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Small Talk: Komplimente im Job - eine Gradwanderung

Schlagwörter: Smalltalk, English, Englisch, Geschäft, Kompliment

Are compliments in a business situation really appropriate? After all, they’re best reserved for those romantic moments. There’s a time and place for compliments at work, but there is an art to getting them right.

“You’re not completely useless, after all.” Believe it or not, this is a compliment. In British English. It no doubt works best between two British men who know each other really well, and who are at the same hierarchical level. Try saying it to your German boss and you’ll be out on your ear in no time.

In truth, there is an art to making compliments. If you get them right, you can use them in small talk. How do you get them right?

Go easy on the flattery

Let’s start with the type of compliment that has a bad reputation: flattery. This is a type of compliment that isn’t sincere, but is said purely to get something that you want. “Flattery will get you nowhere” is a well-known saying in English — and there’s a word-for-word equivalent in German too. On the other hand, we also say “Flattery will get you anywhere.” So what’s the truth? Basically, there has to be at least some truth to your flattery for it to be accepted. If not, your flattery will simply backfire. Instead of gaining someone’s trust — which is the most important goal of making small talk — you might be viewed as insincere and manipulative.

When you make the right kind of honest compliment during small talk, you can show that you have something in common with the person you are talking to. If you show that you like something about that person, or something that they have, you are indicating that you have mutual interests. You can therefore connect in a way that is positive . That’s one of the main goals of small talk. You’re not being manipulative if you’re sincere. You’re trying to make people feel good about themselves, or something that they have said, done or have. A pleasant side effect is that you seem likeable as well. What are the best compliments?


I hate to admit this, but you have to tread carefully today when it comes to making compliments about someone’s appearance, especially to the opposite sex. Surely “Nice dress” is harmless? This seemingly innocuous comment from a man about a woman’s dress could have negative consequences. A woman may feel that the man is ignoring her professional qualifications or not taking her seriously in the workplace, especially if it’s made during a meeting or after she’s given a presentation. Made in private, it may even be seen as lechery.

In public, you still have to be careful about making compliments about the appearance of a colleague or business partner. US President Barack Obama got into hot water in 2013 for a compliment he made about Kamala Harris, the Attorney General for California. Describing her as brilliant, dedicated and tough was fine. Nothing wrong with any of that. But he crossed the line by adding: “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.” Obama was slammed for being sexist and made a public apology. Of course, Obama got away with it. He’s the president, after all. But someone in a different job might not have. Compliments can backfire if they are viewed as judging a successful woman on her looks, and not on her achievements.

At work, compliments about appearance are best kept for people that you know well — and are not too personal:

Paul: You look great. Have you been on holiday? Sarah: I have! I was in Greece last week. Paul: How was it?

The opening compliment that Paul uses is usually OK as an opener because it’s general and includes a question, which can lead to a short small-talk exchange.

“Those jeans look good on you” is definitely not OK.

If you are in a position of power, it’s best to leave out the compliments on appearance completely. They can be misconstrued as sexual harassment. If you are a subordinate, it’s also a good idea to leave them out. Why? It’s just not the done thing

Personal items?

Compliments about personal items or items in the office can be useful ice breakers, especially if you follow them up with a related question. Comments about pictures, furniture or office items are unproblematic. Paul: Nice painting. Is it by a local artist? Sarah: It is. The company has a whole series of her paintings in these offices.

Brits usually enjoy getting compliments like most people. They are often just too embarrassed to admit it. Instead of lapping them up, they will play them down, as this example between two women demonstrates:

Julie: Nice pen. Kathy: This old thing? Thanks.

Sometimes, people will indicate they are happy to talk more about the item that’s been complimented, as in the following example:

Debbie: Nice scarf. Meg: Thank you. I bought it in Paris — last summer. Debbie: It’s beautiful. Great colours. Meg: I love the colours too. I bought it in a tiny boutique in the centre...

A short exchange like this can help you learn more about your business partners, and their likes and dislikes.


Everyone likes to feel appreciated. That’s why compliments about work can have a positive effect on a working relationship and the office atmosphere. In the UK, such compliments are usually quite reserved:

“Nice presentation.” “Good job on the report.”

In the US, you can expect to hear more emotional or exaggerated vocabulary: “Awesome presentation.”


Since most business people now have photos of their family and pets on their smartphones, it’s common to show family photos these days. What’s the best way to react? Even if the baby is the ugliest kid you’ve ever seen, make a compliment:

Paul: So this is Oliver. Sarah: Aw, he’s adorable. How old is he? Paul: Six.

“Cute” and “adorable” are great adjectives to describe small children of both sexes. Steer clear of these words when talking to anyone older as it may be seen as inappropriate. Don’t use them to describe someone’s husband or wife. Instead, stick to “Nice” or “Lovely” and ask something about the picture to focus on small talk.

Neutral topics

You can strike a good balance by making compliments about neutral ground. For example, the city in which your business partner is based, the restaurant where you had lunch, or even the airport where you just landed.

Sarah: Fabulous restaurant. How did you discover it? Paul: We’ve been coming here for years. It was the first Afghani restaurant to open in town, so we had to try it out.

Make sure the compliments are viewed as sincere, and most definitely not sarcastic. And always see the compliment as a conversational opener.

The aim of compliments is to make people feel good. People like to feel good at work too, so don’t keep them for those romantic moments in your life. Use them wisely for business small talk, too.

Schlagwörter: Smalltalk, English, Englisch, Geschäft, Kompliment

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