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Talking nice behind people’s backs

| Wednesday, November 3, 2021

As children, we’re taught that if we don’t have anything nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all. By high school, it’s universally acknowledged that talking bad about someone behind their back is uncouth. In regards to unsolicited criticism, we are told to keep it to ourselves, to watch our mouths and to mind our own business. But what about unsolicited praise? What about the nice thoughts we have about students we don’t really know in our Italian classes or strangers we pass on the street? At least personally, more often than not, I keep these thoughts to myself. But I think it’s time we change that. It’s time we stop talking nice about people behind their backs and start telling it to their faces.

Just last week, I was walking with one of my friends when we saw a girl wearing fabulous pants. After my friend pointed them out to me, I took a breath and called out to the girl as we passed her on the sidewalk. “My friend loves your pants!” 

Immediately, I was elbowed. “Why would you say that? She probably thinks we’re weirdos now. I’m going to stop telling you things.”

But the week before, when a stranger complimented an outfit I was wearing, I didn’t think they were a weirdo. I thought they were kind. I thought they made my day. Why would I think someone taking the time to tell me something nice is weird? Why should it be embarrassing to admit we admire the good qualities we see in the people around us? Going up to someone and paying them a compliment can make us feel vulnerable, but it can also make them feel really, really good.

To be fair, I think that most of the time we aren’t actively afraid of paying people compliments. We’re just not thinking. We’re so used to going about our routines, to keeping our thoughts to ourselves, that it doesn’t even occur to us to share our niceties with the people they praise.

I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read, loved and forwarded to my family without ever reaching out to the author. I can’t count how many times my friends and I have discussed how insightful another classmate’s contribution was without ever telling that classmate. I’ve lost track of the number of people my roommate and I are “secretly obsessed with” because we think they’re the coolest.

But I can tell you the exact date in 2011 that someone at summer camp told me I had a pretty singing voice. I remember Christian Trujillo telling me he voted me most popular of our fourth grade class (I did not win). I have saved every warm email I’ve ever received in response to a column. I’ve held on to all the little kindnesses people have told me over the years, all the compliments, all the praise and all the offhand comments that didn’t mean much to the person saying them, but everything to me. 

Because even though it probably seemed small and insignificant to the people who mentioned something they liked about me, even though they’ve since forgotten saying anything about my sense of humor or math skills, those little comments come to mind when I’m having a bad day. They reassure me when I’m doubting myself. They remind me that amidst the criticism, the ambivalence, the indifference of the world, there are people who appreciate me and the things I do. 

We need to start spilling our kind, secret thoughts, not because everyone needs constant validation, but because there’s no reason not to. Telling someone you really liked what they said in that meeting costs you nothing. Texting your friend that the lab partner you were with when you bumped into her thinks she’s pretty is about as low effort as it gets. I’m not asking you to go out of your way writing odes and declarations, or even challenging you to start brainstorming unique compliments for every acquaintance. All I’m suggesting is that we vocalize the kindness we already have bubbling in our brains. We go the extra step to share that positivity with the people who will actually appreciate it.

Recently, a friend of mine wrote a Letter to the Editor that was extraordinarily well received around campus. Of course, the few online comments were negative, but those few dissenters were a small minority in a sea of admirers. Without people reaching out to tell them that they liked their work, though, that criticism would have been all they knew. 

People are hanging on to the feedback they receive, positive or negative. Why not give them an extra compliment to remember? Why not add to the well of wonderful and pass along a bit of praise you thought to yourself? 

Every time she gets dressed in the morning, my best friend remembers that her high school friends told her she has big legs. Let’s have her also remember she has mischievous eyes that crinkle when she laughs and make everyone want to join her. Every time my coworker tells a story, he’s careful not to let it go too long, because someone once told him he tends to ramble about things no one else is interested in. Let’s make sure he’s also careful to keep sharing his passions with the world, because they inspire everyone around him to find something they’re equally excited about. 

Who cares if we don’t know the girl in the cool pants? Unsolicited compliments from strangers can only mean the most because there’s no reason for them to be disingenuous! Who cares if we don’t know our science class buddy that well? If a post-class chat made your day, let them know! Hype up your hallmates! Create a culture of compliments! By sharing the positivity you see in the people around you, you encourage them to see it too.

The people around us are listening. Comments we make without second thought, they’ll hold onto and dwell on for years. Let’s give them something good to dwell on. Let’s outweigh the negative with the positive. Let’s provide people with a packet of matches to call on when darkness sets in, a little extra bounce to brighten the already good days. Let’s remind people that not only are they noticed. Not only do they matter, but they are appreciated. Let’s vocalize our positive inner monologues, because in a great big world where it’s easy to feel small, where it’s easy to feel as if no one notices what you’re doing or cares who you are, it’s nice to be reminded that people are paying attention. 

In the spirit of non-secret niceties, and putting my money where my mouth is, here are some of the nice things I’ve thought about for years, but have never taken the time to tell people.

  1. Ellie Kavanagh, you are one of the funniest people I have ever met and one of the kindest. Truly, my favorite person to bump into while walking around campus. 
  2. Ethan Osterman, I always looked forward to our post-seminar study sessions freshman year and I’m glad we get to be class buddies again. 
  3. Steph Franczak, your supportive nodding in theology class sophomore year always reassured me when I was nervous to speak in class. Thank you for being the kind of person who makes a classroom feel welcoming. 
  4. Daniel Pronko, I think you’re the coolest. Every person I’ve talked to at ND Listens claims to be your biggest fan. They’re all wrong. It’s me.
  5. Ella Wisniewski, your column about Notre Dame jumping the shark is my roommate’s favorite piece published in The Observer. Ever.
  6. The boys who lassoed my friends and I into their dance circle at the McCarter tailgate outside Legends after the Purdue game: I don’t know your names, but my friends and I LOVED you. That was the highlight of our game day.
  7. Nyah Brummer and Dianna Perez: I have such big friend crushes on both of you that I almost stayed in that sociology class just so I could hang out with you. 
  8. Caitlyn Schrier and Lauren Bauman, my quad constantly talked about how you two were “essential” to the 8B section vibes last year. Best neighbors ever.
  9. Daniel Castañeda, Zach Margovskiy, Ian Coates, Rob Crawford and Sean Butler: Every time any of you has ever come up in conversation, the person talking about you says that you’re the best. Every. Single. Time. 
  10. Mary Kate Walsh, when we did the winternship together, Claire and I would text about how we wanted to be your best friends. It’s not too late …

Julianna Conley is a senior studying sociology and pre-health studies with a minor Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Though she is forever loyal to Pasquerilla East B-team athletics, Julianna now lives off campus. She can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @JuliannaLConley on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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