Sunday, 12 June 2016

The compliment economy

Around this time last year, I went to see Laura Marling at the Southbank Centre. Being a longtime fan, I was already pretty excited to have secured tickets for a rare London show. But I was even happier when I looked down and spotted that one of my all-time favourite writers was taking her seat, smack bang in front of me. A woman whose writing I'd followed for years, whose Twitter feed continues to bring me regular lols and whose career I've watched rise to the national newspaper territory she now enjoys, was sitting right there. For a sad journalist fangirl like me, this was akin to even the coolest of celebrity spottings. 'Should I?', I thought to myself. Should I just tap her on the shoulder and pay her a simple compliment: 'I love your writing!' or something to that effect? 

Of course I didn't. My stereotypical British reserve took hold, and I convinced myself that it would be awkward and cringe-worthy and that she'd probably find me creepy for recognising her from little more than her byline photo. And even a year on, I still regret that a little bit. Someone telling me they've enjoyed reading something I've written is one of the nicest things they can possibly do. Even the bullshitters who claim they "Just write for themselves" feel that way. And I'm sure this woman would have too. Everybody loves to be validated, every now and then.

The very same writer I spotted at the Southbank wrote something recently that's stuck with me. In it, she coined a term for the group of people you can ALWAYS rely on for social media support: 'the Sisterhood of the Selfie'. "We are the reason", she wrote, "the like button is still such big business over on Facebook. We’re keeping the compliment economy afloat." It stood out to me because my friends and I had recently acknowledged a similar phenomenon: we are each other's social "cheerleaders" – that failsafe group of people that you know, come rain or shine, will be double tapping your latest post, whether it's a selfie or a snap of your new shoes. We laugh when we talk about it, but liking someone else's Instagram photo really is more than just a cursory gesture – it's an extension of the sisterhood.

I love being complimented. There are plenty of people who claim to HATE compliments, and it's true that some people don't take them particularly well: squirming at a nice comment and not wanting the attention that comes with it. But we can all be, as they say, our own worst critics, so to have someone interrupting your self-doubt with an admiring comment, or comforting you for spending probably a bit too much on your latest purchase by saying how much they love it, is welcome, in my book. And luckily, lots of the people I know clearly feel the same way. I heard the phrase somewhere or other that "the world is your runway" and whether that's true or not, the corridor of my office certainly is. Pretty much every morning when someone comes in, we're gushing over outfits and haircuts and validating each other all over the gaff.

These days, it seems Taylor Swift is the self-appointed poster girl for validation. Despite the idea of 'squads' being around long before the pop princess brought it to the mainstream, she's made friendship and the idea of being a supportive girlfriend a pretty on trend thing to be. As cringe-worthy as this might seem, you can't really knock the sentiment behind it. Speaking to Time Magazine a while ago, she said: "Other women who are killing it should motivate you, thrill you, challenge you and inspire you, rather than threaten you and make you feel like you’re immediately being compared to them."

Paying someone else a compliment is one of the best ways to put this kind of thinking into action. Rather than hanging on to petty jealousies, it's always better to just admire someone else and what they're doing. And this of course applies to far more than just what we look like – with one small comment, you can make people feel validated for pretty much everything, from the good job they've done at work to their excellent taste in picking out your birthday present.

As T-Swift and the cult of 'squad goals' attests, validation is actually something of a millennial movement. Look on social media, and for every troll commenting something insulting and rude, there's someone being all 'YASSSSSSS! SLAY QUEEN'. For some reason, or maybe it's merely because social media gives us an unprecedented outlet for it, my generation seems to realise how incredibly important validation is. I'd be surprised if the term 'fangirl' doesn't get added to the OED one of these days. We're not shy about sharing the love.

Why? Well, life can really be quite tough. None of us really know what we're doing – we're all just making it up as we go along. As a grown up, you don't have regular reports from your teachers and exam results to monitor your progress for you, so to have someone cheering you on from the sidelines, like your mum once did at the egg and spoon race, is key – especially since the metaphorical egg is most certainly going to go splat on the floor every now and then. 

Admittedly, you don't want to be completely reliant on other people's opinions for your own sense of self-worth. We should all, hopefully, (to quote Queen B) be feelin' ourselves before we've even left the house some days. But to be able to give someone even just a momentary boost through a few kind words is an incredible power. It's one we all have, and one I think we should all be using as much as we possibly can.