If you want to improve someone’s day, there’s nothing easier than giving him or her a compliment.
Giving compliments can also be an easy way to open a conversation – which is why it’s one of my top suggestions for making small talk!
What’s a compliment? A compliment is an expression of admiration, appreciation, approval, or respect.
Giving a compliment is a quick way to show other people that you appreciate them and something they’ve invested time in – whether that’s their appearance, their personal style, a work project, or another accomplishment.
Even though the concept of giving compliments sounds simple, there are ways to do it right so that you sound natural.
Although compliments are common in most languages, there are some topics that are more appropriate in American English due to cultural conventions regarding acceptable topics of conversation at work, with acquaintances and friends, and with strangers.
In this article, I’m going to give you some guidelines for giving compliments, including the most common topics for compliments and the most common language we use.
Compliments Get the Conversation Started
When you see someone every day or every week at work, school, conversation club, or other places where you interact with native English speakers, you are going to notice some aspects of their personality, clothing style, gadgets or technology, or even the way they decorate their office. You’re also going to notice what they do well at work or on school projects.
We’re always observing other people and that gives us plenty of things to admire.
If you learn the expressions you need to introduce compliments, the common topics for compliments, and the guidelines to give an excellent compliment in English, you can confidently start a conversation and make the other person feel good. It’s a win-win!
Giving a compliment is a straightforward, easy way to start a conversation.
How to Introduce Compliments
By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that giving a compliment is an easy way to open up a conversation, but how exactly do you get started?
In the United States, people general give compliments by enthusiastically sharing their opinion. Americans are pretty direct, so you can share your thoughts without too much introduction.
However, if you’re like me, you probably feel a little shy about getting started.
Before saying something nice to another person, you can use one of these expressions to introduce your compliment:
- I’d like to tell you that…
- I wanted to say/mention that…
- I’ve been meaning to mention…
- I’ve been thinking that…
- If you ask me, you(r)….
- I noticed that…
- If you don’t mind me saying…
These expressions help your listener understand that you’re about to get a little more personal and share an observation.
Introductory phrases show that you have thought carefully before saying what you want to say, and help the other person feel more comfortable hearing what comes next.
Increasing Your Confidence When Giving Compliments
Besides using expressions that prepare your listener to receive a compliment, you can increase your confidence by understanding what kinds of compliments are generally given in American culture.
That’s right – compliments are very cultural. What’s common or acceptable in your culture may not be so normal for Americans.
Here’s an example: when I moved to Argentina, my study abroad office actually had a class where they taught us American women to NOT get offended when strangers complimented our beauty on the street.
In the US, it’s not acceptable to tell someone you don’t know that they are beautiful, and you definitely shouldn’t say that to someone you only know professionally, like a coworker, classmate, teacher, or professor, even if it’s true!
To make sure that your compliment helps you start a conversation, you want to choose a neutral, friendly topic.
Lastly, you can feel confident when giving compliments by practicing the expressions we usually use.
Compliments usually follow a predictable script, so you can actually rehearse giving them so that you’re prepared to say nice things!
Keys to Giving Compliments
If you’re saying something nice about someone, it doesn’t matter how you say it, right? Well, not quite.
Giving compliments is a nice gesture, but if the compliment is unexpected, overly enthusiastic, or unwelcome, it can be very awkward.
Here are some guidelines for giving compliments:
- Be specific
- Don’t overdo it
- Use appropriate tone
1. Be specific when giving compliments
When you are giving someone a compliment, you want to be specific. The more specific the compliment, the more the person knows exactly what he or she did well.
Let’s look at some examples:
“Great job on the presentation!”
This is a nice compliment, but it doesn’t give much information about what the person did right. They’ll feel good, but they won’t have information about what to do more of in the future.
Make your compliment count by being specific.
“Great job on the presentation! I appreciated how your explained the current challenges on increasing user engagement.”
Here’s another example:
“I love your style.”
This is still a nice thing to say, but let’s make it more specific:
“I love your style. You always wear the coolest scarves.”
2. Don’t overdo it: limit the number of compliments you give and don’t get too personal
When giving compliments, the more, the better, right? Not so much.
Giving too many compliments can make you sound insincere – there is a thing as too much flattery.
In American culture, people start to doubt your intentions when you give too many compliments.
The person you are talking to may think you want something from them.
When complimenting another person, mention one or two things that you admire, and then stop there. You can give the third, fourth, and fifth compliments another time. 😉
Similarly, be careful not to get too personal when giving compliments.
If you are complimenting someone’s appearance, don’t mention a specific body part.
It’s usually okay to compliment someone’s eyes or hair, but not much else unless they are a super close friend.
It’s also not very common to compliment someone’s physical appearance in a professional or academic setting.
It can make the other person feel uncomfortable and is generally inappropriate – especially if you are talking to someone in a position of power.
(Here are more reasons why you should avoid complimenting women’s appearance at work.)
3. Use appropriate tone when giving compliments
If you give someone a compliment, you want to express enthusiasm.
The easiest way to do this is to make sure you have a smile on your face – this will lift your tone naturally and immediately.
We also express enthusiasm through intonation, which rises high towards the end of the statement and then drops just slightly on the last word.
(You can hear more examples of intonation in common compliments in these recordings.)
Common Topics for Giving Compliments
Because giving compliments is a matter of culture and convention, there are common topics that we usually compliment people on. Here are the four main categories for giving compliments:
- Performance / achievements / talents / skills / abilities
- Appearance / style / personal taste in possessions
- Personal qualities / personality characteristics
- Indirect compliments
1. Compliments on performance, achievements, talents, skills, and/or abilities
The most common way to compliment someone is to mention his or her performance in the workplace or at school.
In American culture, we are focused on achievements and successes, so it’s common to recognize that the other person did a good job or worked hard to reach his or her goals.
Here’s an example:
“I read your essay – it was so well written! Congratulations!”
If the person has special talents, skills, or abilities, we can compliment them on that.
For example, if you see your friend perform in a play, you can give a compliment on their abilities:
“I loved your performance in the school play! You are a talented actor.”
2. Compliments on appearance, style, or personal taste in possessions
Because we see people every day at work, school, or even on the street, we obviously notice their physical appearance.
It’s common to compliment another person’s haircut or hairstyle, or mention something about his or her clothing or accessories.
Similarly, you can also compliment someone’s personal taste with regards to possessions such as his or her bike, car, or motorcycle, or the person’s house or apartment, including furniture and decorations within it.
Here are some examples of these types of compliments:
- “You look amazing. Where’d you get that dress?”
- “I love your hair. It really flatters your face.”
- “That’s such a pretty scarf. You have great taste.”
- “What a nice bike! Where’d you get it?”
- “I really like that desk. It looks great in this space.”
3. Compliments on personal qualities or personality characteristics
Besides complimenting someone’s skills and abilities or their personal taste, you can also mention personal qualities or personality characteristics that you admire.
In American culture, people tend to value being positive, optimistic, or happy, so that’s a good place to start.
You can also compliment someone’s attitude, approach, or ability to stay calm, be motivated, or be hard-working.
Let’s look at some examples:
- “You’re always so happy. It always cheers me up.”
- “You’re such a hard-working person. I admire you.”
- “I’m impressed that you were able to stay so calm in the meeting. What’s your secret?”
4. Indirect Compliments
In addition, we may give an indirect compliment. An indirect compliment is when we tell a parent that we admire his or her child’s achievement or characteristic, or we tell our friend that we think her boyfriend is a really talented cook. You can also compliment someone’s dog, cat, or other type of pet!
Indirect compliments are a nice way to give a compliment because they suggest that the parent raised her child well or that your friend has good taste in a romantic partner.
It’s also a little less embarrassing to compliment a person who isn’t physically present, so it’s a good way to practice giving compliments.
- “Your child is such a good student. Congratulations on raising him well!”
- “Your girlfriend is so friendly! Everyone loves talking to her.”
- “Your dog is adorable! What breed is she?”
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Common Phrases Used to Give Compliments
Here are some standard expressions for giving compliments:
I really like / love your (possession/object).
Example: I love your bookcase! Where’d you get it?
Your (noun) is/looks (intensifier) (adjective).
Example: Your hair looks so shiny. What product do you use?
That’s (such) a (adjective) (noun).
Example: That’s such a pretty necklace! You have great taste.
What a (adjective) (noun)!
Example: What a cool cell phone. I’ve never seen one like that.
You have a (adjective) (noun).
Examples: You have a great apartment. OR You have beautiful eyes.
You (really) did a (great / amazing / fantastic / awesome / excellent) job on that (presentation / project / assignment / test).
Example: You did an excellent job on that presentation. I now understand the research goals of the project.
You look (adjective).
Example: You look so radiant. What’s your secret?
Where did you get your…?
Example: Where did you get your watch? I love it. It’s so elegant.
Example: Great job / game / presentation!
Examples: Great watch / car / save (in sports).
You have a great (characteristic).
Examples: You have a great memory / attitude / outlook / sense of style / work ethic.
You have great (noncount noun).
Example: You have great taste / style.
That (noun) looks good on you.
Example: Those shoes look great on you. You look so tall.
If you want to compliment someone by giving congratulations on a job well done or a major change in his or her life, you can use some of these common phrases:
- Congratulations on your…. It’s fantastic.
- Congratulations. You should be proud (of yourself).
- I’m proud of you.
- I’m so happy for you.
- Congratulations! You’ve earned it.
What Happens After Giving a Compliment
Compliments are a routine part of conversation in English, so there are some standard formulas that we use to give compliments.
The advantage of using common phrases is that people know what to expect, and they are likely to be receptive and open to hearing the compliment!
After giving a compliment, you can ask a follow-up question that will hopefully get the other person talking. After all, asking good questions is key to making small talk.
But if you used up all your confidence giving the compliment, I have good news for you: the other person will probably accept your compliment and keep the conversation going.
You’ve Done Something Good Today!
Remember, if you make an effort to give someone a compliment, you’ve done something good today.
You’ve said something positive to another person and opened up a conversation. You’ve also just tried to brighten someone’s day, which is a very kind thing to do.
So if the conversation doesn’t continue or the person doesn’t seem to appreciate your compliment, don’t worry.
The person may have other things on his mind, or she may not have felt like talking.
Just because someone is a native speaker, it doesn’t mean they’re good at communicating!
That’s why you should feel proud of yourself for learning how to use compliments to start a conversation.
You’re trying to create a better connection between you and the people you meet, and I am definitely proud of you!
As you can see from this lesson, giving compliments is an important part of American culture.
Once you are familiar with the typical expressions we use to compliment others, it becomes a lot easier to say something nice!
By using these expressions, you will sound more like a native speaker while demonstrating your positive opinion using descriptive adjectives that signal your approval and appreciation.
Of course, you can still get more specific about what aspect most caught your attention in order to keep the conversation going.
Similarly, asking questions about where the person purchased the object or learned the skill is an excellent way to continue the conversation.
That’s why giving a compliment is one easy way to make small talk.
Now it’s your turn – try giving me a compliment in the comments below. And I’ll give you one right back!
Be sure to check out my guidelines for accepting compliments. But in the meantime, if someone gives you a compliment, be sure to say “Thank you!” and smile.