As Thumper says in Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.”
Wise words from the young rabbit!
But in this age of correctness and sensitivity we even need to be wary of saying something nice. Too often our words can be misconstrued, overly dissected or considered inappropriate.
Even compliments can go awry and be misunderstood. When we say something is nice it is always comparative. If that’s nice then something else isn’t nice. If something changes to make something nice then, previously, it wasn’t so nice.
Every compliment contains an implicit criticism.
It’s an extension of Newton’s third law; action and reaction are equal and opposite. In relation to correctness; compliment and critique are equal and opposite.
By giving praise or recognising some quality, we are indirectly criticising or disapproving of something else.
“Your hair looks stylish,” suggests that on previous occasions it did not.
“You’ve grown a lot,” suggests that others have not grown as significantly.
“Your necklace suits you,” suggests that the person next to you doesn’t have attractive jewellery.
“You’re looking fit and healthy,” suggests that others are not so glowing.
Analysed with such inordinate sensitivity, it takes correctness to an extreme. We can’t even pay people a compliment without getting ourselves into trouble. No wonder it makes people fearful of saying anything at all.
The complimentary misdemeanour can be exacerbated even more if it is articulated within a business or professional environment. A simple, “you’re looking good today,” can be considered inappropriate, demeaning, improper, suggestive. It can mean so many things:
- What about on other days when you haven’t said anything. How have I looked then?
- Is that some sort of flirtatious proposition?
- Why do you feel the need to make reference to my appearance?
- Are you saying that to make me feel good or do you really mean it?
- Do you mean that I’m looking good in relation to others? How does everybody else feel about that?
- By focusing on my appearance are you diminishing the work that I do?
It’s a fine line between saying the right thing and putting your foot in it!
Sometimes it might be best to just stay quiet. That way we avoid digging ourselves into a hole. But then that may also give rise to issues. Not saying anything can be taken the wrong way as well.
- If somebody’s made an effort with their appearance and nobody picks up on it then what are they going to think? Why bother? What’s the point of trying to look good if it goes unnoticed?
- What if a person has made an effort but somebody else gets all the laudatory praise?
If somebody changes their hair style, if somebody has their braces removed from their teeth should we comment on it? Should we, at least, acknowledge that we’ve noticed the change?
If somebody has changed an aspect of themselves then they have felt that they have needed to or wanted to make that change. They must think it’s an improvement. Isn’t it polite and uplifting to confirm that they’ve done the right thing?
Most of us like to be complimented. It makes us feel good.
But what if they have not done the right thing? Influenced by promotional activity, seductive advertising, celebrity endorsement, peer group pressures they may have made changes that have not been enhancing.
So what do we then do? What do we then say?
One approach would be to try to stick to the facts and shy away from giving any opinions:
- “You’ve changed your hair style!”
- “You’ve bought a new dress!”
- “You still go swimming every morning?”
But even this is fraught with danger and complications. It’s a very impersonal, distant way of communicating and wouldn’t be conducive to the building of any sort of relationship. It’s also very difficult to make such comments without then going on to give an opinion.
The safer and more judicious strategy might be to recognise and praise only third-party elements, elements that are within a person’s direct control rather than those more physical, consequential aspects of changes to an individual’s appearance.
- You can praise somebody’s shoes but not the fact that they make them look taller.
- You can admire the colour of a dress but not the quality of its fit.
- You can applaud somebody’s gym attendance but not the toning affect it has had on them.
Ultimately, of course, there is a paradox here. We live in an image conscious world but, strangely, in our daily interactions we are not encouraged to comment on it.
Directly or indirectly, by criticism or by compliment we can upset and offend. Even saying nothing does not free us from risk. And the more we think about it, the more we focus on it, the more we make a concern of it, then the more paranoid we can become.
Thumper’s wisdom may have had some relevance in the past but in this age of sensitivity, when we have to be on guard against such things as prejudice, intolerance and injustice, when we can so easily over react to ignorance, misunderstanding or faux pas, it may just be too simple a take on life.
Rabbits, it seems, may be able to navigate a patch of nettles without getting stung, but human interactions can be a lot more entangled and hazardous.