Yesterday evening, while walking Conall and Finn along our road, a car approached, slowed, and the passenger side window went down. A woman of about 80 leaned her head out, smiled and looking at Conall, said, “What a beautiful dog!” as her husband slowly drove by.
They were driving a Subaru, the Vermont state car.
I have a special fondness for such drive-by compliments. First, you know they’re sincere because they come from a total stranger with no agenda other than sharing a nice thought. Second, they require little if any response from me – a smile and a heartfelt “Thank you!” are sufficient. And third, the person offering the compliment also leaves feeling good. Everyone’s happiness quotient is increased, along with oxytocin levels.
The couple in the Subaru were only the latest of several equally positive interactions Conall and I have enjoyed when out and about in our new neighborhood. Conall has greeted runners, walkers and cyclists, positive interactions for all involved. And because of Conall’s extrovertedness, I’m meeting many of my neighbors.
Their positive perception of Conall leaves me with a positive perception of humanity.
I wish that were always the case with compliments, but alas, no.
I’ve always hated the American custom, mostly among women, of greeting other women with a “compliment.” Something like, “Oh, I love your hair/shoes/jacket!” So insincere, 99% of the time. It makes me cringe. Why does interacting with me require you to notice and comment on some aspect of my physical appearance? How sexist and objectifying is that? You don’t do that with men. Why can’t conversations begin with a sincere “What’s up?” or “How have you been?” or even, “How are your dogs?” Just don’t, please don’t, toss out a fake compliment because it tells me I can’t trust you.
Not a positive perception.
In contrast, there’s this sort of compliment: It’s 1979. I’m 22 years old, a newly-divorced college student, in my car, driving in Seattle. I’m stopped on a hill behind several cars waiting for the light to change. Cars going the other direction have also been stopped, but start moving before cars in my lane do. It’s a spring afternoon and the sun in shining, so my window is down and my face turned toward the sun’s warmth as I admire the trees leafing out on the edge of the University of Washington campus. A pickup slowly approaches from the oncoming lane of traffic and I look at the driver as his vehicle obstructs my view of the trees. His window is also down, just three or four feet from me. “You have beautiful blue eyes,” the man says as he slowly rolls past my car, disappearing forever. Surprised, I don’t even have time to say thank you.
But I felt the warmth of that compliment for the rest of that day, that week, and still do even today, decades later, as I retell the story. Such a simple thing, his spontaneous compliment, with a profoundly positive impact.
That’s the day I learned how to give a real compliment: no expectations, just sincerity and a clean getaway.
The goal: to always leave a positive perception.
After the woman in the Subaru complimented Conall, I felt a huge sigh of relief and an instant sensation of, “Okay, that proves it; we’re home.” Living in Washington state, my Malamutes always elicited a similarly positive reaction from strangers. People passing by on foot or in cars would tell me “They’re gorgeous!” and ask to meet them, which the girls loved. But immediately after moving to Idaho, I noticed people showing fear, moving away rather than toward us, rarely asking to meet the girls (or later, Conall), and if they said anything, it was almost always to ask cautiously if they were wolves. I constantly lived in fear that my dogs would be shot, mistaken for wolves, because so many in Idaho had negative perceptions of wolves and “saw” a scary wolf behind every tree even though in reality they’d never actually seen a wolf because they’re elusive and want nothing to do with humans. (Wise creatures, wolves.)
It’s wonderful to again be living in a place where people don’t have irrational fear or hatred toward wolves, or dogs that resemble them. A place where Conall can greet strangers on roads and trails because they aren’t conditioned to fear him. A place where I can relax and enjoy those happy interactions, unconcerned about Conall (and me) being shot.
To once again have such positive interactions was a primary goal when I moved to Vermont.
So far, so good.
Take this morning as an example. Conall and I explored a new trail. He didn’t need his orange Do Not Hunt Me vest. He happily greeted hikers heading up the trail as we were heading down, returning to our car. One woman we met recounted how when her kids were small, they lived next door to two Alaskan Malamutes. Her kids would spend hours playing in the snow with them. “And they never barked!” she added. Her companion kept telling me what a great dog Conall is.
And that was the case several weeks ago when friends showed me and Conall a popular trail. It was a busy morning, with lots of hikers and dogs to greet as we headed back down the trail toward our cars. Almost all of the people said “What a beautiful dog” upon seeing Conall approaching them (Conall is always in lead position when we’re out on trails), either directly to me or to each other (with me overhearing). People let their children and dogs say hello to Conall without concern or fear. Only once did I hear a woman say to her companion, “It looks a little like a wolf.” Which is true; he does. But they weren’t afraid of him.
They weren’t afraid.
So different from Idaho.
So welcome to my eyes and ears, these positive perceptions and compliments.
I love sincere compliments, especially when directed toward Conall.
Feature image: lenticular clouds seen on the evening walk when Conall received his drive-by compliment.