I sat down to play the piano today, and afterwards had a few thoughts on the nature of compliments. If someone were to tell me that they think I could be a concert pianist, it would reflect more upon their taste in piano music than upon my playing. I am not a very good pianist. I have memorized two songs (Für Elise, and Pachelbel’s Canon in D), and I can sometimes barrel my way through them without making a mistake. This does not mean I play them well, let alone with any degree of mastery. It is one thing for someone to tell me they like my playing, but quite another to tell me my playing is particularly good. My tempo is off. I play too loudly. I am so preoccupied with playing correctly that I fail to play with any feeling. Anyone who knows anything about piano music can tell you this.
(Also, our piano is horribly out of tune. This by no means helps me sound like a grand piano master.)
To insist upon such grandiose compliments, even after I have demonstrably refuted them, only compounds the problem. Instead of being merely misguided, the compliment becomes condescending, patronizing, almost insulting. In order for a compliment to be gratifying, it must first contain some degree of truth. If I know that the compliment is false, however well-intended the deliverer may be, I can take very little pleasure in it. I find it very hard to accept such comments gracefully, which is a problem, as most people are trying to make people happy when they give compliments.
I have the opposite problem with my artwork. I tend to complain about my drawing, as most artist do, and the most common response I hear is “it’s better than I can do.” I do not mean to be rude, but…
I’ve put a lot more into my artwork than I have into my piano playing. This does not make me a grand master of artwork, but among my closer circle of friends and relations, there are only one or two people who have put as much time into artwork as I have. If you design webpages, and I tell you that you do it better than I can, this comment is meaningless. I am not a web designer. I barely know enough html to be able to put type into italics. If you play the drums, you do so better than me, because I do not play the drums. There are a plethora of things that I do not do, and anyone who does these things does them better than me, by default. So, m apologies to all well-meaning complimenters out there, but my artistic ambitions for the past five years were never to be better than just the average Joe. If someone who had put in a similar amount of time and dedication into their artwork were to deliver such a compliment, I would be honored. I would probably also not deserve it.
This does not mean that you have to have spent tons of time drawing to compliment my artwork. Anything meaningful you have to say would be gratefully received. Similarly, just because I am not perfect in my piano playing does not mean you can’t compliment that as well. If it happens to please you, feel free to say so. But please restrain yourself from praising too highly, even if you think it’s true, because I know better. And next time I’m berating myself about my artwork, don’t try to cheer me up by comparing it to yours. The only person reading this blog who could say anything meaningful to that effect knows better. Besides, if I am in that state, it’s probably good for me, and you should leave me alone. I tend to be far too self-satisfied, and I sometimes need to take myself down a peg or two, because not many other people will do it for me.