After some brief small talk, he turned to go and I noticed he looked thinner. Halfway down the stoop, I called after him. “Dang, dude, you’re getting skinny.”
“Get the fuck out,” he said, grinning, as he walked away.
“See you later, Skinny!’ I replied.
If I were to clock the frequency of how often I compliment my friends for weight loss, or a good golf-swing, or for just being a good dad, it would probably work out to once every other week. And if I’m honest with myself, it may be even less than that unless a social engagement puts us in close proximity and the booze gets us to the “I love you, man” phase.
That’s a problem. I acknowledge it’s a problem.
Studies show that compliments are valuable linguistic tools for building solidarity and bonding. And solidarity is key in building relationships beyond casual friendship. What’s more, studies also show that men receive far fewer compliments than women in most circumstances. So is it any wonder men are suffering from an epidemic of loneliness that is counter-indicative to a good, long healthy life?
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“Men are lonely and we’re dying of loneliness because we are not cultured to talk about our feelings and emotions,” explains Dr. John Moore of Guy Counseling. “That is why a lot of guys have problems making friends. It’s because of this history of hyper-masculinity. But deep inside most men want other male friends and want to have real conversations with them.”
It may seem there is a difference between a “real conversation” and giving another dude a compliment. But that’s not necessarily true. Both of those acts require a certain amount of vulnerability. They also require transcending the ways in which we’ve been programmed to save face and hold power. It’s easier not to do any of those things. It’s easier to forget that compliments are necessary.
“Part of our forgetting comes from a subconscious feeling that it’s going to be awkward or weird so we almost train ourselves not to say things,” Moore explains. “We need to challenge our own irrational thinking about assumptions we have of other people because often times those assumptions are wrong.”
So how does a compliment-reticent man begin to change his ways? The first part is in recognizing the appropriate context to offer a compliment. This will help build a sense of confidence. For instance, it’s far easier to compliment an old friend on his swing at the golf course than it is to compliment a man you just met about how he looks in a shirt. More importantly, it’s good to know there are techniques to do both that alleviate much of the interpersonal and intimate awkwardness that a compliment can carry.
“Usually when a compliment is paid, it also means there’s an area of interest in trying to obtain the same thing,” Moore says. A compliment that comes with a query is deeply ingratiating. So, not only is it good to compliment that killer tee-shot but also to ask what your friend’s been doing to achieve it. It’s great to compliment a pal for losing weight, but even better to ask what their secret is. “This shows the intent behind the compliment is genuine.”
It’s interesting to think that I never thought to ask my buddy how he lost weight, even though I could lose a few pounds myself. I know his response would have been much more measured. It would have led us into a more intimate discussion, and that’s where friendships get deeper.
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It’s also important to remember that according to research into how men compliment each other, there is much more emphasis placed on impersonal and the objective. Which means that telling the new coworker you like the shirt will play far better than telling him he looks good in the shirt.
Some of the reticence for offering compliments might come in how other men will take it. But Moore says, it’s important to remember how you receive compliments. I generally brush them off, like my buddy did, assuming they’re meant to tease more than edify. Interestingly, that skepticism is a pretty common male response to compliments and may play a factor in the number of compliments men receive.
“There’s a brotocol. There is a way another guy is going to acknowledge a compliment. It’s not going to be something deep,” explains Moore. “But that’s just normal.”
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But Moore notes there’s a way to help a guy know you’re not trying to be funny. “It’s okay to preface a genuine compliment by saying you’re serious,” he says.
And I am serious. Even with the occasional drop-in, Dad life can be lonely. I know that compliments are not going to necessarily increase the number of my friendships. But they will deepen them. And the next time I see my buddy, I’ll make sure he receives the compliment with the same gravity in which it was given.