Dangerous Compliments

Compliments are nice. They are an ego booster to those at the receiving end. But like a drug, they always need to be used with a lot of caution: inappropriate use and an overdose can kill.

A teacher knows this best. We use them every now and then to encourage and reward our students who have performed well or shown their best efforts in accomplishing a task. But a good teacher also knows she can’t be too generous about it, even when she means well.

Few things are more dangerous than compliments used for the sake of compliments — those used insincerely and only as a formulaic fashion or a show of good manners. There is no truth value in them. They are false and can create a chimera — a hallucinatory creature, a daydream, a phantasm — that evaporates like mist under the harsh reality of the daylight. They can even hurt — probably not unlike the withdrawal symptoms suffered by a drug addict who is trying to get himself clean. The victim wants — demands — more of them, can’t live without them, and yet deep down inside he knows they will only provide him with a brief respite from the painful truth. Slowly and agonizingly he will go down, like a drug addict.

Sincerity is important when it comes to compliments. It is IT that safeguards the truth value. It is the one thing that can prescribe and administer them with precision, with the right and safe dose that they will only induce the desired effect, and no more, no less.

As a teacher, I only know this too well. Experiences have taught me — often in a painful after-the-fact realization — that a compliment that I had meant well could end up destroying the very potential that I wanted to see grow and flourish. The fertilizer poisoned the soil and killed the plant it was meant to sustain.

It was an overdose in some cases. As a young and inexperienced teacher I was often too eager to please. I was unaware that compliments should always be dispensed with a prescription: that of sincerity, of measured truthfulness.

At other times, it was not an overdose, I knew. The compliments were heart-fell. I was aware — had no doubt — the recipients were good and deserving. Still, instead of helping them thrive, it had seem to have made them weak and withered. It was baffling and painful to see it happen to those whom I had placed the best of hopes and confidence. I suppose it was not unlike the fruit tree at my backyard garden that suddenly turned withering too — its abundant fruit began to turn pale and its leaves drying and falling — days only after I unwittingly gave it the wrong formula: too much N at a time when it needed K the most. And so it was, an inappropriate and untimely compliment can kill just like the administration of a substance that a plant doesn’t seasonably need does.

Eki Akhwan, 25 March 2012


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