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Illustration by Sariel Friedman

It has become all too easy to throw around cheap compliments.

Compliments make me uncomfortable.

“Oh, my God, you’re too cute!” my friend said when I made a silly face. We were walking down College Walk, bundled up in our big doudounes—the French term for a down jacket—bracing our bodies against the freezing breeze. I wasn’t fit to continue any conversation in this weather, so an expressive face sufficed. I was taken aback by the compliment I received for an action that seemed so insignificant.

As we made our way to class, I was formulating all types of questions concerning her comment. How am I cute, I thought, for making a facial expression that reflects my awkwardness and discomfort? What does it mean to be “cute?” How am I supposed to respond to a compliment like that? Should I have complimented her back?

These questions raced through my head like a pinball in one of those rusty pinball machines found in desolate bars in the middle of nowhere. The metallic ball bounces back and forth, going nowhere, destined only to frustrate the player.

I realize that these questions probably do not plague your average 18-year-old, but I wish they did, so that I would not feel so peculiar all the time. I tell myself it is a cultural difference: I grew up in Switzerland, where speaking subtly and precisely was key.

Perhaps that’s why I was perplexed by my friend’s choice of the word “cute.” The word is often overused and misused. In my experience, it can be used to describe anything from a piece of clothing to a tiny cupcake to a leaf on the ground.

Many of my friends think it is “so cute” when I make my own salad dressing in the dining halls. I’ll take a coffee cup and pour in three glugs of olive oil and two glugs of vinegar. I then close the lid and shake, taste, repeat, then pour the result over my salad. This is something I do quite often, a practice that has little significance to me, but apparently is “very cute.” I don’t mind the compliment, but it is an odd behavior to call “cute”—I’m just dressing my salad. I suppose the word is a way for someone to express her appreciation. At the end of the day, it is just a friendly gesture, a simple, harmless compliment. No ill intended.

I wish I could believe this to be true, yet I find myself overanalyzing every compliment I receive.

Nothing traumatic in my childhood occurred for me to see compliments this way. I grew up in an immensely supportive home with a family that embraced me with words of encouragement at every opportunity. Every unrecognizable, finger-stained painting was deemed beautiful. Every short story I wrote was a minefield of dyslexic mistakes with many  awkward sentences, but was praised as “a great effort.” Every poached egg I’ve ever made has been called perfect. (But to be perfectly honest, I do make a remarkably lovely poached egg.) I am not ordinarily fazed by adjectives that convey encouragement or praise.

Since I moved to New York City this past fall to begin my first year at Barnard, I have found that Americans are generally more generous with compliments. In America, someone is not just nice if you enjoy her company. She is “so, so nice,” or “super sweet,” or “super chill.” It seems like every descriptor needs to be accompanied by a superlative in order for it to be seen as worthy of the complimentee. This makes me think, Do I need to be attributed a superlative myself in order for others to see me as worthy? Is it not enough for me to be just nice, or just funny?

Yet, I realize this is hypocritical, since I almost always describe people with superlatives. Recently, while on a FaceTime call with a friend from home, I was describing some of my new friends to her. I found myself adding superlatives to my descriptions of them.

It seems compliments are a kind of currency. If you are paid a compliment, you must either immediately return one to the person who paid it, or, later, sincerely compliment her—and you’ve got to factor in the delay and make yours worth more than the original. And the value of the compliment goes up exponentially based on who is paying it. “You’re really pretty” from a close friend is worth less than “you’re really pretty” from the guy or girl you’ve been hooking up with. Context changes the rate of exchange and the overall significance of the payment. It’s only since arriving at Barnard that I have become aware of this form of currency in which I currently hold assets.

When there is real sincerity in a compliment, I find it much easier to accept. A compliment that is not necessarily a reaction to an action, that comes unprovoked, seems more heartfelt.

One evening after a stressful day of studying, I was lying next to my sister on her bed, watching movie trailers. Tess turned to me, with a relaxed, comfortable expression on her face and said, “I’m happy you’re here.” It can be as simple as that.

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