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The Corporate Curmudgeon


"The most romantic thing any woman ever said to me in bed was,
'Are you sure you're not a cop?'"

Larry Brown (basketball coach)

"Pay me a compliment, Melvin. I need one, quick... and MEAN IT!" That's Helen Hunt speaking to Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets." They're at a restaurant when he casually insults her dress and she stands to leave, then pauses to demand offsetting praise. That's when he then comes through with the fabulous line that changes her attitude and both their lives. Remember it?

I've been doing a little experiment, and I've found that more people can answer that question than can answer this one: "What's the best compliment you've ever gotten about your work?"

The answer to the first question is, "You make me want to be a better man." The most common response to the second question is, "Let me get back to you."

We're losing the art of the compliment, especially at work. Sure, we have little plastic trophies, but we don't have the sort of remark that caused even that greatest of cynics, Mark Twain, to say, "I can live for two months on a good compliment."

As for those in my little survey, I don't think it was a matter of being worthy -- I was asking talented and dedicated people. It's that we have grown cautious in our praise here in the Corporate Ice Age. What if they take it wrong? What if they use it against me? What if I they think, "Get out the ChapStick, it's kiss-up time!"?

Another experiment...

  • I went to Amazon.com and put in the word "insults" and got back 73 books on the subject: "The Giant Book of Insults", "The Little Book of Venom", Shakespeare's Insults", Garfield's Insults", even "The Kids' Book of Insults."
  • Next I put in "compliments" and got back 19 items -- all out of print or having nothing to do with praise. (For instance, there's a novel called "Cyanide With Compliments.")

I also tried some Internet search engines, and found more disappointment. The worst was a site that generates random compliments, but praise from a computer may be the most unsatisfying praise of all. (Sample: "Your dress sense is really brilliant.") The best lines were to be found in sites devoted to giving toasts. ("May you always have old wine, old friends, and young cares.") And I've seen books with the fabulous praise common to eulogies.

Toasts and eulogiees. Bars and funeral halls. Our culture has come to this: Don't expect to hear a compliment unless I'M drunk or YOU'RE dead.

So let's try reviving the lost art of the compliment. Not flattery. Not contrived, overblown buttering-up. Just the facts, in a nice frame. I've learned that the best work compliments hold the effort up for admiration. If you, say, write a report, and someone says, "Good job" or "Great report", that's nice, but nothing compared to, "I liked you report so much that I passed it on to the President." For instance, a salesperson I know told me that her greatest compliment came when the head of sales said, "I'd like to have a meeting with all the salespeople and have you talk about how you work."

As for my own "best compliment" as a columnist, a kind woman wrote to say, "I read your columns aloud to my husband so can we enjoy together your play with words." Isn't that glorious? I blush. And what I did to thank the woman who wrote that compliment was to write back and say, "I read you letter aloud to my wife."

Notice what all these compliments have in common -- a word picture of the work being put to use. Such praise doesn't make a person conceited; it's makes a person better. I'd like you to prove it to yourself. Join the experiment.

Try surprising someone at work with a compliment and tell me about it. I'll pass along some of the most useful examples (here and in my newspaper column) and maybe we can recover the lost art of the compliment. With a little effort we can be worthy of Casey Stengel's great praise, "Ya done splendid!"

Other Corporate Curmudgeon Columns

The Whiners and the Hummers

What the Human Resources Department Won't Tell You

The Clerk With The Smirk

A Commencement Address You'll Never Hear

The Second Annual Commencement Address
I'll Never Be Asked To Give

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