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Paying Compliments

It was a Friday night and we were sitting around the Shabbos table. My nine-year-old nephew sat to my left and wanted to share with all of us this great new joke he’d heard.

We paid attention as he began: “A man was sitting in a bar when he heard someone say, “Nice shirt.” Turning to the bartender, the fellow asked, “What did you say?” The bartender replied that he hadn’t said anything.

A moment later, he heard a voice say, “I really like your tie.” Again, he saw no one but the bartender who again denied having said anything.

Shortly afterward, the guy heard, “That’s a great haircut.” He exclaimed to the bartender, “Are you sure you didn’t say anything about my haircut???”

“That wasn’t me,” replied the bartender – and at this point my nephew dissolved into fits of laughter rendering him almost incapable of continuing – “it was the peanuts!”

Not sure what to make of this unusual story, which the young boy obviously thought was hysterical, my sister and brother-in-law just stared quizzically at their highly amused son – until I, who knew the actual punchline, added softly, “They’re complimentary.” We still laugh about this story many years later.

As a young boy, he hadn’t known the word complimentary meant free, as in, “with my compliments,” and also meant praising someone. In his mind what could be funnier than talking peanuts?

It made me think about compliments and freebies. We use the term, “to pay a compliment,” as they are valuable, and I don’t think you could even buy one if you wanted to. Sometimes you do someone a favor, and you anticipate their appreciation and a compliment for being so thoughtful, but it doesn’t materialize.

Or you work on a presentation for hours and hours and when it’s done your boss doesn’t say, “Good job” or “Nice work,” but only, “You’re missing a comma on page 29.” There’s no approval, no praise, and the compliment sure isn’t coming for free.

I was thinking that perhaps this term is used precisely to tell us we should be lavish in our praise of others and not feel like it costs us anything. If we recognized just how powerful compliments were, we’d use them a lot more, and we’d probably find ourselves in the company of many more happy people who were achieving much more.

A compliment will usually have a positive effect on the recipient. Even if they didn’t deserve it before, they will work to deserve it now because they enjoy the praise so much that they want to earn more of it. I was reminded of this recently when I went to a shiur given by my former eighth-grade rebbi.

As I sat there listening to him, I was transported back through the years to a time when life was simpler and I enjoyed learning with fresh excitement, unafraid of saying something wrong or asking a silly question. As he spoke, I made notes. I asked questions in my head, and when he answered them, I found a great sense of satisfaction. A few times I caught his eye, and he gave me a smiling nod when he saw that I’d anticipated what he was going to say.

Back in eighth grade when that happened, and a boy asked a good question that one of the meforshim asked, Rabbi S. would reach into his pocket and fish out a quarter. He would then toss it to the boy with a flourish. That quarter may have cost 25 cents, but it made that kid feel like a million dollars. I remember a couple of times when I was the excited recipient of quarters, but I found out something years later that support my premise in this piece even more.

Having both moved to Monsey, I meet Rabbi S. from time to time. One day he mentioned to me that when I was in his class he’d gotten a phone call from my mother a”h. I’d gotten a quarter one day and had been so excited about it when I spoke to my parents that she called the rebbi to ask if she could sponsor a roll of quarters so more boys could feel the elation that I did (and presumably so that I could get it again too).

I was touched by her sensitivity and insight. She knew the happiness and joy as well as motivation to succeed I got from being complimented in such an immediate and public way and wanted that to continue. She wanted the compliments to flow, and she was willing to pay for it.

As I reflected on this on that recent evening at the shiur, I was brought to tears by the keen sensitivity my mother a”h possessed and expressed. I think we can all take a lesson from her that we should aim to give more compliments, more freely. If we don’t, perhaps we’re just plain nuts.


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