Complimentary: an experiment in kindness


Last week, I started an experiment.  Every day, for one week, I would compliment someone who I did not know personally and see what kind of reactions I received in return.

OK, I know it’s not a life-changing, crazy thing to do, but it was harder for me than I thought. What if people thought I were weird? What if everyone ignored me?

Reservations aside, I jumped right in, ready to go.

Day 1

“Hey! That’s a really cute dress!”

This was to a girl I passed on my way to Spanish early in the morning. It was obvious that she was not quite awake yet, with her venti Starbucks drink in one hand, cell phone in the other and a look on her face that made it clear she would rather be back in bed. When I reached out to her, I got a double-take and a nervous “thank you.”

So, it was day one and I was already confused. I thought compliments were supposed to make people feel fuzzy and warm on the inside. Why was this girl so hesitant to accept praise obviously meant for her?

Then I remembered that scene fromMean Girls” when Regina George complimented a girl on her skirt only to turn to Cady and say, “That’s the ugliest effing skirt I’ve ever seen.”

Realization 1:  The media is a terrible place for women.

There is so much negative media that portrays women hurting each other. It can be difficult to accept that another woman could genuinely want someone else to be successful.

Articles dramatize “feuds” between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and Nikki Minaj.  US Weekly’sWho Wore it Best” segment encourages readers to vote on which woman looked nicer in a piece of clothing.  It is important that we do not let the media’s stereotypes succeed.  By being nicer to each other, we can work to change that.

Days 2, 3, and 4

My responses were better throughout the week. I noticed that people smiled if I complimented his hair or said her eyeliner was on point.

I noticed a difference in myself, too. Instead of walking to class with my headphones in and looking at the ground, I found myself looking up and engaging with the people around me.

I used to think it was so awkward in high school when I was walking alone in the hallway and had to pass another person walking alone in the opposite direction. I would go out of my way to avoid eye contact by looking at the floor or suddenly becoming very interested in a locker sign I was passing.

Now, I do not understand why I was so afraid of human interaction.

Even if I did not end up actually speaking to that person, sometimes we would smile at each other or nod. Occasionally, someone would ask me how I was doing as we passed.

Realization 2: If I looked like I was happy and interested in other people, they were much more willing to return that interest. In other words, if I had continued walking to class, looking at the sidewalk and thinking about how great my bed feels, other people would probably never have reached out to me.

I was engaged in what was going on around me and that led me to interactions with people that I never would have had otherwise.

Days 5 and 6

As I neared the end of the week, I noticed that every time I went to compliment a girl, it was always about her appearance. I was not making up the praise. If I told someone I liked her boots or her cardigan, I genuinely did, but I found myself asking why it was so much harder to compliment women on anything besides how they look.

I realized my spread of positivity linked solely with physical appearance and I was not OK with that. I started to get creative.

At first it was hard. How was I supposed to look beyond the surface of people I did not even know? I had no idea if he or she was a kind smart, or passionate person by simply passing them on the way to class.

Eventually, I began to call it like I saw it. If someone did a nice job on a presentation in class, I told the person he or she was a good speaker. Instead of complimenting clothes or makeup choices, I commented on confidence and intelligence.

Realization 3: I know it seems obvious to say it, but people are more than their looks. If a girl hears “wow, you have such pretty hair” or “your clothes are so cute” enough times, it is not long before she starts to think that is how her worth is measured. She stops thinking that she is anything more than her fashion choices and ignores the more important things.

We can start to change the way people see themselves by thinking outside the box–letting the people around us know that we see past their physical exterior. We can let them know that they are not defined by a single physical feature, but rather, by a wealth of emotions and talents that make them unique.

Day 7

It was the final day of my week-long social experiment – or so I thought. In just seven days, I observed people responding positively to me telling them nice things as they passed. I noticed my confidence and willingness to step out of my comfort zone were also greater.

So why should I stop complimenting people just because my self-imposed time limit was up?

That’s the thing: We should not stop.

Which leads me to my final realization that we need to support each other a whole lot more.

Crazy concept, I know. But listen and tell me if this situation sounds familiar.

I am sitting with a group of friends, either in Atherton Union or in Starbucks. Someone walks by and a person from your group makes a comment.

“Wow, she looks so good in that color.”

“She’s so funny!  I heard her speak in one of my classes.”

The group nods and agrees before turning back to their books.

Tell them.

Tell the person that walks by – actively and out loud, tell her that her humor is appreciated or that she should wear blue more often. There is nothing to lose. One little compliment can go a long way.