Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paying a Compliment

Isn’t it strange how the idiom we use most often when talking about compliments is “to pay a compliment”?

Not “to give...” or “to make...” or even “to send a compliment”, but “to pay a compliment”.

Ever since feudal times, the word ‘pay’ has meant to give something that is due to the recipient, and is derived from the Medieval Latin verb 'pacare' meaning "to settle, or satisfy". Nowadays, the word pay is most commonly used in the context of money - to pay what is owed, to settle a debt, but in feudal times, someone of lesser social stature would be expected to ‘pay’ homage to their feudal superiors. Homage was a solemn promise of allegiance, a social transaction, pledging loyalty and access to resources in exchange for protection and an acknowledgement of the underling's position in society.

By the 16th century, the feudal system was ebbing away, replaced by the new bureaucracies and the emerging civil society. In this age, social status was more flexible, and a new world of manners and ways of expressing respect was being formulated. Our word compliment comes from the Italian ‘complimento’, meaning “an expression of respect and civility". It seems Samuel Johnson was rather more cynical, defining a compliment in his landmark 1755 English dictionary as "an act, or expression of civility, usually understood to include some hypocrisy, and to mean less than it declares". Though he may have been sarcastically commenting on the eternally precarious fine line between true compliments and inauthentic flattery.

Thus mini-ceremonies of manners and courtesy, like bowing, doffing hats and unsolicited praise, came to replace the solemn rituals of feudal homage. But the verb of acknowledging social rank remained the same: compliments, like homage, continued to be paid.
That we use the same language to talk about compliments as about money is not especially surprising. In 2008, a Japanese team at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences investigated what part of the brain was stimulated when people learnt someone had said something nice about them. It turned out to be the striatum, the same region stimulated when we gain something of monetary value.

So now you know; when someone pays you a compliment, and you feel richer for it, it’s because psychologically we consider social esteem as valuable as money. So next time you give a gift, make sure you say something nice to the recipient too. Those heartfelt words are more valuable than you think.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The thought that counts

It all started when we wanted to create a meaningful gift for a friend. So we contacted her friends and asked: what is it about her you love so much? And they told us: scores of beautiful messages, heartfelt words, and quirky in-jokes. It gave us goosebumps. We married each comment to an image, and made them into a hardback book. When we gave her the book, she read it, then she smiled, and then she cried. She hadn’t realised how much she was loved. Few of us do.

Her friends loved the gift too, we’d provided them with an opportunity to truly tell her how much she meant to them. It was as if we had just given them all permission to say something heartfelt, something none of us tend to do that often.

We had created a social gift, where messages of appreciation didn’t just accompany the gift, they were the gift. And because everyone knew each other, the gleambook was enjoyed by our shared world of mutual friends almost as much as the lucky recipient herself.

We had discovered that messages alone can be meaningful gifts. Often, when people choose a gift, they try to use it to send a message, a cypher to try to reveal what they feel: “I love you!” or “You’re unique!”

But our gifts can not talk. So we buy something expensive and hope it conveys the right messages. Or if we’re busy or too exasperated to choose something ourselves, we just convert our love into money, and send a gift voucher instead.

How did we end up expressing our love through money?
Why do we try to send messages through objects rather than expressing how we really feel?
Are our words really that worthless? After all, what could be nicer than accidentally overhearing someone say something lovely about you?

Appreciation, a sense of belonging, is a basic human need. It makes us feel good, it reinforces our social bonds, it makes us feel accepted and part of the tribe. Without it, we feel ostracised, ignored, and lonely.

Our culture has even invented a medium to convey our appreciation - the greetings card. So why is a humble handwritten card not the most treasured gift one can receive? We do we spend so lavishly on products to demonstrate our affection?

Have we come to associate money with affection? Do we fear that if we don’t spend, the recipient will think we don’t really care?

Or is it because senders of greetings cards rarely open their hearts to express how they really feel? Instead they quickly scribble what they believe they’re expected to write; like a safe message wishing the recipient a lovely birthday, that they’re thinking about them, and they love them lots. What goes unsaid is why they love them, what makes them so unique, and why they absolutely treasure the time they share together.

We should tell those close to us how we feel, whilst we still can. Friends can drift apart, family members can move far away, and sudden tragedies can silence any one of us. What record will there be of the journey you shared?

Does your loved one really need one more piece of stuff?
Or would you rather tell them what makes them so special, and see them gleam?

How much better to give the gift of feeling good.

Friday, June 22, 2012

What to say when saying something nice

When people say nice things about each other, what sentiment do they try to express?

When people contribute a message to a gleambook, we encourage them to say something heartfelt; to go beyond just saying “Happy Birthday!” or “You’re great!” and to put into words what their friend or loved one really means to them. Consequently, we’ve accumulated a wide variety of messages, ranging from funny to contemplative, so we thought it would be interesting to analyse how people say nice things to each other. You might call it the Science of Sentiment.

From what you’ve told us, we identified six categories of feelgood message, which we define as:

  • IN-JOKE - these messages seem obscure or bizarre to most, but will have special humorous significance to both the sender and recipient. (an example)

  • DESCRIPTIVE - these messages express how the sender sees the recipient, often listing their best features or a hidden talent others may not see. (an example)

  • YOU MATTER TO ME - these are sentimental messages expressing true affection, personal to both writer and recipient, often using pet names or nicknames. (an example)

  • CELEBRATION - these messages pay tribute to recipient, lauding characteristics or accomplishments that will be well-known to their friends and colleagues. (an example)

  • SHARED PAST - these recall a short story or shared experience, a memory of the journey they’ve made together. (an example)

  • BORROWED WORDS - these are typically quotations, or a message using words or phrases with particular significance to the recipient. (an example)

The variety of messages we found seems to reflect the different ways in which we relate to those closest to us.

The most commonly found type was the Descriptive message, which made up 36.3% of all messages. Authors of descriptive messages could be precise and perceptive, or poetic and emotional, but their goal is the same - to let the recipient know they recognise what makes them special, and to make them feel good about it.

The second most popular category, accounting for 21% of messages, involved a Shared Past. The writers of these messages are storytellers at heart, preferring to remind the recipient of the times they shared together than write something emotional.

In 16.1% of our messages, someone was told: You Matter To Me. These writers were not afraid to express their emotions, wanting to let the recipient know how much they love them. These messages are most likely to be sent between family members, which may be why they make up only a sixth of all messages. It may even be due to some people not feeling able to open up and show how much they care, or believing a written message doesn’t quite feel like the right medium to express how they feel.

Celebration messages are more likely to be sent between work colleagues; here the primary sentiment is praise, that we love being around you, or fun things happen around you, or simply you are exceptional in what you do. These messages constituted 13.7% of our sample.

Someone sending an In-Joke is not only remembering a humorous moment, but also intimating that their friendship is sprinkled with laughter that others just wouldn’t understand. In our sample, in-jokes accounted for 9.7% of messages.

Our final category was also the least frequent, with only 3.2% borrowing words from quotations rather than using their own. We wonder if this small group of people preferred the conciseness of an apposite quotation, or found it uncomfortable trying to put their own feelings into words.

Although we've identified these categories by looking at gleambook messages, we think we see the same basic types of message wherever people say nice things about each other, be they in birthday cards, leaving cards or wedding cards. 

Virtual messages, such as birthday greetings posted on Facebook, tend to be much briefer: typically a quick “happy birthday mate!” or “have a great day! xxx”. Perhaps on Facebook our sentiments are abbreviated by the immediacy of communication. The ritual of picking up a pen, and pondering what to say is replaced by the temptation to quickly type something that won’t seem too weird or slushy to others, knowing the recipient and their friends will see our message flash onto their screens moments after we type it.

So, the next time you’re staring at a blank card, or blank textbox, with an equally blank mind, struggling to think of something nice to say, why not be creative?

Allude to an in-joke or use a quotation.
Or praise one of their special talents.
Or tell them how much they mean to you.
Or remind them of that amazing time you shared.
Or simply say what makes them special.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A present for a friend's birthday

Giving a meaningful gift is a challenge!

Take Amy, it’s her birthday next month, and her friend Lucy wants to find a heartfelt gift.
But it’s got to be personal, not too expensive - and definitely not boring!
Oh, and Amy is the sort of girl who’s got everything. Typical.

Luckily, inspiration arrives! So Lucy goes online and begins a gleambook for Amy.
She enters her feelgood message and invites her friends to do the same.
Before you know it, dozens of Amy’s friends have said something lovely about her!

Whilst Lucy and her friends are off doing other stuff, we match each message with a beautiful, individually chosen image to create a gleambook. Then the presses roll, and a lovely hardback book wings its way to the lucky recipient!

Then on her birthday, Amy receives her gleambook.
She reads it - and gleams!
She hadn’t realised how much she was loved.

We like happy endings!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My best leaving present

I found it when I was spring cleaning.
A card - hidden in a drawer, buried under years of accumulated papers. You know, the papers that seem too important to throw away at the time, but aren’t, and you never pick them up again.

The card did not look familiar. Its edges were still sharp, not worn smooth by fingertips. On its cover was a colourful cartoon of some strange muppet-like creatures, one was waving, one was weeping, one was conducting some kind of survey. The tagline read: “We took a poll and 90% of us are sorry you’re leaving...”

Who was leaving? I opened it curiously. Oh.
I was leaving.

Inside, every spare space had been filled with handwritten comments from my former workmates. I began to read what they’d written, yes - I’d remember that name, I’d pause and think, trying to picture their face. And I’d smile at what they’d scribbled.

I had stumbled across a memento of a voyage we’d shared. And here was I, about to disembark. It was written in April 2002, exactly 10 years ago, this week.

Our voyage had started in late 1999. I was moving to London to join a hot new startup - one so new it didn’t even have a name yet. I was employee number 5. We adopted the name Servista, we were going to change the world - if we could launch our product before our money ran out. So we worked into the night, 6 days a week, racing to build and launch our product before our richer corporate competitors.

You get close to people when you work that intensively. We socialised, we celebrated birthdays, we formed a football team, we became friends. And we we felt sad when a familiar face decided to move on. In April 2002, it was my turn, I was leaving, swapping my computer screen for a backpack, I was off to see the world.

Generously, my colleagues also bought me a leaving present - an electronic gadget now obsolete and recycled. But I kept the card. I’m glad I did. It cost a fraction of their gift, but has become much more valuable.

My card and a few press cuttings are the only souvenirs I still have from the great Servista adventure. The company I’d helped build continued on without me for another 8 years, growing, before dwindling out of existence. The software I’d crafted was long gone. All my labours washed away, like footsteps on a beach.

I hadn’t really realised it at the time, but one day we all look back on our lives with great nostalgia. The individual episodes that make up our lives can be over before we realise it. Shunted aside by the vivid experiences of the here and now, they fade from memory to become half-remembered dreams. It’s a shame leaving cards are so easily forgotten, I’ve always thought books make better repositories for memories.

My card is a reminder of some great times shared. I’ve drifted out of touch with many of my former colleagues, some live and work far away now; but I can still hear their voices, scribbled and preserved in blue and black ballpoint ink, by whatever pen happened to lying on their desk when the card circulated the office, 10 years ago.

So, fellow Servista folk, if you ever happen to stumble across this, thank you again for your lovely messages. I did indeed have a wonderful journey. I did indeed enjoy the best of luck, and life has been good to me. And the memory of what we shared together still makes me smile, even after all this time.