January 10, 2019 Brian Allain

Three Compliments


  1. The Indirect Compliment


He was a doctor, a real one. Raised in the bad old days, when your boss left you with three hundred dying children and went to play golf. He walked around with premature babies hanging from the endotracheal tube swinging jauntily over his shoulder. Born with his hands in abdominal stab wounds, bred on the blood of a thousand postpartum hemorrhages. Cut his teeth on hundreds of dehydrated infants, who, the legend goes, ventilated a toddler by hand for a seven hour flight in a Cessna through a hurricane. This was a man who had slept under the beds of children who would stop breathing at the flick of a light switch, who carried in his pocket a crico-thyroidotomy kit, in case he came across an obstructing croup while out for breakfast. He walked the earth before negligence cases existed, and thus had learned to practise medicine, rather than self defence.

He was scattering wisdom to the starry-eyed colleague of mine sitting at his feet and for some reason they started talking about me.


“We have too many doctors who think like this.” He made a triangle with his fingertips touching, like a pointy volcano top. “She thinks like this.” He turned the volcano inside out, bringing his hands together at the wrists, and spreading his fingers, like he’d just released a small bird.


My friend arrived at the appointed coffee location, breathless with excitement, and repeated the performance to me. We debated at length what the two hand signs could possibly mean. We agreed that open fingertips were better than closed fingertips.


On reflection, I’ve decided that the power of the indirect compliment lay in three things. Firstly, the fact that I occurred to anyone whilst physically absent. Second, that person spoke well of me whilst I was absent. Third, he offered the compliment unasked. Who wants to have to fish for it?

I still don’t know exactly what he meant, but sometimes, after a particularly unpleasant medical registrar berates me publicly for something that isn’t anyone’s fault, I make the pointy volcano top sign at them as they walk away.


  1. The Compliment that Offsets a Powerful Insult


She’s one of those women. They tend to have those happy, two syllable names from mid last century (Sandy, Lindy, Olive, Hazel), often the same name as a tree. They smell like forgiveness and encouragement and seem to think you deserve both, calmly ladling it upon you whenever the world blows you back into town, exhausted and holding your self-esteem together with your shoelaces.


She was discussing a daughter sapling springing up by her feet. This other sapling was having adventures, making her own way, putting out a branch in another direction. Mild rustling concern was expressed by all the flora present. But the Nice Smelling Tree said of the sapling, “I’m not worried about her because I know that she has great integrity. And I’m not worried about you,” (turning to me) “for the same reason.”


I still have a burst of self-belief when I remember that moment. I had spent the year gradually starting to believe, despite some compelling evidence to the contrary, that I was a bad person and my relationships were in trouble because I was a walking ulterior motive. She believed me. She believed that “my word was good”, that I was acting as truthfully as I knew how and in the best way I could. I want to always remember the power of telling someone that you believe them. (My relationships were in trouble from a different cause entirely – not related to my integrity. I have plenty of other flaws that do just fine troubling my relationships.)


  1. The Daily Compliment


Going to work uncomplaining at four am, being kind to the people I love, taking the shopping bag from my hand, telling me I’m beautiful in the middle of an argument. The weight of a compliment is directly proportional to the esteem in which you hold the one who delivers it, and, as Elinor Dashwood said with such marvelous reserve, “I greatly esteem him.”