How to give a compliment without being insulting.

How to give a compliment without being insulting.

I’ve been thinking, over the past few days, about compliments. They seem like such harmless creatures, in fact, compliments are an important tool of communication that should be used often. However, giving a well formed compliment that is received as such is actually an art form. Right up front, I want to be clear that this post is not a reaction to any compliments I may have received recently. In fact, it’s more of a reminder to myself than anything else. So here they are, the important things to keep in mind while complimenting.

General rules to follow:

1. Keep it simple, keep it short. Proverbs 10:19a wisely says, “When words are many, sin is not absent.” And even if our compliments don’t go to the extent of “sin”, the more we talk the more trouble we’re likely to find ourselves in. Often the simplest compliments are the most readily received. Compliments like, “You look very nice.” “That was perfect timing.” “You really made my day.” Keep it simple, keep it short.

2. Don’t add on any qualifiers. One compliment trap I often find myself falling into is the “qualifier”. It sounds like this, “Wow, you look so nice today.” The “today” is the problem, it’s a qualifier. While this may not be the intention, the implication is that other days the person doesn’t look so nice, and often, after the fact, the compliment-er catches this and goes on to explain that they didn’t mean that the compliment-ee doesn’t always look nice, but looks especially nice today… so on and so forth. At this point, it’s best to quit while you’re behind and just try to move the conversation on to less awkward topics. However, this can be totally avoided by following the advice in #1, keep it simple, keep it short, and don’t add on any qualifiers.

3. Don’t compliment by insulting past performance. This often takes the form of, “Wow, you’re really getting a lot better!” This is often received as a backhanded insult – something like, “Wow, you used to be horrible, at least now you’re making progress!” – which is hopefully not what you’re going for. Rather, just stick with, “Wow, you did a great job!”

4. Be sincere. There’s nothing worse than a flippant compliment that you don’t really mean. If you can’t compliment sincerely, just don’t compliment.

5. Don’t try to be humble for someone else.  Things like, “Not to give you a big head, but you did a great job!” Or, “I know you don’t want to take glory for yourself, I just wanted you to know I enjoyed…”, it’s just unnecessary. We all know pride comes before the fall, but leave humility to the person being complimented, or simply don’t compliment them at all.

6. Don’t try to correct someone’s past behavior with a compliment. “Wow, thank you so much for calling, it’s been FOREVER since I heard from you! I hope you’ll call more often in the future.” or “This project went perfect! So much better than the last one you headed up.” It won’t be received well, so just keep your thoughts to yourself.

7. Try complimenting who they really are, not just what they look like. This is a great one to keep in mind. While the first things that strike us might be physical, we are much more than what we look like. Try to compliment something about a person that reflects well on their character, good choices they’ve made, or a positive impact they’ve had on you or others. It may seem like a small thing, but a sincere compliment of who a person actually is can have a huge impact. We are constantly bombarded with negative thoughts of who we are, how about adding something positive into the mix.

How to compliment someone’s appearance – All of the above rules apply, but here are a few more to keep in mind:

1. Don’t be too specific. There are people who love when every detail of their appearance is commented on, but these people are pretty rare. Most people get up in the morning and their goal is to pull together an overall look, so compliment that by saying something like, “You look very nice.” The one exception to this is if there is one particular aspect of their ensemble which is obviously meant to stand out. Say a bold handbag, or bright shoes. In this case it’s safe to compliment that one item by name, as that is obviously the intention of the wearer.

2. Don’t ask personal questions. Things like, “How much weight have you lost!?” or “Did you dye your hair” are far too personal. You may compliment their look or hair, but do it vaguely and wait for the person to offer this information if they choose.

3. If you absolutely must ask questions, be vague and don’t insist on a specific answer. My favorite is, “Something looks different, anything new?” This allows the person to safely choose what information they wish for me to know.

4. Don’t gush. A while ago when I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a few months and they INSISTED that I had lost “A LOT” of weight. To be perfectly honest, I think I had put on a pound or two since I had seen them last, so this gushing seemed very awkward. I tried to play it off, but they wouldn’t have it. She continued to ask what I had been doing and contradict me that I had indeed lost a lot of weight. When asked what I’d been doing I simply replied, that I ate whatever I wanted and tried not to think about it too much – which was the exact truth. To compound the injury the whole interchange took place in front of several other people, which made the introvert in me want to scream, wither up and die from embarrassment. Please, don’t gush.

5. Regarding hair compliments (on women in particular – guys generally don’t care): Compliment a hair cut specifically because if she likes it, she’ll be pleased you do too, and if she doesn’t like it she’ll be glad to know it doesn’t look as bad to others as it does to her. Don’t compliment hair color changes, because if she likes it she’ll hope everyone else thinks it’s natural and if she doesn’t like it she’ll hope no one else notices. The exception would be a bold color like pink, purple, or blue – that is obviously done to draw attention and may be sincerely complimented, but only if you actually like it.

6. Regarding weight: The whole conversation of weight is tricky tricky, so tread lightly. Most people who struggle with their weight hope people notice when they’re doing well, but these comments need to be handled with great care. Again, I think the safest bet is to just say, “You’re looking great!” and leave it at that. Going on about the amount of weight lost, how quickly it was lost, specific plans, etc. can quickly get sticky. So, unless the person obviously desires to discuss these things or brings them up themselves, best to say something nice and move on.

7. Regarding pregnancy compliments. Never, under any circumstances tell a pregnant woman (or any woman for that matter) that she’s “getting so big” and expect it to be received well. While most people will understand where you’re coming from, no woman, pregnant or not, wants to be told she’s getting big. Basically this comment is only a compliment to children under 7 years old. Good compliments for pregnant women are as follows, “You’re all baby!”, “You’re glowing!”, “You look so happy!”, and as before, “You look great!” Stick with these and you’ll be sure to avoid any unpleasant pregnancy hormone induced outbursts or tears.

So this is what I’ve learned about the right and wrong way to give a compliment, mostly from experience. Hopefully my experience will benefit you and those around you. Happy complimenting!



  1. This is so funny, and so true. I remember a couple years ago I saw a woman I hadn't seen in quite a long time. She had lost a TON of weight and it had changed her whole demeanor, taking her from visibly depressed to actually smiling and happy. If I had known in advance of her transformation I am sure I would have been much more cool, but I was just so genuinely shocked and happy for her that I went way over on "WOW, you really look different! I mean, you must be so happy!"... yeah. Figured out a few minutes later that I had probably left her feeling like I was saying "wow, you must be thrilled to not look horrible anymore..." Oy.

    Then I found out a few months later that her weight loss was a result of an eating disorder which was now threatening her life. Double oy.

    Perhaps I should just never speak, ever... :oP

    1. BTW ignore the smiley and letter P.. total emoticon oops.

    2. Ouch! I've come to the conclusion more than once that I can't be trusted with talking. That's why I write, it at least gives me a little bit of time to form my words into, hopefully, more acceptable thoughts. :)

  2. compliment:
    I love your posts

    is that too little, too much or just right ;-)

    1. Perfect! And thanks!

  3. I agree with everything with the exception of coloring/dying hair. I don't mind at all if someone asks what I do to my hair. I guess I just don't see it as a personal question. I definitely wouldn't ask an older woman if they dye their hair to cover up the gray lol, but the times I've asked was because I wanted the same dye box or name of the person who did their hair. Good to know though, that some see it as a personal question.

    You should also have a category for the "Backhanded compliment" such as, "I didn't know you were that skinny." "Wow, you are SO photogenic," "I didn't recognize you, you look so good," Or this one I received from Husband, "This dinner is amazing, it doesn't taste like you made it." LOL

    regarding pregnant women... I was at a baby shower on Sunday. A woman asked infront of everyone how much weight the mom-to-be put on. A serious NO NO! lol

    1. I can see where the hair coloring question could be less personal. Especially now when many people do at least SOMETHING to their hair color. Good point.

      Ahh, the backhanded compliment... Dan... We tried our best with him, sadly to no avail. Sorry about that. ;)

      Oooh, yes, people say the strangest things to pregnant women. It's like they think all rules go out the window, when in fact, it's probably the worst time to say that type of thing. BIG no no!