Complimenting an item of clothing is the lowest form of compliment

I love the message that this cartoon conveys, but I just wish it wasn't all about the hat.

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Complimenting an item of clothing is the lowest form of compliment, which is why it's so easily applied to strangers. 

If you don't know the person, it's easy to comment on their relatively irrelevant exterior since their interior is oftentimes impenetrable, especially when time is limited.  

Still, I avoid this lazy form of compliment at all costs. Having vowed to never make a negative comment about a person's appearance ever again, I've slowly begun avoiding comments on physical appearance altogether. In fact, with the exception of my wife and children, I have managed to avoid any comment on physical appearance - positive or negative - for more than two months.

This does not mean that I have forgone complimenting people. I simply look for things that actually matter, which for me is what a person says or does. 

That's it. This is what I choose to care about and choose to focus on. 

My podcast host, Rachel, recently cut off a bazillion inches of hair off her head. Not only did I not notice the change (which was admittedly a little bizarre), but I had to explain to her that even if I had noticed the change, I probably would've said nothing about it because I don't care about her hair at all.

Not one bit.  

So yes, we all have the power to brighten someone's day with a well placed compliment, and I utilize this power whenever I can, usually in the form of a hand written note, a well timed email, or a public proclamation of achievement. Last week, for example, I complimented a camp counselor on her expertise with my students, but I waited until her boss was standing alongside us to do so. 

Timing is everything.

Compliments are great. I love to offer them and love to receive them. I encourage you to compliment me often. I just believe in making compliments as meaningful as possible.

A hat just doesn't do it for me. 

Best compliment of my life

I received the greatest compliment of my life yesterday when my daughter, Clara, told my wife, “Mommy, thank you for marrying the funnest guy in the whole world.”

I got a little teary hearing those words.

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Prior to this, I’d been keeping track of the greatest compliments of my life. Four in all.

On January 1, 1988. I was sixteen years old. I was standing on a bridge in California, strapped to a bass drum, ready to march in the Rose Bowl Parade. Two teenage girls were sitting on the curb nearby, waiting for the parade to start. After giggling a bit, they managed to get my attention and tell me that I looked a lot like Tom Cruise. I was clearly better looking in 1988, the sun was probably in their eyes, and Tom Cruise had not yet lost his mind.
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In the summer of 1988, I was spending a week in Weir’s Beach, New Hampshire with a bunch of friends. When not chasing girls and getting sunburned on the beach, we spent a great deal of time at the arcades that were within spitting distance of our cabins.

At the time, our friend Coog was known as the best video game player of our group, and one of the finest gamers of all time. Even today, he’s still our most prolific and experience gamer. But after a week of watching me play old school arcade games like Dragons Lair and Asteroids, my roommate Tom said to me, “Matty, if you and Coog started playing the same game on the same day, Coog would  beat you every time. But if I gave you both a week to practice, I’d put my money down on you every time.”

For a long time, this was the best compliment that I had ever received.
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In 2008 Elysha and I were sitting in the doctor’s office, listening to the doctor explain a complicated procedure that I would be undergoing. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but in the middle of her explanation, I made an exceptionally honest, somewhat surprising, slightly inappropriate comment about myself and the process that we were discussing.

The doctor looked at me, clearly unsure of what to think.

After a moment, Elysha jumped in and said, “Doctor, my husband is the most authentic person you will ever meet.”

Until Clara’s words yesterday, this was the greatest compliment of my life.
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In 2012, I overheard one student say to another student:

“Mr. Dicks isn’t the kind of guy who says something and doesn’t do it. He only says what he means. Even if it sounds crazy.”

I could’ve done without that third sentence, but it was still pretty good.

Teachers: Stop commenting, positively or negatively, on your student’s physical appearance. It’s only hurting them.

As an elementary school teacher, I have made it my policy for more than a decade to avoid commenting on a student’s physical appearance. A student’s appearance should be the last thing of concern to a teacher, but more importantly, these comments, even when positive, can be damaging and hurtful to kids.

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This policy has been scoffed at by many of my friends and colleagues. I have been laughed at and criticized for my position. Told that I am taking things too far. Becoming too politically correct.

Yet I have articulated this position to every class of students over the past ten years, and I have never had a single student scoff or laugh or even question my policy. Every single student has appreciated and supported my position. Some of have tried to adopt it as well. 

It’s only adults who think I’m dumb.

Up until this point, I haven’t cared. I know I’m right. I know I’m doing right by my students. I’m accustomed to suffering fools gladly.

Then I watched Meaghan Ramsey’s TED Talk “Why thinking you’re ugly is bad for you.”

It turns out that Ramsey would agree with me. She would support my position. Endorse it, even.

In her own words:

“Why can’t we compliment people based upon their effort and actions and not their appearance?”

After listening to Meaghan Ramsey’s talk and learning more about the incredible struggles that young people face when it comes to physical appearance and body image, I decided that it’s no longer good enough to simply ignore my detractors. I need to change their minds. Convince them otherwise. Make them see the light. 

I want my policy of refraining from commenting on a student’s physical appearance to become a policy that all teachers adopt. I want this to be a policy that educators embrace and champion.  

If you are a teacher, I ask you to consider adopting this policy for yourself. Watch Ramsey’s TED Talk. Read my original post on the issue, which outlines my rationale. Ask yourself if there is any reason in the world to compliment the pretty dress or the new haircut in your classroom today. Of all the finite minutes that we have to spend with our students, do you want to use even a tiny fraction of that time talking about wardrobe choices and hairstyles?

Is that the culture you want in your classroom?   

If you agree with me, I ask you to do more than simply adopt the policy yourself. I ask that you become a champion for this policy as well.

  • Talk to your colleagues.
  • Forward them this blog post.
  • Share this blog post via your social media channels.
  • Pass along Meaghan Ramsey’s TED Talk.
  • Find like minded people who will support you, and when they cannot be found, convince them to be like minded.

Even better, talk to your students. They are likely to be more supportive of this policy than many of the adults with whom you work. Enlist the support of the kids. Turn them into the spokespeople for this issue.

If students rise up and demand that teachers stop commenting on their physical appearance, both positive or otherwise, things would change overnight.

I plan on doing my part as well. I have already reached out to several TED conferences, asking if I can speak on this issue. If you know of someone hosting a conference let me know.

Whenever I am standing in front of a group of teachers (which happens more often than you would think), I will speak about my policy, tangentially if necessary, and ask them to adopt it for themselves.

I’ll look for outlets with larger audiences who will publish my thoughts on this issue. Magazines. Journals. Online resources.

I will seek to change minds and convince teachers that this is the right thing to do.

And it’s not easy. When I first adopted this policy for myself, it took months to train myself to refrain from commenting on physical appearance, and I was never one to mention physical appearance to begin with. I had to reframe my thinking and construct strategies to avoid situations where complimenting a student’s physical appearance almost seemed necessary.

When a student walks into my classroom and asks if I like her new haircut, I had to learn to say, “I didn’t notice your hair at all, but I loved the way you didn’t give up when we were solving those problems in math yesterday. Persistence is going to get you far in life.”

That’s a hard transition to make. It feels incredibly awkward at first. It’s still a little awkward. Explaining my rationale to my students helped, but it was still a long road to where I am today.

Get on the road now. Don’t delay. And spread the word.

It’s the right thing to do. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.