Compliments as conversation starters

März 1, 2021

Can a compliment be a good conversation starter?

Hey lovely people, it’s compliment day – Well done for reading this article, you rock!

Compliments are great, especially if they are honest. A thoughtful compliment can really brighten your day. 

But what about compliments as conversation starters? That is a situation many language learners find confusing at first.

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I love your jacket! Where did you get it?

The person says this because...

a) They are looking for a new jacket and need advice.
b) They are sucking up to me.
c) They want to be friendly and start a conversation with me.
d) They love my jacket. So?

What do you think?

People compliment others in this way a lot. This can seem strange. Very strange.

When I first moved to the UK, I found this type of comment confusing. What to say? “Errr thanks.” Needless to say, that conversation starter usually went down like a lead balloon with me.

Gradually, I started to recognise that compliments like this are simply a friendly signal: Hey, I know nothing about you, but here’s a way into the conversation. 

And you know what? Sometimes people even signal real interest. Or they see a kindred spirit in you who shops in the same places – the ones that have a recognisable style and make you feel like part of a tribe.

So, what to do when “the natives” approach you with a compliment?

Smile. Say “thank you!” – and then you can decide if you want to be honest or just claim not to remember where you bought the item in question.

What NOT to do:

Do not over-estimate the compliment. The other person probably doesn’t want to hear a long story. They probably don’t really love, love, LOVE your jacket. They don’t think you are a style-icon. They did not notice that the jacket is from your favourite designer’s most recent collection, or from a trendy second-hand shop that only the hippest hipsters know. Okay, maybe they do. But probably not. See if they ask follow-up questions. If they do: go for it and enjoy.

Do not become suspicious. “Ha!”, you might think, “you don’t fool me!” – Cynic.
The other person is not sucking up to you. They don’t want anything from you. Probably. Are you their boss? Is it the week before their annual performance review? Are they holding an annual leave form? Well, maybe they are sucking up to you. Never mind. But generally, it's probably not the case.

Do not assume that the compliment is a secret put-down. I don’t care how many American teenage comedies you have seen. And also: What if it is? Well, so what. Smile. Say thank you. You’re a grown-up.

It would be such a shame if we were always suspicious when we hear compliments. Thankfully, most of the time - and especially in small talk situations - you do not need to over-analyse what is going on. 

So. Most of the time, people who start a conversation with a compliment are just friendly. Period. They are making a friendly “first move” into the conversation. Easy.

How do people in your culture use compliments?

Think about your family, friends, colleagues or other groups that you are a part of. How common are compliments?

Do you find it easy to give and receive compliments?

Which do you find easier - giving or receiving compliments? Why?

How do you feel about compliments as a polite, but meaningless, part of a conversation?

What is your favourite conversation starter?

You can leave your response in the comments!

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conversation starter: The opening sentence for a conversation (What is your favourite conversation starter, by the way?).

to go down like a lead balloon: When something is completely unsuccessful (My idea went down like a lead balloon).

sucking up to someone: When someone is nice to you because they want something.

annual performance review: A meeting with your boss in which you reflect on how you did during the past year and set goals for the next year.

annual leave form: A document your boss needs to sign so that you can take annual leave (= time off from work for a holiday).

put-down: Something a person might say to you to make you feel stupid, uncool or humiliated (“Ooooh, lovely skirt, did you get that from [name of shop that is considered uncool in this particular group of people]?”).

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