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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Better Small Talk" by Patrick King. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What kind of compliments do you appreciate most? How can you compliment others in a way that’s received especially well?

Some compliments feel better than others. That’s because they come in different categories. Social interaction expert Patrick King draws vital distinctions among categories of compliments and shows why some go a lot further than others when it comes to making people feel validated, seen, and appreciated.

Keep reading for King’s advice on how to compliment people in meaningful ways.

How to Compliment People

One way to take care of your conversation partner and ensure they feel good in conversation is to offer thoughtful compliments. King shares some important insights on how to compliment people, writing that the compliments that ingratiate you most effectively with the recipient target something the recipient can control or something the recipient has actively decided to do. Such compliments feel more meaningful to the recipient than compliments about things they can’t control (like looks) because they validate a person’s choices and lifestyle.

For instance, a person will be happier if you tell them you’re really impressed with the garden they’ve worked tirelessly to cultivate than if you compliment them on the size of their hands, which is something they have no control over.

(Shortform note: In addition to complimenting people only on things they have control over, you should also steer clear of flattery. In The Like Switch, Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins argue that flattery is often deployed as a way to get something from someone. If you find yourself offering compliments for a specific reason—for example, to be invited to an event or to get something—you’re probably flattering the other person, and it’s likely they can tell. Keep your compliments sincere and only offer them as a way to make the other person feel good.)

Consider complimenting others on choices they’ve made to stand out from the crowd because these deliberate decisions reflect their identity and how they want to be perceived. A unique choice might be a nonconformist opinion, an unusual garment, a particular spiritual interest, or an affiliation. 

As an alternative to a traditional compliment, King suggests noticing people’s behaviors, habits, and idiosyncrasies and non-judgmentally drawing attention to them. This makes the other person feel noteworthy and seen. For instance, if a friend often uses an uncommon turn of phrase, you might inquire about it. This will make them feel unique and interesting and might lead to an intriguing explanation of where they picked up that phrase.

(Shortform note: The unique traits or idiosyncrasies King recommends you compliment or comment on are symptoms of humans’ need to be unique. Humans have a strong evolutionary urge to fit in, but we also need to feel that we differ from our peers in some ways, and this can lead us to make particular lifestyle choices. Still, because we’re all trying to strike a balance between fitting in and being different, it’s important to compliment others in ways that don’t make them feel too unusual. Hearing someone tell you, “That is the most bizarre hat I’ve ever seen” probably doesn’t feel as good as “That is such a cool hat; I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”)

How to Compliment People: Make Them Feel Validated & Seen

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Patrick King's "Better Small Talk" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Better Small Talk summary:

  • Why small talk is a critical part of any conversation
  • How mastering small talk can help you have more meaningful conversations
  • How to become a better conversationalist, storyteller, and listener

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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