With Our Compliments

Friday, December 5, 2008

Tyler Cowen's wife(?) asks

You see a woman after you met her before and say: you are more beautiful than I remember. She should be pleased, right?

Or you say: you are smarter than I remember. Would she be pleased the same way? Or is there a difference and why?
Most of the comments seem to argue that the former statement is more of a compliment than the latter--a woman would be flattered if someone told her she were more beautiful than they remembered; she may not be flattered if someone told her she were smarter.

We're not a woman, so we can't say with any certainty what one would feel. But if we were speaking, and we had to choose between the two statements, we'd probably say she were more beautiful than we remember; we doubt we'd say she were smarter. That's not a slight toward women's intelligence, we just happen to think the former sounds more complimentary.

But when we're speaking, we also have the luxury of inflection, so we can deliver either statement in a tone that assures its complimentariness. Sad to write it, but what you say is much less important than how you say it.

However, if we were writing the compliments out, we'd take commenter Finnsense's advice and place the word "even" before "more" and "smarter":
You are even more beautiful than I remember.

You are even smarter than I remember.

But that doesn't really answer the question: Is there a difference between the two, and why?

Structurally, they're pretty much the same statement; you could replace "beautiful" and "smart" with any number of similarly flattering adjectives--"graceful," "elegant," "insatiable"--and the sentence wouldn't undergo any drastic change in meaning. Denotationally, there's no difference, but, evidenced by the comments, our personal feelings, and the question itself--we doubt it'd be raised if the questioner thought there was no difference--connotationally, there is.


Because people react differently. If you use the "more beautiful" line on someone you barely know, they're going to be, understandably, creeped out. And if you were to tell a Nobel recipient they're smarter than you remember, they'd probably find it ironic. Context is important.

In fact, context is such an integral part of communication that just writing, "Context is an integral part of communication" gives us shivers of tautology. But even if though it may be obvious, it's still true. That's why we have words like "denotation" to mean, "what's literally said" and "connotation" to mean, "all the Hell else that's said." That's why they adore Janis Joplin's "Bobby McGee" and cringe when it's covered by better singers. That's why you can tell your dog anything--"You want a treat/walk/snip?"--and, as long as you say it with lots of energy and a smile, they'll wag their tail every time.

And that's why we say the best writing technique is whatever gets your point across.