Why we don’t dole out many compliments – but should

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The happy phrasing of a compliment,” the writer Mark Twain once noted, “is one of the rarest of human gifts, and the happy delivery of it another.”

Twain was describing a meeting with the Emperor of Germany, who had praised his books. But we can all surely identify with the sentiment: receiving sincere and well-expressed praise can feel as good as an unexpected windfall.

Unfortunately, our anxieties about the ways others may perceive our own words can prevent us from giving compliments ourselves. No one, after all, wants to come across as clumsy, patronising or fawning. 

“Compliments are the easiest way to make other people – and, as a result, ourselves – feel better,” says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago. “But when a kind thought comes to mind, people often don’t say it.”

Yet three new studies on the psychology of compliment giving and receiving suggest that our fears about the ways our praise will be received are completely unfounded. And by letting go of that awkwardness, we could all enjoy better relationships with our friends, family members and colleagues.

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