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“Why is it so hard to be nice to our colleagues?”: Lucy Mangan on workplace compliments

Lucy Mangan

Good morning! May I say – you are looking lovely today! And I don’t think I tell you this enough – you are one of the cleverest/kindest/most astute/mathematically competent/generous people it has ever been my good fortune to meet. Also, funny, stylish and your emails never have too many exclamation marks.

I’m practising. Kate Winslet recently urged women to compliment each other more. “Young women these days,” she commented in her speech, “because they’re exposed to levels of criticism in the media, they just automatically criticise their friends, themselves and each other.” She reckons it has to stop. 

I reckon she’s right. (I also reckon, however, that we British will need to break ourselves in gently if we’re not to choke ourselves to death before we’ve fairly begun. This is not an emotional country. This is a country that is good at rain, wartime heroics that are never mentioned again, and biscuits. If we had a national motto it would be “Get a grip” under a picture of a lion giving a gentle eye-roll and dunking a decadent second Hobnob in its tea.)

But – adjusted for national temperament – yes, let the complimenting begin. We manage OK in private, I think. I’m not sure Winslet’s right there. Among friends, the reality seems closer to the Amy Schumer sketch in which a group of women meet and shower benedictions on each other (“Look at your cute little dress!” “I love your hat!” “Congrats on your big promotion!”) and respond automatically with pathological self-deprecations (“Little? I’m, like, a size 100 now. I paid, like, $2 for it. I look like a whore who got locked out of her apartment.” “I’m gonna get fired in about two seconds! I’m legally retarded!”).

Where we fall down, I think, is in complimenting each other in professional contexts. While we are happy to congratulate someone for looking nice in a hat, it is less common – it seems harder somehow – to praise someone for delivering a brilliant presentation or putting together an intelligible, accessible report that actually adds to the sum of human (or at least company) knowledge rather than simply making everyone within a 20 foot radius go cross-eyed with boredom. They’re the hardest compliments to give, I suspect, because it is at work that we often feel most insecure – which in turn makes us most likely to fall victim to that weird mindset that says these things are a finite resource, so if we use it up there’s less for us. But a rising tide of sincere compliments lifts all boats. The person praised has their confidence boosted, but so does the person doing the praising. She looks like someone with ego, energy and all sorts of other valuable resources to spare. She looks secure. She looks powerful.

Men boost each other all the time because they realised long ago that collectively sustained self-confidence is a brilliant tool for success. I think we should do too.

And then we must teach ourselves to accept each other’s compliments with grace and ease. This means shucking off years of being conditioned to reject praise because a healthy ego is “unfeminine”. At the end of Schumer’s sketch, the woman who simply says, “Thank you” sets off group meltdown as they try to process this bizarre response. But we can do it. We can start to accept nice things as our due. Why? Because we’re great. You in particular. Yes, you. You’re looking very, very ass-kicky today.

Photography: Ellis Parrinder

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