If You See Something, Say Something
A shedload of sociologists descends on New York next week for a big annual meeting. As we scuffle for jobs and book deals or steel ourselves for presentations, the vibe can be a bit tense in the hotel lobbies. It isn’t easy to present new ideas to an audience that prides itself on the critical analysis of new ideas.
But there’s a small move you can make to improve said vibe, whether you’re a professional academic or a civilian reader who just enjoys sociological writing. Has anyone's work inspired or influenced you? Did a writer turn a particularly memorable phrase in an article or post on TSP or elsewhere? If so, tell them about it! Send a quick note or strike up a conversation with someone whose work you’ve enjoyed and tell them so.
A good compliment is an amazing restorative – enough to sustain most of us for a year. But there’s a strong professional bias against giving and receiving compliments, as sociologists take a jaundiced view of the practice. A 2012 study is titled “apple-polishers, butt-kissers, and suck-ups” and most research on compliments points to class, race, and (especially) gender disparities in ingratiation. But there’s also a grain of truth in Oscar Wilde’s admonishment in Lady Windermere’s Fan: it is a great mistake to give up paying compliments, “for when we give up saying what is charming, we give up thinking what is charming.”
Compliments can be an unexpected delight -- people noticing your name tag or sending an email out of the blue (especially when you're not chairing a hiring committee). And the more obscure and left-field the compliment, the better. Kind words about a newsletter piece, a talk for a community organization, or a small contribution to a book that sold 5 copies are especially appreciated. Looking over the past year, did you find something charming or true in one piece you read? Or, perhaps, in a piece of a piece you read? If so, the author would like to hear about it.
If you’re so inclined, here are a few general characteristics and specific examples of good compliments, as distinct from simple schmoozing. The first is the most important; if you’re not feeling it, the recipient won’t either. And do try to avoid backhanded compliments (saying something positive, and then bringing the nasty).
- Good: “I was struggling with the method until I read your description in that AJR article – it was so clear! I can’t tell you how much that helped me.”
- Less good: “I saw your new article in AJR. It must be so nice to be friends with the editors!” [tip: resist all temptation to follow-up a compliment with an “it must be nice to…” or “I wish I had…”].
- Good: “As an ethnographer, I rarely find quantitative research that taps into what I’m doing. But you really seem to ‘get’ the processes I’m seeing in the schools.”
- Less Good: “Your work has decent face validity.”
- Good: “Please tell me it took you all day to write that last paragraph – you completely nailed that civic reintegration idea.”
- Less Good: “I’ve seen your blog. I wish I had so much extra time on my hands!”
- Good: “I really liked your health disparities review piece, especially how you pulled in public health stuff – it was great for my prelim.”
- Less Good: “I’ve read a lot of your articles” [As an old friend once said, “that’s how I know they’re lying – there aren't that many of my articles to read!”]
- Good: “Smashing network diagrams!”
- Less Good: “Nice slides.”