Remember when I wrote a blog post about the crappy state of our world and it was a bit depressing so I tried to add a little cheerfulness at the very end? Well this here is an optimistic follow-up to that post with an actual solution for making our world better.
But first, a story.
When I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I worked in the campus food court at Taco Bell. It was a glamorous job. I wore a black Taco Bell emblemed hat with a long black food-stained apron over a large black food-stained polo shirt tucked into black food-stained mom-pants, i.e. the bad kind of high rise where the bottom of your back pockets land on mid rear while the top of your back pockets approach much closer to waist-vicinity than bum-vicinity. I worked mornings/afternoons, so I spent the majority of each day having hat hair and smelling like tacos.
There were many good things about the job, like how I was hired on the spot two days after arriving at college, and it was close to my apartment and classes, making things very convenient since I had no car. I made great friends there, had fun working, and received 50% off at all food court restaurants. But every now and then, working made me feel like a greasy, stinky, unattractive mess and I wondered why I couldn’t have found a nice receptionist job instead.
On one such day, I was working the cash register during lunch hour, with a jumbled mass of twenty people waiting to order at a time. I had slept seven hours in the past fifty due to major tests and assignments, found out I had done terribly on a test I had felt pretty confident about, was being blown off by a guy I liked, and my manager behind me kept urging me to “Upsale, upsale, upsale!,” which made me uncomfortable because I am anything but a salesperson, but he was listening to my every word, so discomfort won out.
While taking a gorgeous girl’s order, the kind I usually looked at feeling jealous of with her perfect hair and flawless makeup and super-cute flattering outfit that looked amazing on her rockin’ bod (she must have been a junior or senior, because she’d had time to lose the inevitable “freshman 15″ and “sophomore 20”), she finished by saying to me, “…And I just have to tell you, you are really beautiful. Your smile is so radiant and like, sincere or something. It just really made my day, thanks for that.” And she walked away to wait for her food.
I was stunned. She had just said that to me? I had occasionally received compliments from strange guys while working and even a couple phone numbers hastily written on receipts and given back to me, and those instances were incredibly flattering. But this was different. This girl wasn’t hitting on me, she had complimented me just for the sake of being kind and bringing happiness to me, a stranger, for just a moment, but of course she had no idea how her words changed my whole day, effected the rest of my week, are a memory I still think of as I vow to be more like her.
But complimenting strangers or people you hardly ever talk to is not always that easy. Sometimes your comfort zone just wants to talk you out of it. “No, don’t say anything! She’ll think you’re pathetic because she’s probably actually a total snot who is so full of herself and has no need for more compliments, and she’ll pity you for thinking that a compliment coming from lowly you could possibly mean anything to her. Or she’ll think you’re some kind of stalker who’s like, totally obsessed. She’ll give an uncomfortable smile before walking away hastily to have a restraining order placed… no no, say nothing. It would do way more harm than good.” Comfort Zone is incredibly logical and knows all the good, albeit ridiculous reasons for not doing something. “Just stick to complimenting the people you know,” it says. And while I think that is very nice and incredibly appreciated, there’s just something really special and meaningful about a compliment from a stranger. A compliment from a person who has absolutely zero obligation to give you one.
Oh wait, here I am talking about compliments and you’re thinking, “What the heck does this have to do with the title and first paragraph of this post?!” Or perhaps you’ve made the connection that I’m intending but are holding out hope that you’re missing something, because oh puh-lease, I can’t possibly be that naive or foolish or vain or superficial to honestly think that compliments have the power to change our world for the better.
But wait! Hear me out. Because that’s exactly what I think.
If that one Taco Bell-loving beauty’s compliment to me has stayed in my mind these past eight years, urging me to give compliments more freely in public restrooms (“Hey, you have beautiful hair. And your outfit is super duper cute.”), on Facebook (Wow, she looks so pretty in this picture. *Scroll, scroll, scroll.* Wait, if I think she looks pretty, I should tell her that. *Scroll up, scroll up, scroll up.* “You are so pretty, and your flawless complexion is radiant!” ENTER.), and in toy stores, leaning against a display while my child plays, watching another mom do the same thing four feet away with her toddler, but also shushing a double stroller of newborn twins (“Your babies are adorable. I’m amazed at how good you look, way to go mom! I can only imagine how difficult it must be to get all of you dressed, presentable, and out of the house together on the same day. Seriously, good job.”), then I can only hope I’ve had a similar impact on at least a few people as well. And if each of them had a positive impact on a few more people… well, you know how the snowball effect works.
But really, how much good can a simple compliment do? For as little effort as it takes to give one, I believe its influence is truly powerful.
To continue with my college theme today, there was a guy in one of my classes who shared a very personal story during a particularly moving lecture. In high school, he had been a loner. He preferred it that way, because in middle school he’d been bullied, and so being under the radar felt much better than being on it. But he had no friends, his family life was severely lacking, nothing brought him joy. Drawing and painting were his main hobbies, and he took an art class in school. He said all his works were dark, created with anger and sadness, so constantly expressing those emotions only sunk him deeper into his despair. He began to plan his suicide. He’d made a few cutting attempts, but on one particular day he was thinking of the bottle of pills he was going to swallow in the bathroom that night. Art was the last hour of the school day, and he was finishing a self-portrait. A classmate walked behind him and stopped to say, “You know, you’re really talented. I’ve been admiring your work all semester, there’s so much feeling behind each one. Are you going to pursue an art career?”
The guy was speechless. He didn’t talk much anyway, so it took some effort to mumble, “Thanks. I’m not really sure. Haven’t thought much about it.”
The response: “Well you should. I think you’re good enough.”
The guy made no more suicide attempts. His life didn’t change drastically all of a sudden, but someone had noticed him. Someone had made him feel important, like he really could have a future. Someone had seen something in him he’d never seen himself, and gradually, over time, he discovered joy.
Because of a compliment, this guy’s life was saved. I can’t help but imagine a scenario where more than one life might be saved. A similarly depressed individual with nothing to live for, bullied with an abusive upbringing, but this person is planning to not only kill himself but some others first as well–a scenario we see way too much of these days. Perhaps this individual is so far gone a compliment would do nothing, but if it had been given sooner, maybe, just maybe it could have made a difference. Changed the individual’s entire perspective like it had on my classmate.
You never know what personal, mental, emotional state people are actually in, especially a stranger. And that’s why I believe we need to make the effort to compliment anyone and everyone. When it’s someone you don’t know, it’s easiest to compliment on outward appearances. But if you have an opportunity to know a little more about the individual, always try to dig deeper. Look for anything good at all, and let them know you admire them for it. You may never know the impact you leave on them, but I’m confident it won’t be a negative one.
Because I know for me, a compliment instantly makes my day better. It makes me feel better about myself. It makes me feel connected with the person who took the time to say something nice to me, and that has a way of making me feel more connected with people in general. It makes me feel better about the world around me, because it’s an indisputable reminder that yes, there certainly are still good and kind people out there just trying to spread happiness. And once we feel good about the world, we are more likely to make a positive impact because all hope is not lost, a difference can still be made, and it can even start with you and me. It doesn’t take much–as little as 2 seconds and $0 (and maybe just a little bit of courage the first few times)–to start spreading happiness and giving others a reason to do the same. And as a bonus, joy will fill our own lives, because we are a source of it.