Seattleites are terrible with eye contact. So, so incredibly bad.
It’s an aspect of the “Seattle freeze” – my city’s notoriously passive-aggressive, polite, reserved nature that we’ve honed into performance art. We’re willing to engage in polite banter, but then we will shut you down if you want anything more than that.
One theory is that, as a city, we’re too passive to get ourselves out of awkward conversations, so we’d rather just avoid getting too far into them. We won’t look at you when we cross paths with you on the sidewalk, but we’re happy to give you directions if you ask. We’ll smile and wave you off, and then put our earbuds back in and lower our eyes and ignore each other again.
We’re so, so nice, but so, so distant.
In 2016, I was coming off a massive midlife shitshow – a triple punch of medical crisis, mortality check, and abrupt divorce. I would float down the streets of Capitol Hill, my Seattle neighborhood, not needing to blink because I was in a state of almost constant tearing. My social filters were blown, and when I passed people on the street, I would impolitely stare, unblinking, at their faces. I saw a sea of polite urban human suffering. Once I started noticing, it was overwhelming just how many people were shattered.
I’d see them standing in line at the grocery store, glazed eyes staring politely into space, and my nose would fill with the heavy smell of loss. Someone’s mother just died. Someone just got evicted. Someone just got sued for something they didn’t do. Someone is so overwhelmed by the news cycle that they can’t sleep through the nightmares of political demagogues and images of polar bears swimming through melting Arctic oceans. Someone is on the brink of losing their job and knows it.
Seattle is a prosperous city in a first-world country, and globally speaking, we’re a privileged lot. We don’t live in a war zone and so many of our lives are relatively good. But once I better understood just how pain scars people’s faces, I could see everyone’s cheeks pockmarked with it.
I decided I would take on a new side project: I would compliment people on the street as much as I possibly could.
The reality is that when you take the two seconds to notice something (that’s all you’re really doing) and then speak it with a smile, you usually get a smile in return. A smile! You just made someone feel seen and appreciated. It’s such a simple, mundane thing to take an interest in the people around you and show them appreciation. It’s a gratitude practice on a neighborhood level.
I felt ridiculous when I first started doing it, but those days were so gray and colorless and devoid of pleasure that I’d take any quick hit I could get of not-pain.
Let’s pause to remember how many of the sensations of a life crisis are influenced by the chemicals in your body. The short-term stress-release chemicals, serotonin and oxytocin, have a relative called cortisol that the body relies on when our stress is longer-lasting – like when you’re dealing with an existential implosion.
Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, and it’s produced in the adrenal gland. It regulates sleep, energy, blood pressure, and how your body processes carbs, proteins, and fats. Cortisol is an important tool our bodies use when we’re in the thick of it, but if it stays around too long, it can exacerbate your challenges.
Reducing levels of cortisol overproduction involves reducing stress in your life. The most effective ways to reduce cortisol overproduction include basics like regulating sleep, getting habitual about relaxation (stretching, breathing exercises), and regular moderate exercise.
But I went for a different strategy: complimenting people.
Getting a solid ROI on your compliments
I tried to start small.
“Love those boots,” I told a lady at the bus stop, and she gave a politely tight grimace.
Huh, I thought. That was a low return on investment on that particular compliment, but it still felt nice there for a moment. If a polite grimace gave me a six on the 1–10 warmheartedness meter, then maybe I could feel better if I could compliment better.
I knew that complimenting someone’s physical appearance was low-hanging fruit –people don’t necessarily have a sense of ownership over whatever aspect you’re complimenting them on. Your friend with the gorgeous eyes might feel a bit squirmy when you gush about them because, really, it’s just about genetics: thanks, but whatever.
Instead, you’ll get a better ROI from complimenting them on the choice they actively made in selecting a top in that shade because it brings out their eyes. Your friend feels like you’ve noticed something more specific, and you’re complimenting their decisions – not just their genes.
I learned that these genuine compliments had a way better ROI. It was easy enough to practice. I worked my way up from complimenting shoes, slowly getting up to complimenting necklaces and people’s hair. As I got bolder, I added campy hand gestures to my compliment repertoire.
“I’m loving everything that’s happening here,” I said, walking past a fabulously non-binary person in a body-conscious gold jumpsuit and coordinated vest. I splayed my fingers and waved my arm like a grand old dame, from sky to sidewalk. “Everything!” I crowed over my shoulder, speed-walking on in my orthopedic Adidas high tops. Grand old dame likes everything that’s happening here, people! Everything! I barely looked back to see what the reaction was, but I’m pretty sure I at least got a smile.
I got more creative and enthusiastic as time went on. And you know what? The more I did that, the more joy got bounced back. It was thrilling. It was also truly terrifying for a Seattleite. It was vulnerable and brazen at the same time. Making eye contact and speaking to a stranger, out here on the passive streets of Seattle?! Unheard of! I loved it.
Complimenting others is self-serving (and that’s OK)
Walking down the street on my way to dinner with a friend, I pointed at a woman’s earrings as she walked by. They were enormous raw-brass hoops, and they glowed against her dark skin.
“Those earrings are beyond phenomenal,” I called out to her, not slowing down as we passed each other.
“Thank you!” she shouted over her shoulder back at me, laughing. There was no need to get into a whole conversation or take time out of anyone’s day – you can just drop a quick compliment and keep on moving!
“Why bother doing that when you’ll never see her again?” my friend asked. “What motivates making the effort?”
“It’s not just about her,” I said. “It’s partially a selfish act. I mean, if you’re doing it right, complimenting someone makes two people happy – them and me. Complimenting her earrings took me two seconds and made me feel warm and fuzzy for a minute. And those brass hoops were great. Now I want some brass hoops …”
Raj Raghunathan PhD, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?, explained that one of the reasons complimenting others makes you feel better is that it helps you perceive yourself as a generous, bighearted person, which in turn increases your self-esteem.
In contrast, tearing people down with criticism or snark might make you feel superior in the short term, but Raghunathan says that negging others makes you view yourself poorly. These “downward comparisons” have an echo-chamber effect, in that they make others feel negative, which can lead them to criticize you.
This then can lead to you being more likely to attract critical, unforgiving people. That’s the last thing you need.
But complimenting others isn’t a completely selfish act. Dr Alex Lickerman, co-author of The Ten Worlds: The New Psychology of Happiness, tried smiling at and positively engaging with service workers he saw regularly, and discovered that their demeanor seemed to change overall. He observed that workers who’d been reserved or even sullen began to engage more positively and happily with other customers (although Lickerman noted that there was an initial period of feeling like he was weirding out service workers when he was friendly with them).
People who receive compliments are also more likely to give them, just like those who receive criticism are more likely to be critical. So you can think of your compliments as a way of paying it forward and spreading positivity beyond yourself.
Finally, I felt I could directly transfer a small bit of support to a fellow human. It was a tiny transfer, but if I could just do it enough times, in enough mediums, on enough streets, in enough cities, on enough screens, in enough books … if I could just spread enough bits of support, maybe the bits could add up to something more substantial.