Paying Compliments in the Digital Age

Today I would like to challenge you, gentle reader, to consider the possibilities of social media and the internet for voicing your opinion: not to complain, but to compliment.  We are all very much aware of the internet commentariat and how it can go completely off the rails into extreme nastiness when, for example, an online publication reproduces an article which angers people.  Hiding behind the relative safety of free speech and an anonymous web address, a great deal of damage can be done.  Yet how many of us actually take the time to say, “Good job,” when it is warranted, though it may mean spending a few minutes trying to track down an email address by which to do so?

When I was an undergraduate, I was fortunate enough to have been unofficially adopted as a grandson by an older couple who had been friends with my grandparents in Barcelona, and who had retired to D.C. after many years in the diplomatic service.  They often spoke of writing letters to people, institutions, and so on, when they wanted to make a complaint, but also when they wanted to share a compliment.  I had never really thought of the latter, but as my psuedo-grandmother told me (and which I have never forgotten), too many people do not take the time to contact someone and tell them when they have done something well.  Everyone likes to be complimented, even if they are very important.

This of course was back in the mid-90’s, when the internet as we know it today was still somewhat in its infancy.  Now of course, if someone cannot be found via Google, Facebook, Twitter, or the like, we are surprised rather than otherwise.  In fact, we may even be a little bit suspicious of a company, group, or individual that cannot be contacted online, wondering whether they are taking modern methods of communication seriously.

For my own part, I can personally attest to the fact that sometimes, when you reach out to a person or organization, and tell them what a good job they have done on something, it can lead to unexpected benefits.  In quite a number of cases, when I have sent a well-worded, complimentary message to some of the writers, artists, and other public figures whom I happen to come across in reading, in media, or in my travels, I have been fortunate enough not only to receive an equally-kindly-worded reply, but also to subsequently strike up a friendship or connection.  Sometimes, it may be the case that we will never get the chance to meet in real life, though on several occasions such meetings have happened, and have only served to strengthen the bonds of friendship formed through that initial exchange of words over the internet.

Such an exchange does not have to occur, however, in order for your doing so to be worthwhile.  For example, during what we will call my gangly-teen years in the 80’s,  I was very much a devotee of the music of New Order, the seminal English band fronted by Bernard Sumner.  When I saw over the summer a news documentary on it being 30 years since the band was formed from the ashes of Joy Division, I decided to send Mr. Sumner an e-mail, thanking him for his contributions to music, which were a great boon to me as an awkward youth, and which I still enjoy today.  It took some research and asking for favors, but eventually a friend in the UK put me in touch with the right person to get my message to Mr. Sumner.  I have not heard back from him, nor do I expect to.  And the point was not to hear back from him: it was to thank him for what he had contributed to my life through his musical and lyrical inventiveness, during a time when, like many brainy teens growing up in small towns, I felt misunderstood by my peers and yearned for a more cosmopolitan, thoughtful place to be.

As is often the case, the patron of this blog, Count Castiglione, has something to say on the subject. It is remarkable that a man who lived five centuries ago continues to give us so much wisdom as to how we ought to behave, in our public interactions with one another [N.B. which is why, gentle reader, you should be reading him.] Castiglione thinks that the ideal courtier should try to be as accomplished as possible in all things, so as not to be intimidated by anyone, but at the same time to have the good grace to recognize when someone else has done something well without, thereby, thinking less of himself as an individual in the process:

But be it understood that there ought not to be in him that lofty and ungenial indifference which some men have, who show that they are not surprised at what others do because they imagine that they themselves can do it better, and who disparage it by silence as not worth speaking of; they almost seem to imply that no one is their equal or is even able to fathom the profundity of their knowledge. Wherefore the Courtier ought to shun these odious ways, and to praise the fine achievements of other men with kindness and good will; and although he may feel that he himself is admirable, yet he ought to appear not to think so.

The goal of suggesting that you make an effort to reach out to persons or institutions with a kind word, of course, is not to stalk them, nor even to make a new friend/contact, necessarily.  If that results, so much the better.  It is however in the sharing of the gift of good will that you do your job, since you should not assume that just because a person, a company, or the like is well-known that they are actually hearing positive things all the time.  They very well may, but if you do not encourage them to keep doing good, they may decide to turn down another path.

If we engage in the habit of encouraging one another to do well, whether in writing good books/articles, doing a good job as a painter, actor, or musician, and the like, we build up a better culture.  If all we do is take the time to criticize, blame, and tear down, we end up with – well, frankly what we have right now: a rather snarky, cynical, victim culture of every man for himself.  Imagine if each of us made more of an effort to give to others without expecting something in return, how much more healthy our society would become.

Illustration from “A Complete Practical Guide to the Art of Dancing” by Thomas Hillgrove (1863)

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6 thoughts on “Paying Compliments in the Digital Age

  1. I feel like I should say what a wonderful blog today, and thank you for doing so well, always bringing something wonderfully written to uplift the otherwise hectic lives of your readers. Of course, I’m to busy just now to take the time. I’ll try to get back to you later, but probably not. ;)

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