Home > Slice of Life, Writing > Taking Time to Compliment Someone

Taking Time to Compliment Someone

It’s a somewhat chilly afternoon in one of the cities I happen to be visiting in 2010. I’m standing in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts stall at a metro station, looking at the array of donuts behind the glass, trying to decide what I want to get. Secretly, as the clerk behind the counter smiles politely and awaits my order, I’m also trying to decide how much time I should be secretly looking at the clerk.

The clerk is pretty. Not stunningly drop-dead gorgeous or fashion model beautiful. Pretty, kind of a compromise between Beautiful and her younger cousin Cute. I have little doubt that much of the effect is the result of the careful and precise application of cosmetics, which I myself am not a big fan of and take great pains in avoiding. At any rate, as I tell her what donut I’d like, she begins to pluck it out from behind the glass and into a paper bag, affording me a few seconds to look at her hair. I really like her hair. It’s long and straight and neat, all nice and even, like a curtain of silk. It’s really pretty. A little rueful at the slight natural curl in my hair, I wonder how long it’d take for me to grow out my hair to her length, and how much effort it’d take to straight it out like she had managed. It’d likely burn a hole in my wallet.

A weight sinks in my stomach as I try to gather the determination and courage to do something that I wouldn’t otherwise do. I wonder what would go faster: The clerk telling me the price of my purchase and my fishing into my wallet to complete this transaction, or the completion of my courage-accumulating.

*****

I should probably back up a bit and explain. And, by “back up”, I mean I’m going to skip two years into the future to tell another story.

I met Peithe in 2012 while working as a translator. Well, technically, it was my weekend off, but this was when I was working for the government as a translator at the time. Peithe, like almost every Filipino person I’ve met, is extremely friendly. He talks a lot, laughs a lot, doesn’t hesitate to share drinks from the same bottle, and is rather touchy-feely in a way that’s actually quite platonic.

And, because of this, he freaks me out.

Also, this realization freaks me out.

Like a jerk, I have taken pains to ignore calls from Peithe, occasionally answering maybe once out of five times but otherwise doing my darnedest to pretend I never received the phone call. So much of this probably has a lot to do with the fact that I have no idea how to handle Peithe, much as I don’t know how to handle my classmates from the Philippines or Southeast Asia or the Middle East who behave with unrestrained friendliness. Well, no, I do know how to handle them, but it makes me uncomfortable. The open friendliness makes me uncomfortable. The touchy-feely – platonic as it is – makes me feel uncomfortable. And while this has a lot to do with the fact that I am a shy individual who is unaccustomed to physical contact save those most intimate with me (family and loved ones), it probably has a lot more to do with a broader problem that I began to realize some time ago.

In a lot of “developed” societies, which includes the more developed parts of North America and Europe and East Asia, we’re encouraged to act with a bit of reservation. We’re encouraged to be polite and respectful, but not be openly forward or bright (unless we’re silly college students, in which case we’re given a free pass up until the point we graduate). We’re taught to shun open, unprovoked openness and friendliness; anyone who does that is a con artist, or a drug trafficker, or a cultist, or a person who lures children into dark vans with lollipops, or – heavens forbid – a hippie.

And naturally, I went along with it. Why wouldn’t I? I’m shy to begin with, and I don’t like physical contact very much. A handshake’s nice, a hug is pushing it, and I get full-on awkward as I greet French and Moroccan classmates by pressing our cheeks together. But all that aside, at some point I started to wonder why we’re conditioned to think that every person who’s openly nice to us has a sinister, ulterior motive. Okay, yes, I’m actually diagnosed with paranoia, so that probably explains things. But I’m not everyone else, and it’s not like everyone else reacts well to sudden and unannounced niceness. Walk down the street one day and compliment a stranger’s hair one day out-of-the-blue; three times out of five, you’ll probably get strange looks. I guess a lot of it comes from us expecting things for things. We expect unannounced compliments and flattery from someone we don’t know to have an ulterior motive because nothing comes for free. I mean, why else would someone take time out of the day to say something nice about a stranger out-of-the-blue?

Except people like being complimented. I know I do. It takes me about three seconds to say something as simple as “your hair is very pretty”, so it isn’t like it takes me that much time or effort. And it takes me about three seconds to walk away and show I didn’t want anything else from it, so it’s not like I expect anything from this. So why not? I’m not a con artist, or a drug trafficker, or a cultist, or a person who lures children into dark vans with lollipops, or a hippie. I mean, sure, three times out of five, someone who I compliment will probably stare at my back as I leave and think “was that a hippie?” or something less flattering. But it’s not going to cost me anything (except possibly a lot of nerve), and it’s not going to cause that person anything (except possibly a lot of brain cells trying to process this). And it’s not like we’re likely to ever meet again. So why not take three seconds out of your life to say something nice to someone that – for all intents and purposes – probably won’t affect any of our lives, but might make their day?

*****

I’m back two years in the past at Dunkin’ Donuts, in front of the pretty lady with the pretty hair. Coins and donuts exchange hands as the transaction is completed, but – thankfully – it is not too early. I smile. I like my smile. I’m bad at lying – which is a lie, because I’m good at lying, but I don’t like lying and this kills my motivation to do so all so fast – but putting on a smile like nothing’s going wrong when everything totally is is one of the few abilities I’m proud of. I like my smile; it’s small, subdued, but sincere, not quite snide or goofy or silly. It’s vaguely professional but conveys a bit more warmth than a “professional” smile. I take a deep breath and – with the best of the local language I could manage – say with utmost sincerity:

“Thank you. Your hair is very pretty.”

I turn around without waiting for a reaction or looking at the clerk’s face, and start walking the other way. Even in my opinion, that was really, really lame. The fact that I actually went to university (at this point in time, still there) to study hospitality and work in the service industry only makes it doubly so.

And, yeah, she probably thought I was a hippie.

But I wasn’t flirting with her. I didn’t even look at her name tag, and I certainly didn’t even think about exchanging number or anything remotely romantic. I just really liked her hair. I told her as much. And I said what I wanted to say.

So, yeah, that was really kind of lame. But it’s a good start.

*****

Disclaimer: I have nothing against hippies. I just needed a silly punchline.

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Categories: Slice of Life, Writing
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