5 ways to give compliments that aren't about a person's looks

When talking to a friend, loved one or colleague, or even when meeting someone new for the first time, giving them a compliment can be a nice way to break the ice. It feels really good to make other people feel good.

However, because we’ve grown up in a culture that’s so focused on appearances, our instinct can be to compliment someone on the way they look, rather than on the basis of who they are, what they do, or how they make us feel. On any given day, we might find ourselves complimenting a person’s hair, outfit, skin, hair or body shape. And although our intentions are kind, often these compliments reinforce the unhealthy pressure young people feel to conform to a certain image.

This is why it’s useful to challenge ourselves to go deeper than skin-deep when giving compliments. It might not come naturally at first, which is totally normal. Here’s how you can embrace the awkwardness and refresh your compliment vocabulary.

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1. Look beyond the surface of social media

Even though so much of social media is image-based, it’s also one of the most common ways we share our lives with each other – but there’s so much more to a photo than how a person looks in it. For example, someone’s selfies might convey a sense of spontaneous joy that makes you feel happy, too. Or maybe they get out and embrace nature in a way you admire. Perhaps you respect the vulnerability with which someone shares their thoughts or feelings. All of these qualities would make for wonderful compliments. Reducing our love or admiration for a person down to the way they look doesn’t do you – or them – justice. Instead, you could say something like, ‘I love how honest your posts are’ or ‘This picture brings me a whole lot of joy!’

A cartoon image of a conversation in a dating app. it reads- 'Hey! how're u' - 'Hello! I'm good! I read your profile, your taste in music is chef's kiss'

2. Celebrate feelings over looks

When we focus too much on complimenting a friend’s looks, we’re missing out on the opportunity to highlight what we truly love about them. More often than not, our friends are special to us because they make us feel comfortable being our authentic selves. When we’re around them, we don’t have to worry about pretending to be someone we’re not. With this in mind, imagine how good it would feel to have someone compliment you by saying, ‘I love that I can be myself around you.’ It would probably mean more than being complimented on having a good hair day.

A cartoon image of a iMessage chat. It's between a person and someone called 'Chels'. Chels sends them a photo of the two of them together. In response, the person writes 'I love that I can be myself around you'.

3. Meaningful flirting

Dating can be a tricky business, particularly when it involves a bunch of fast-paced websites and dating apps. Obviously, physical attraction plays a role in who we choose to flirt with, but relationships are built on SO much more than that – and the way we flirt can and should reflect this. If you’ve connected with someone on a dating app, why not start by checking out the interests they’ve listed on their profile? Complimenting a person’s profile photo is expected, but complimenting them on their taste in music, films or books – or even on the thoughtful way they’ve worded their profile – shows a deeper appreciation for who this person is.

A cartoon illustration of an Instagram post. the post is of a big smiling man standing in front of a flowery bush. A comment on the photo reads 'The FLOWERS! The hair, the joy of it all'

4. Think outside the box

When you want to give someone a compliment, it can help to pause first and think outside the box. What is a compliment this person mightn’t hear so often? It could be their dedication to their favourite sport, the way they’re so encouraging of their friends, the unique way they decorate their home, or simply the way their friendship or online presence makes you feel hopeful or good about yourself.

A cartoon image of a conversation in iMessage between a person and someone called 'Ira'. Ira sends them a selfie taken in their mirror. In response, the person writes back 'You have the best laugh. I miss it.'

5. If stuck, compliment a person’s laugh

Something we often forget is that you don’t have to be giving out compliments all the time. People can often tell when a compliment isn’t genuine, so don’t feel pressured to say positive things when you don’t need to. Having said that, sometimes you want to say something nice to someone but you don’t know how. Here’s an idea: everyone has a good laugh. Laughter by its very nature is joyful and positive, and we should acknowledge this more often. The way we laugh isn’t something we have much control over, and it has nothing to do with the way we look, so having it acknowledged and appreciated feels pretty special. So, saying ‘I love your laugh!’ is a solid (and meaningful) compliment that you can always fall back on.

Most of us spend too much time thinking and worrying about the way we look. While a big reason behind this is our appearance-focused culture, we each have the power to change this way of thinking.

Meaningful compliments – the kind that celebrate a person’s kindness over their hairstyle or body shape – are a great place to start. They’ll not only make the person receiving them feel extra special, but will make you feel pretty good, too.

What can I do now?

  • Click here to learn more about body image and what you can do to help friends who might have issues with their body image.

  • If you can sense that a friend might need help, we’ve got four tips to help you start those tricky conversations.

  • If a friend is speaking in ways which are hurtful to you, here’s a few tips for telling them how you feel.