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The Compliment Experiment

If you don’t have anything nice to say…come up with something.

By Michael A. Stusser

Self-help articles about kindness or gratitude often leave us with an empty feeling: Everyone knows we should be nice. But how?

So for one day, I decided to give a compliment to every person I encountered. I began with simple compliments at the grocery store. “Love your shirt!” “Nice to see you!” Then I slowly graduated to more advanced adulation on people’s posture or shopping items. “Great choice on the strawberries! It’s so important to eat healthy!”

It was easy to compliment peeps I see on a regular basis: the mailwoman, family, and my local librarian. (“I really like the colorful displays you create. Encourages me to keep reading!”) In work settings, I used the “compliment sandwich” — starting with something positive, following with direct feedback, and ending with another commendation. “Excellent start on this video,” I told Erin, our executive editor. “I think you could trim the middle section quite a bit, but this is heading in an awesome direction!”

As the day went on, I became more bold, flattering folks on their energy, buying an elderly couple coffee because of their vibe, and helping a neighbor move her recycling bin. My experiment extended to digital devices. Speaking on the phone to an editor, I let him know I appreciated the assignment and that he was a good listener. Via text, I went wild with emojis. ;) ¯\_( )_/¯  =^_^= (*_*)

My toughest assignment was a walk along Alki. So many people, so little time! “I like your style!” “You’re strong!” “That color is great on you!” I grabbed a cup of coffee with my friend Mary, and she quickly got in on the action. We ended with a never-ending compliment exchange: “You’re more fun than bubblewrap!” “You look great in those gigantic sweatpants!”

I don’t mean to be cheesy or Oprah-rific, but 95 percent of my compliments spread actual joy and happiness. If I told someone their hair looked good, they’d throw their head back and let it fly. And if I noted they had cool shoes, they’d look down at their kicks and do a little jig. Smiles were created, awkwardness generally avoided.

Inevitably, when I told someone I liked their shirt or shoes or dog, they’d say something nice back. My favorite exchange was one of my last. A burly fella with trucker tats was buying a six-pack at the gas station, and we nodded at one another before I let my felicitation fly. As he left, he put his arm around his girlfriend. “That dude at the counter just told me I have good eye contact,” he told her. “You do,” she replied. “Now tell me something you like about me.”


Self-Help Summaries

So you don’t have to read.

By Michael A. Stusser

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The Book: The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven: Reviewing & Renewing Your Life on Earth by Ron Wolfson 

Takeaway: Reflect on the big questions in life — were you honest? Are you leaving a legacy? — in order to do well on the final test. If you can answer the questions posed here, you’ll be well prepared for an afterlife.


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The Book: I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

Takeaway: “Don’t buy anything 100 percent wool even if it seems to be very soft and not particularly itchy when you try it on in the store.” Maintain a sense of humor, especially self-deprecation. If you can’t laugh, you might as well be dead already. And yes, you can order more than one dessert.



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The Book: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Takeaway: You don’t need to be born the best and brightest — we all have extraordinary abilities that can lead to success. But 10,000 hours of hard work doesn’t hurt. Timing, talent, background, and luck all play a role in success.






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The Book: To Life!
(A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking)
by Harold Kushner

 Takeaway: Judaism is more than a 4,000-year-old religion. Equally important to the Torah’s teachings are personal ethics and community.




Dear Dr. Levy,

I cannot believe there are Jews who [insert issue: voted for Trump/loved Obama/support Palestinians/don’t like herring]. I mean, how can they even call themselves Jews? They are literally ruining Judaism! Sometimes I just want them to disappear. How can I deal with this?


Righteous Indignation

Hello Righteous Indignation,

It seems that you can only feel connected to Jews who share your views. In my humble opinion, here is what happened: You have fused the needs of the Jewish people with your individual needs, and you perceive Jews who support other values as a personal threat. As with any perception of threat, a brain module called the primitive neural system destroyed your empathy, creating feelings of estrangement and a desire to get rid of the threat. Appreciating Jews who disagree with us does not come naturally — it must be learned. To do that, one must:
1. Learn that well-informed people reach different conclusions from the same set of facts, because political attitudes are fundamentally based on innate moral positions; 2. Learn to audit one’s stereotypes and prejudices; 3. Improve empathy skills by practicing radical listening and dialectics. Radical listening transforms the way we listen in discussions and debates, and dialectics teaches that truth is often distributed and not concentrated in one point of view; 4. Study in depth the Jewish concept of mutual responsibility: what do we
have in common, what unifies us, what our collective mission is. It teaches that because our diversity is a strength, we remain one people only to the extent that we learn to live with differences.

René H. Levy is a professor emeritus, UW, founder of the Project for Applied Peoplehood and Jewish Unity (seattlepeoplehood.com), and the author of Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do About It.


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