Counts the judgment as a compliment
Why Germans don't compliment and how an American learned to deal with it
I grew up in the United States, and compliments are commonplace there.
A new dress? This has always been duly admired by my family: "How beautiful you look!" Good grades in school? They praised my intelligence. Even when I finished an entire birthday cake, my healthy appetite was admired.
My year is right between the "I'm ok, you are ok" generation and the "Everything you do is magical" generation. That means I've always received enough compliments, at least enough to boost my self-esteem without being overly exaggerated.
Of course, I also learned to give compliments. When I said to my mother, "Mom, you look beautiful today," there was a smile and a kiss. The tactic also worked for the teacher. With compliments like "You look great! New hairstyle?" she remained sympathetic to me.
What am I doing wrong? Courtney asked himself at first
Compliments, as I learned from childhood, are a kind of currency in America. As the saying goes: You can achieve anything with flattery.
The honesty of the Germans was a culture shock
I only realized how natural compliments are in everyday American life when I moved to Germany more than ten years ago. For about a year I thought something was wrong with me. Nobody seemed to like my clothes, my hairstyle or my shoes. Nobody mentioned the lecture I gave at the school. I went to bars and no one said you have beautiful eyes. I was wearing a fancy skirt and the greatest emotion was the remark, "This is a fancy skirt".
Back then I was giving English courses and intercultural training for adults, and one of my students said that I was thin for an American. In America we call this a double-edged compliment. We discussed it, and I explained to the course that such a remark would be considered quite impolite in the US.
The German course participants were of the opinion, however, that honesty is the greatest compliment. The Americans exaggerated their compliments, they said. Germans are of the firm conviction that the people in the USA are superficial and that their praise cannot be trusted. Maybe there is even something to it. My teacher in America told me I was a cute girl - but how serious was it when she said exactly the same thing to the other students?
How important is honesty?
In the discussion with the students it became clear to me that it doesn't matter whether compliments are true or not. For me it's not about truth at all. It's about politeness, about balancing hierarchies and the balance of power. For example, you might not compliment a supervisor at work - it quickly looks like being pissed off - while the employee's job well done deserves praise.
Compliments and praise are often embedded in a context that only the sender and recipient can understand. When your grandmother compliments you, you humbly say, "Oh Grandma, that's nice of you". When a friend admires your dress, you say, "Oh, that dress? I found that on sale last year." There is a simple "thank you" for a compliment from a stranger or even an unwanted compliment. And afterwards you wonder what the person wanted from you.
Americans also use compliments to start conversations with strangers. As Alanna Okun recently wrote about the art of complimenting drunk in an essay for the shopping website Racked: "Nobody makes you feel as good as another woman who has had three glasses of wine ... her compliments are exuberant but honest; their ardent admiration for your blouse or your shoes will keep you buoyant all evening. "
Compliments can also be double-edged. For example, the Eric Clapton song "Wonderful tonight": Which woman would not like the line "My darling, you look wonderful tonight"? On the other hand, the song was written for another man's wife - if you know that, you might see the compliment in a different light.
Which brings us to the topic of German men who find it difficult to compliment. Sigrid is married to an American and remembers that she was fascinated by his willingness to compliment her - and anyone he met. "Say something nice - nothing is easier to make someone smile," he told her. Sigrid had never seen that before. "I was flattered that he even noticed the color of my blouse, a German man has never done that!"
A lack of criticism is a compliment
Even after years in Germany, I sometimes still find it difficult to understand what the role of the compliment as a currency is in Germany. An American friend recommended that I take the lack of criticism as a compliment. In other words, interpret silence as praise.
Germans don't miss compliments as much as I do, they are not part of their culture. The advice of the Danish child psychologist Jasper Juul is popular with parents in this country, whose parenting tips do not correspond at all to what I experienced as a child. Children don't need praise from their parents, says Juul - they need recognition. In "Your competent child" he advises parents not to say: "That is a nice picture." Parents should find out that the child painted - and ask for details.
I find that strange. Why shouldn't I tell my child that they painted a great picture - as we say, "amazing"? Americans say "amazing" all the time, regardless of whether it is about looks, a home-cooked dinner or a well-made item.
If it were up to Juul I would have to say "Oh, you painted a picture?" A paw-paw dog would get more praise. Of course, you shouldn't cheer children, hand out gold stars, or whistle "good child" every time they manage to go to the bathroom on their own - like many Americans do today. But there must be more than silence.
My colleague Angela thinks it's a misunderstanding if I don't distinguish between a compliment that is about outward appearance and praise that is about encouragement. "Don't mix them up," she warns. What is difficult, after all, in English "compliment" is defined as a statement of praise.
It took me more than a decade, but I've now come to terms with the fact that in Germany I don't get compliments for everything I do. And if I do get praise, it's probably more honest than anything else in the US. As honest as the spontaneous judgment of a young girl when I recently came from the hairdresser: "You look much better without gray hair!"
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