Is there anything more mood-altering than a beautifully timed compliment, delivered with style, wit and grace from someone you admire? Or quite like. Or even a stranger. Is there anything more likely to guarantee a good night out? Some people can't relax at a party until they've had two and a half units of fizzy alcohol; for me, it's praise that helps me come into my own. One 'Look at your lovely dress!' and my conversation flows. My jokes get funnier. My cheeks grow rosy. Sometimes, when I feel anxious, I think of the time I was standing in front of Bill Nighy in a queue at the theatre and he murmured 'Beautiful skirt' as he passed. (It was my best one.)
Of course, the more original the compliment, the deeper in it goes. 'I won't forget it, not even after I am dead' my daughter said on her third birthday when she saw the castle cake, complete with horse-drawn carriage and turrets made from inverted ice-cream cones dusted with edible lustre. I had been cursing the piping bag long into the small hours, but maybe it was worth it after all?
We all know the damage a vivid insult can do, but elaborate compliments can stay with you forever, too. In a pistachio-green silk dress printed all over with robots, and black lace at the collar and cuffs, I was greeted recently by a friend who said, 'You are so Ginger Rogers in space, if space were Italian.' I nearly curtsied. Thousands of likes on Instagram or Facebook can't compete with a moment like that.
I can see it's a failing to require a thumbs up from the world, but it's hardly unusual.
Although by day, when I'm writing, I generally live in a grey or navy skirt and jumper, by night, the allure of flattery influences my look: rose silk dresses, polka-dot ruffles, black velvet with white lace, midnight-blue satin frills, apple-green knits with white hearts. For perfection, I choose clothes that have some kind of emotional charge, and I am often drawn to items that express the faded glamour of the past. Woe betide a dress that nobody notices. It's straight to the back of the wardrobe: the rack of shame.
I can see it's a failing to require a thumbs up from the world in this way, but it's hardly unusual. Mark Twain said a good compliment could keep him going for two months. Of course, we should provide our own pats on the back and not put our happiness in others' hands. You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to detect I may be compensating for something: being the youngest of a large family, I was the square one, all homework and tap shoes and 'Remember me?' (Freud declared he was 'defenceless' in the face of praise.)
Because I love receiving praise, I try to be lavish when dishing it out. 'How do you manage to look 19?' is generally a hit with fresh-faced friends. 'Superlatives fail me!' goes down well, too. But it's important to be careful. I eschew anything time-related, such as 'You look wonderful tonight.' And praise that suggests over- familiarity with a look – 'I always love you in that dress' – is best avoided.
Now and then, compliments misfire – I don't love it when people say to me, 'You could maybe make it as a hand model.' But occasionally an insult can give you a colossal boost, so perhaps it evens out in the end. 'All you care about is books and grilled fish!' my teenager yelled at me last night. Wounded I wasn't!
My new novel, Love & Fame, is partly set in the theatre, where the economy of praise is at its most fraught. 'That was wonderful', when said in a dressing room, can sound like you didn't think much of the show. 'You were magnificent' is an entry-level greeting in the greasepaint world. And what do you say if you didn't enjoy it?
My heroine, Eve, an actress from a theatrical family, muses on this in chapter one. 'I'm thinking of that thing Dad said once about people visiting people backstage when the show wasn't working and that they found themselves in a state of paralysis, wanting to be warm but not wanting to tell actual lies and the things they came up with, like "Good just isn't the word!" or "My word! You've done it again!"'
Sometimes, when I feel anxious, I think of the time I was standing in front of Bill Nighy in a queue and he murmured 'Beautiful skirt' as he passed
'What kind of job, what kind of world, makes people have to develop a rotten language like that, just to exist?' her mother asked. The world of writing isn't a million miles from this. 'I liked your book,' a friend said recently, before changing the subject. When you hear 'like', it's difficult not to hear 'I didn't love'. You have to be strict with yourself at these moments. I cheer myself up with compliments of old. A book I wrote 10 years ago made someone wake up from a coma, his girlfriend wrote to tell me.
A strange thing has occurred recently, however: post-Harvey-Weinstein, perhaps, my attitude to appearance-based compliments is starting to waver. I have two daughters now, and people dwelling on their looks sometimes makes me feel queasy. Their appearance is the least of it, I want to protest. 'Yes, but did you see her drawing of a pineapple?' or 'Cute? She does so much taekwondo we have a trained assassin in the house now.'
For many people, both male and female, the most interesting thing about women will always be the way they look. That's unacceptable. I feel more unsettled, these days, when complimenting my friends on their appearance.
I sometimes attend a board meeting for a charity I'm involved with, and before the meeting starts, the women might say things like, 'Love those boots.' Do the men say, 'That tie is to die for'? They do not. It feels unprofessional to me now. It didn't used to.
I still soar a little when complimented, and I'm not above wilting if they're not forthcoming, but in the past few months, the only compliment that feels safe, because it is always welcome, is 'How lovely to see you.' I'm going to stick with that from now on.
Love & Fame by Susie Boyt is published by Virago
This article was originally published in the February issue of ELLE.