“Wow, Mom! Dinner is Actually Good!”: Compliments Gone Wrong

It was 10 pm on a Monday night. Being a mostly-responsible morning-person kind of student, I’m not normally the type to start playing a card game at such a time. But my Tuesday morning class had been cancelled and Tuesday was the last day of classes before Thanksgiving break. So while one friend of mine sat nearby doing homework, I settled down and started playing a game with two other friends in the Corum. Being a public place, a random fellow walked into the area to work on homework, and settled himself down next to my friend who wasn’t playing the card game. As the other three of us continued our game, this fellow proceeded to offer a great many comments. Leaning over to my homework-working friend, he’d offer, “They have a weird set-up” or “That one (pointing to me) is going to win.” Periodically he would approach, look over our shoulders and offer compliments: “I approve.” “I know what I would do. You know what I would do. Good job.” “That was a good play. I approve.”

He meant these as compliments to be sure, however, I found myself squirming uncomfortably under these statements. Despite his intent, his “compliments” affected me in quite a condescending way. When my actions were judged by whether or not they aligned with what he would have done, I felt as though I was not valued for my own decisions or for who I am, but for how well I made him feel like he knows what he is doing. My actions were deemed as “good” as long they promoted what this guy felt appropriate as opposed to being good because I had good ideas on my own. This does the opposite of what he probably intended to do.

My point, however, is not to bash this socially-awkward fellow, but to offer an example of where our positive motives come across in a negative way. One of my favorite communication quotes is by Deborah Tannen, in her book That’s not what I meant!: How conversational style makes or breaks relationships: “What seem like bad intentions may really be good intentions expressed in a different conversational style.” This is important to remember when someone says something that offends or angers you or even just feels awkward. For the most part, offending or angering you was the last thing on their mind. In these situations, if you can learn to see what the person is trying to communicate instead of what you may naturally take it to mean, you may be able to save yourself a lot of negative vibes. Another thing to remember is that we ourselves probably do the same thing to others. Even when we are convinced of the innocence of our message, sometimes others may take it the opposite way.

When this occurs, it doesn’t mean anyone is in the wrong. Each person approached the situation with what he or she thought was best or natural. There was just a difference in communication styles. It is very important that you don’t blame yourself and don’t blame the other person. Simply realize that communication is a beast in itself and that there is beauty in its complexity. The next time you are tempted to get offended, take a step back, and try to get a feel for what the person may have meant to communicate, not just what you heard.

Let me know how it works. Let me know your thoughts. Let me know that you’ve actually read this post; leave a comment 🙂

4 thoughts on ““Wow, Mom! Dinner is Actually Good!”: Compliments Gone Wrong

  1. This was a great post, BethAnn! I can relate to this. A few weeks ago, I was playing floor hockey and one of my teammates gave me some condescending advice (at least it seemed that way to me!). Now I can see how his comment may have been made with good intention, to improve my floor hockey skills, instead of meant to belittle my aptitude in the sport.


  2. A person might become so engrossed with the attitude of worry about saying something that may be taken offense to, that their conversational style devolves to ummm, errrr, you know, and that. All the while they mull over in their mind what might be the least offensive way to get their message accross. The other participant in the conversation is left to wonder about cognitive ability.


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