day, they make me wonder if I just walked by someone I was supposed to recognize but didn't.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:18 AM on February 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Personally, I appreciate it when strangers compliment me or make conversation, and for the most part I've never found it creepy. I usually try to make conversation with others when waiting in lines etc IF it doesn't look like I'd be interrupting them in some way. For me the only thing that makes conversations with strangers annoying is if they detain you longer then you'd like to be there. Sometimes someone may strike up a conversation in the Starbucks line, which is fine, but they want to keep talking even after I've received my drink and need to move on. It can be hard to politely leave such conversations, but I may have to be somewhere else and I'm stuck with the awkward decision of excusing myself while they're talking or wasting time.

I agree with some of the posters above that saying something as you are leaving or in passing is generally best.

You have to be cautious about compliments regarding someone's appearance, but sometimes these work well. I think that in general people prefer to be complimented about things that they have low self-esteem about, if it seems sincere. I'm a 25-year-old male, and I know my fashion sense can be lacking, so when I've occasionally been told by a stranger "that outfit looks good", or "that tie really compliments your shirt and coat", etc, I've generally been quite pleased, because I had actually been worried about that up until then.

I'm also generally happy when people notice positive changes. After I'd lost about 8 pounds on my diet, coworkers started to ask me "hey, have you lost weight?". It's encouraging to hear things like that and helps me stick with it. Of course this doesn't work with strangers though.

When dealing with people such as baristas, waitstaff, or service people, if they seem to be genuinely trying to do their job and are burned out, "I can see you're having a busy day. Thanks for your hard work!", may cheer them up.

Another thought - if you notice something about someone's appearance, making it sound like you want to imitate them instead of just admire them may make the compliment sound less personal. ie "Where did you buy that shirt? I'd love to have one like that!" sounds better than just "I like your shirt". "Where do you get your hair done?" instead of "I like your hair", etc may also work. Of course those types of compliments work best when you and the stranger are the same gender.

Just my $0.02
posted by Vorteks at 11:18 AM on February 22, 2008

Ok, so clearly I came across as a bit of a grouch earlier, which I am actually not. But if the OP's goal is to make people's day, clearly random compliments is not the way to go about it, seeing as how a significant percentage of people have agreed they'd prefer not to be on the receiving end. I do agree with Jessamyn, though-- if you are actually interacting with someone, there's nothing wrong with saying 'thanks' or 'great job' or whatever.

I guess I am not clear on the OP's parameters. If he's just walking down the street complimenting people at random, that is certainly weird and annoying. But if he tells the woman serving his coffee that he likes her new sweater or something that's fairly reasonable.

Really, it's all context.
posted by miss tea at 11:50 AM on February 22, 2008

Dale Carnegie in his writings points out that people love hearing their own name, and he's right.

I dunno, I think hearing your own name is kind of intimate - I would definitely feel weird if people I didn't know very well used my name much, and I would notice if someone did it who I didn't genuinely feel close to. I also happen to know at least two people who don't even like people close to them to call them by their names - it's kind of a weird power dynamic. Saying someone's name can almost be a sort of "alpha" move.

I think the important thing about compliments is not to care what the other person thinks about it, if that makes sense. In a way, to be able to compliment someone in a non-creepy way, you have to just have an honest response to something about them without wanting to know whether it made them feel better, whether they like you better because of it, whether they'll think of this moment years later, etc - that is precisely the creepy part, the worry that the person is saying this thing because they think they MEAN something to you, that you really care what they think &c.

So paradoxically, at least from my perspective, for the comment to have a potentially genuine effect, you have to not worry about what kind of effect it has, and just express the thought honestly on your way through life. I guess it sort of has to feel like it's just coming from "the world" rather than some particular individual with potentially selfish interests, etc.
posted by mdn at 1:21 PM on February 22, 2008

I find it really creepy when someone addresses me by name constantly during a conversation, because I know it's a tactic and I feel I'm being "handled". After that, I don't think of them as trustworthy.

Seconded one million times. One million! Don't do this unless you want to be thought of as a used-car salesman type.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:31 PM on February 22, 2008

It's all in here. Those were the good old days. Most pertinent to this discussion, chapters 5 through 8. The stuff on speaking correctly is completely priceless.
posted by nax at 5:45 PM on February 22, 2008

I like to try to be positive and encouraging to strangers too, and I sometimes worry someone may see ulterior motives behind a compliment or deed. Plus, as some have mentioned above, regular people are usually too busy or distracted to accept a compliment--or figure out the motives behind one. Even if it's sincere.

But what you can do is treat people you meet in service jobs with the utmost respect--they're probably the ones that need the affirmation most anyways! So when the cashier is overwhelmed with customers, don't complain that they're not going fast enough, say "Wow, it must be rough taking care of all these customers by yourself tonight!" Offer the FedEx delivery person a cold bottle of water in the summer. Tell a manager that so-and-so really went above and beyond finding your item in the stock room. Thank the cabby/bus driver for a safe ride. Be a great tipper. Learn to praise effort.

Even small things that go unseen such as returning a shopping cart to the stall every time you go grocery shopping, parking within the lines or putting litter in the trash make a positive impact on someone whether you get credit for it or not.
posted by sambosambo at 3:38 AM on February 23, 2008

Recently I was home after a pretty miserable day, and while walking through the apartment complex, a lady gave a cheerful "Hi, how are you?" out of the blue. I responded and strangely felt a lot better afterwards. Of course, it's probably a lot easier (and less suspicious) for a woman to greet either gender like that, than for a man to greet a woman.

If anything, it's probably a good idea to keep it to that. If the two of you are standing around together (instead of just crossing paths), you'll know by their response whether they want to keep the exchange brief, engage in actual conversation, have someone to complain to and get things off their chest, etc. And if it's clear they don't feel like talking to a stranger, you can't really take it personally since they don't know you anyway. But i think for most people, just being asked how they are, and being shown some attention, can brighten their day a little, or a lot.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:27 PM on February 23, 2008

nax and miss T have it totally wrong. log into youtube and watch 5 part seduction school.
it's all in the delivery, no matter what the motives. your motives are pure, so do what feels right.
first time i went to germany, i spun out. when i left for work in the monring, people would call hello to me across the street. from where i am from, that would mean they wanted a fight. but they are just being nice. dont hold back, many ppl above are using the word creepy because of what is in their head, not because of yours, so dont worry about it.
posted by edtut at 8:03 PM on February 23, 2008

I think this is hugely an age thing. I used to be much freer (free-er? urg.) in my comments to strangers and casual acquaintances/colleagues when I was younger. As I've grown older, and especially since I started working with kids, I've started seeing how personal remarks can be misconstrued or inappropriate. So I guess what you need is judgment, which I suppose is what the OP was asking for. So I'll amend my statement a little.

You should not make personal remarks to those in authority over you, beyond innocuous social codes like "You're looking great." So, you can tell the boss's wife "you're looking great" but not "I love your shoes" or "Did you get your hair done" unless solicited. (Those are bad examples but you see where I'm going). Children should NEVER make personal remarks to adults. Those shoals are just too treacherous.

Personal remarks to strangers and casual acquaintances should never refer to the person's "person" if you will. No comments about hair, perfume, whether they are pretty, etc. Stick to "I love your shoes" (Although watch out for comments that might be construed as envious or as aspersions on the person's spending habits.) And yes, when I have seen someone totally unknown to me wearing something unusual, I'm likely to comment on it, and yes, I sometimes get a big smile. But just as often I get a blank, shocked, or angry look.

You see where I'm going with this. You have to be very sensitive to all the social nuances, and with strangers this is impossible. You just don't know what the nuances are. Which is why you want to be really certain of your judgment, which is why I think older people can get away with this (although I now do it less than I used to.)

There are lots of warm remarks you can make that achieve the end you're going for--connection-- without stumbling up against one of these obstacles. Refer to common experiences. That's why god made weather. So you'd have something to talk about with strangers. Ditto sports teams (How 'bout them Cubbies!).

If you think you can get away with personal remarks, give it a try. But I still think Emily gets it right.
posted by nax at 7:15 AM on February 24, 2008

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