Image courtesy of @Doug88888 via Creative Commons

A shedload of sociologists descends on New York next week for a big annual meeting. As we scuffle for jobs and book deals or steel ourselves for presentations, the vibe can be a bit tense in the hotel lobbies. It isn’t easy to present new ideas to an audience that prides itself on the critical analysis of new ideas.

But there’s a small move you can make to improve said vibe, whether you’re a professional academic or a civilian reader who just enjoys sociological writing. Has anyone’s work inspired or influenced you? Did a writer turn a particularly memorable phrase in an article or post on TSP or elsewhere? If so, let them know about it! Send a quick note or strike up a conversation with someone whose work you’ve enjoyed and tell them so.

A good compliment is an amazing restorative – enough to sustain many of us through professional or personal rough patches. But there’s a strong professional bias against giving and receiving compliments, as sociologists take a jaundiced view of the practice. A 2012 study is titled “apple-polishers, butt-kissers, and suck-ups” and most research on compliments points to class, race, and (especially) gender disparities in ingratiation. But there’s also a grain of truth in Oscar Wilde’s admonition in Lady Windermere’s Fan: it is a great mistake to give up paying compliments, “for when we give up saying what is charming, we give up thinking what is charming.”

Compliments can be an unexpected delight — people noticing your name tag or sending an email out of the blue (especially when you’re not chairing a hiring committee). And the more obscure and left-field the compliment, the better. Kind words about a newsletter piece, a talk for a community organization, or a small contribution to a book that sold 5 copies are especially appreciated. Looking over the past year, did you find something charming or true in one piece you read? Or, perhaps, in a piece of a piece you read? If so, the author would like to hear about it.

If you’re so inclined, here are a few general characteristics and specific examples of good compliments, as distinct from simple schmoozing. The first is the most important; if you’re not feeling it, the recipient won’t either. And do try to avoid backhanded compliments (saying something positive, and then bringing the nasty).

1. Genuine

  • Good: “I was struggling with the method until I read your description in that AJR article – it was so clear! I can’t tell you how much that helped me.”
  •  Less good: “I saw your new article in AJR. It must be nice to be friends with the editors!” [tip: resist all temptation to follow-up a compliment with an “it must be nice to…” or “I wish I had…”].

2. Personal

  • Good: “As an ethnographer, I rarely find quantitative research that taps into what I’m doing. But you really seem to ‘get’ the processes I’m seeing in the schools.”
  • Less Good: “Your work has decent face validity.”

3. Acknowledge Effort

  • Good: “Please tell me it took you all day to write that last paragraph – you completely nailed that civic reintegration idea.”
  • Less Good: “I’ve seen your blog. I wish I had so much extra time on my hands!”

4. Specific

  • Good: “I really liked your health disparities review piece, especially how you pulled in public health stuff – it was great for my prelim.”
  • Less Good: “I’ve read a lot of your articles” [As an old friend once said, “that’s how I know they’re lying – there aren’t that many of my articles to read!”]

5. Memorable

  • Good: “Smashing network diagrams!”
  • Less Good: “Nice slides.”

Don’t be surprised if the recipient of your compliment doesn’t know how to respond (usually, a simple “thanks” will do). We’ve been socialized to expect ulterior motives or to think our work isn’t worthy of kind words. But don’t worry about embarrassing those you compliment. As Erving Goffman pointed out, when a person blushes upon receiving a compliment, she may lose her reputation for poise but confirm a more important reputation for modesty.