I Am Really Bad at Giving Compliments

by Bill Murphy Jr.
Originally Published: 
A billboard for Porkys burgers with a pig wearing a cylinder hat at the top.
Flickr/TJ Dewey

I learned something about myself the other day. It turns out I may have been complimenting people all wrong.

Let’s set the table for how this came about. My wife and I had the chance to spend a few days in New Orleans, which was was one of the final cities on my list to visit within the United States. As I’ve now experienced it, New Orleans is all about amazing music, fantastic food, and free-flowing drinks, but for the purposes of this story our focus will be on the food, starting with the dinner we had our first night there, at a legendary restaurant called Commander’s Palace.

This place was awesome. It’s the kind of restaurant where you know you’re going to be set back a few big bucks, but where the food and service make it easily worthwhile. We were waited on by a team of three servers—a woman and two men—and they were all doing an utterly amazing job, being incredibly attentive, friendly and expert.

Our waitress assured us that if you’ve never tried turtle soup before, Commander’s Palace is the place to do it. She was right. I’d been expecting some kind of creamy chowder, but what we got instead was absurdly, uniquely good: a reddish-burgundy broth with perfect texture, fantastic flavor, and just a hint of sherry bringing it all together. I followed that with an even better entrée—pan-seared redfish in an iron skillet. It was ridiculously delicious. Everything was perfect.

Then, our waitress came by to check on us—and this is where my lesson came about.

“How are you enjoying everything so far?” she asked.

“Just fine,” I replied.

This response sparked a chain of events. Our waitress grew very concerned. Opinions were cross-examined; assistants were called over. Managers may have been consulted. “Just fine” apparently does not cut it at Commander’s Palace; this is the kind of place where they aim much higher—like, “incredible beyond every other meal I’ve ever eaten.”

“Fine.” As a word, I had always thought that it constituted a compliment—something good or positive, of high quality. Perhaps you will side with the waitress, however, and share her apparent conviction that “just fine” is a rather wishy-washy response. I suppose I should have learned this long ago—as many of us have learned with romantic partners, for example: “just fine” does not mean fine at all. Instead, it means barely satisfactory. My attempts to rectify my characterization were largely unsuccessful; it seems the servers held fast to the notion that if I’d truly found the meal fantastic, I would have said so to begin with.

Fortunately, my wife rescued me, explaining that just a moment earlier, I had said something like, “This dinner is freaking amazing!” She also pointed out that I do this all the time—offer what others might think of as faint praise when I really mean to suggest high praise. A friend achieves something momentous, and I respond, “That’s pretty good!” or someone tells a hilarious joke and I wind up saying, “That’s actually kind of funny.”

This became a running joke for the rest of the weekend. Being in New Orleans, we ate quite a bit, and I made a conscious effort to tell servers that our meals were “just fine,” only now following that comment with more over-the-top endorsements.

“How was your gumbo?”

“Oh, just fine,” I’d begin, adding, “In fact, it was the most amazing gumbo I’ve ever had!”

(This also ran the risk of backfiring, as at least one server at another restaurant thought I was being sarcastic at her expense.)

I could put myself on the couch and try to figure out where all of this comes from. I’m tempted to say it might be an Irish or Irish-Catholic tendency. There’s a bit of fatalism in that culture, an idea that anything really great will be followed by something horrible. Fallow follows fair, tragedy follows triumph. So I wonder if maybe this is some kind of inherited linguistic inoculation.

Regardless, it leaves me wondering how many other “not bads” and “pretty goods” I’ve uttered when I really meant something much more positive. Have I been a master of understatement and a habitual under-praiser? With that, I’d like to offer some apologies and clarifications:

To Vinit Bharara, the founder & CEO of Cafe and its parent company, Some Spider: I love this job and my work here. I did not mean to imply otherwise by describing it as “definitely among the seven or eight best jobs I’ve had in the last 15 years.”

To Peter Hirsch, my fellow co-executive editor: Your article on being mistaken for a homeless person at Pret à Manger was not simply “kind of funny,” as I suggested; instead, it was so hilarious that I nearly snorted scalding hot tea through my nose while reading it.

To the jocks who picked on me mercilessly decades ago in school: I will not merely hunt you down to the ends of the earth; I will disregard how spheres work.

To the Chrysler Group LLC: The Jeep I have been driving since 2011 is not just “pretty good.” It is in fact “excellent,” notwithstanding the suspension issues and related repair bills.

To the writer we talked with a few weeks ago: I apologize for referring to your work as “actually quite good,” and especially for the way my voice rose a half-octave toward the end of the second word: Your Modern Love pieces and other samples were actually excellent.

To the weather in New Orleans over the past several days, which I described as “nice” in conversation with a couple from Denver as we waited for the streetcar: In fact, your combination of 65-degree sunny days and 55-degree still nights were exactly the respite we needed from the early Northeastern winter.

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