Gateway Compliment

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My friend Gayle had this great Facebook post about the awkwardness some of us feel giving a compliment after listening to someone read their work, and how it seems strange that a bunch of writers would have trouble finding the words to communicate our appreciation of each other. I certainly agree with this. Whenever I try to compliment anyone about anything, a little part of me steps back and starts critiquing the compliment. “UGH, you seem so PHONEY!” So then, while trying to have a goddamn moment with somebody, my eyes start darting around, my words falter, and the response of the person I’m complimenting (which is probably just their own awkwardness at receiving a compliment) feels like a sure sign that my appreciation came off as insincere.

So it should come as no surprise that when I am given a compliment on my writing, I just go ahead and assume the person giving it is insincere or at least misguided. Robbing myself of any real opportunity to enjoy the moment. I think I’ve written before about my friend Jay, the one who used to give me a hug, and then remind me to stay in my body, because there was hugging happening? Yeah. He got it.

My instinct to run from intimacy is annoying. What am I afraid of, exactly? If I had to come up with a word quickly, it would be expectation. I’m afraid of intimacy, because I don’t know what kind of expectations accompany that kind of closeness. Okay, sure, you respect me, so what now? Conversation? Friendship? I wrote those words in my pyjamas, eating Fritos, sobbing into a wad of toilet paper between keystrokes during the emotional bits. I have no glamour to offer you, no wisdom. Any thoughts you see expressed on that paper were able to germinate because I was alone. So what do you want with me?

It’s like not wanting to cuddle, because you don’t want to have sex. Gateway intimacy– too risky. Better just avoid it.

I envy people who have cultivated this comfortable faux-intimacy: a breathless, sweeping, hand-holding focus that zeroes in on you and penetrates your shell with the intensity of tongues touching, then flounces off before things can get serious. They call you “sweetheart,” and ask you how you’re doing with such vigorous sincerity, you feel utterly nurtured for a moment. But just a moment. These people can give compliments. They can dig deep and come up with just the right words so that you have no choice but to share a moment with them. And in the aftermath of that little heart opening, you don’t even care that they’ve moved on to the next person. They gave you a gift, one of the most rare and elusive gifts. Connection. Who cares what their motives are?

I have also run across some of these same people when they weren’t prepared for me, and noticed the flat affect and irritation they seem to experience at being caught off-guard. I’ve come at them like a puppy, seeking some of that feel-good they can dispense so effortlessly, and they’ve thrown up a wall. Yeah, I envy these people, but I’m a little afraid of them as well. Their ability to turn connection on and off. In the end, I probably have no choice but to be myself, awkward, but reasonably authentic.

I received the best possible compliment the other day, and this got me thinking about Gayle’s post. A woman I work with at the bookstore said. “You know, we get a lot of (finger quotes) “writers” here, so I wasn’t expecting much. But I looked at your blog, and I was pretty impressed.”

That’s it. It left me buzzing happily for hours. I think that anyone who is honest enough to tell me flat out that they didn’t expect to be impressed by me is worthy of my trust. I’m not suggesting you go out and compliment people using this method. I don’t think some people would appreciate it. But if self-doubt is keeping you from expressing your appreciation to others, keep in mind that their standards for receiving compliments may be lower (or at least different) than you think.

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