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Bergeson Column: Lost art of compliments

It is human nature to love compliments, yet the art of giving compliments is in sad disrepair.

It is really simple: When somebody does a good job, the right thing to say is, "Good job!"

So often compliments get mucked up with qualifiers and barbs that negate the value of the praise.

For example: "That last pie you made wasn't so hot, but boy this one was top notch!"

Does such praise make the pie maker feel good? Nope. She'll rack her brain for days trying to figure out what was wrong with the first pie. Better to give no compliment at all.

Some compliments condescend: "That little song you sang in church today was sure cute."

Does that make the singer feel appreciated? Not when the song was too difficult to be called "little" and was meant to inspire, not be "cute."

As a rule, never ever tell an adult that something they did was "little" or "cute."

Some people who give compliments make it clear that they want a gold medal in return. "I just wanted to make sure that you knew that somebody liked your song. I always like to tell people when they do a good job, because I know that not many people say thanks, so I just wanted to make sure that you knew somebody appreciated it."

Oh hush up.

Other compliments are specifically designed to make the other person feel less: "That song was so nice. Why don't you sing more often? Maybe that's what you could do for a living instead of pumping gas!"

It is odd. Although compliments cost nothing, some people seem to think that if you give them out freely, even when they are deserved, you are cheapening yourself.

There's a big worry that people will get a big head if you say, "good job" without adding a little barb, some condescending negative comment, something to make sure people know that they aren't all okay and good.

I have never understood the fear that people, particularly children, will get a big head if they are enthusiastically complimented for a job well done.

In my experience, everybody in the world is absolutely desperate for thoughtful, well-delivered compliments. I don't care if it is somebody at the top of his or her profession, paid in six figures. People love authentic compliments.

Yet, it isn't an easy matter to give an authentic compliment. It is an art.

First, you must not want anything in return. Don't ask a favor right after the compliment unless you want the person to think of you as a schmuck for a decade or two.

Second, you have to know what you're talking about. If you say you liked the pastor's sermon and the pastor responds, "What did you like about it?" you'd better have something ready.

Don't give compliments just to be nice. If you liked the pie, find a nice adjective to describe the pie that will show you meant what you said. The crust was the right texture. The rhubarb wasn't mushy.

Of course, if the person is so desperate for a compliment that they fish for it, as in "Sigh, I just wish I could make pies like Ellen," then the only thing to do is lie.

But most people aren't so desperate. Most competent people learn to trudge through life without expecting much praise. To them, a job well done is reward itself. What fun it is to surprise such people with an unexpected and genuine compliment.

Children need compliments more than anybody, but nobody is more sensitive to insincere praise than a child. They'll see right through it.

"You're just saying that because you want me to go away!"

If you were complimenting the kid just to make him go away, you're busted. And you've just destroyed your credibility for when you want to give an authentic compliment.

Compliments cost nothing, but that doesn't mean giving them out is easy. You have to do your homework. You have to phrase it right. You have to study the skill you are complimenting.

But the art of the compliment is well worth such study, for there is no sweeter music to the human ear than genuine praise.