He leaned in and pointed a finger straight at me. I had been meaning to introduce myself to him for months. You see, my friend has a grown daughter, whom this young man has been dating for a while. He may actually become a future member of their family. So, in our circle of people, this was someone to definitely meet. I’d seen him around functions and gatherings, but never made the trek over to say hello. I know, I’m a goofus. It appeared everyone else were good buddies with him already, so that it was beginning to get awkward that I hadn’t met him yet. The more time that passed, the more awkward I felt. But there were always things in the way: kids and diapers and meltdowns and needs and snacks and owies and LIFE. I could never manage meeting a new person who was not directly in the mommy trenches too.
That afternoon it was a crowded room: an auditorium echoing with our entire church at a BBQ outside the MPR after Sunday morning service. The church leadership hosted these a few times every summer. The kids loved stealing giant Costco cookies and bags of chips from the side tables. I was happy to get a few bites of my hamburger in between chatting with my husband, a few friends, and keeping my children from invading foreign lands or licking mysterious sticky stains on the ground.
I was at the far end of the room, chasing a few children through the crowd, when he made eye contact with me. He was with his beloved girlfriend, and holding a water bottle. In a split second he leaned forward, pointed, and said, “I love your jacket.”
He beat me to it. But I couldn’t think of a better way to meet someone. A compliment. A gift. I thought how it was even biblical:
“A gift opens the way
and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.” Proverbs 18:16
I love my jacket too. I think it’s pretty great.
It has a wide collar with snaps, and an off-center zipper: a biker-babe throw-back in camel-colored faux suede. Total knock-off. In truth, on sale at Old Navy. But I feel capable when I wear it – like I could jump on a Harley and ride for help, should Timmy fall down the well. Something like that.
But back to compliments: the’re pretty magical. Giving the gift of a compliment has a special purpose in making introductions. It conveys more than a posture of submission. It’s more than a cow-tow to show that you’re not a threat.
It is an invitation into relationship.
When making new friends in college, I called my mom in frustration. “I’m so lonely!” I moaned. She advised that I go up to someone and ask something about themselves. It’s the tip for first dates, sure, but it’s also the tip for first friends. It’s marvelous how versatile a compliment can be, and the places it can take you.
But there is a catch: In order to use it well, I have to take my eyes off of myself, and how lonely I am, and put them on someone else. Loneliness studies it’s own belly button. Friendliness examines other peoples’ faces, and super cool jackets, and looks for a point of connection.
I even used that this past year, as a school mom helping at a spring fundraiser. There was this other mom in my kid’s class whom I still hadn’t met all school year. At one point in the day, we found ourselves both under the same awning outside. I began, “I see you wearing cute workout clothes at morning drop off, oftentimes. Are you a workout instructor?” She laughed and explained they were her “hopeful” clothes. If she had time in her day, she could get some exercise in. But that opened the door for us to chat more about our kids and our lives. Eventually, I even invited her daughter to my daughter’s birthday party.
Compliments and questions are a gift for the moment, and an invitation into the future.
Back at church, when this young man complimented the style choices of this thirty-something-year-old-woman, I knew I liked him. I liked his pistol-draw compliment, and the sincerity of his eye-contact. This was one of the good ones. I also saw a glimmer of wry humor.
So I fired back, “Well, I love your… girlfriend!” She beamed. He beamed. My jacket beamed. We all beamed. It was pretty sappy, to tell the truth. I soaked up the moment like dish sponge fresh from the package.
Now I can say we are all buddies. I sincerely wish them both the best.
It was a good reminder how I could use this in my box of tools too, if I take my eyes off of myself: A compliment – a gift – to change awkwardness or loneliness into connection.