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The Best Things in Life Are Free

Campus | February 19, 2013

In the past year, Tufts has made national news for bias incidents gone wrong and was included on the New York Times Magazine’s “meh” list, but now our student body is beginning to be known for something new: “just making people smile.” Tufts Free Compliments, a relatively new student group, is gaining journalistic momentum. Last month, for example, The Boston Globe published an article congratulating the group as being “responsible for boosting morale on campus.”

Tufts Free Compliments was established in 2007 with the hope of generating a “positive and accepting environment at Tufts.” Since its inception, the group has used methods based on the positive psychology movement—which, in broad terms, argues that compliments encourage confidence, engagement with peers, and offer a prerogative to contribute positively to one’s community. “Even if the compliments seem trivial and fleeting,” says senior Charlotte Mostertz, who is not a part of group, “these small acts of kindness have the potential to encourage others to pay it forward.” Sophomore Brendan Conron, who currently leads Tufts Free Compliments, calls this the “complimenting butterfly effect.”

But Tufts students’ own opinions about the free compliments have been surprisingly brushed off in light of all this positive publicity. Going against the current, many Tufts students are critical of the group because they question whether the compliments are genuine or just unnecessary pestering. There are some that feel a slight lack of sincerity from the complimenters. Some students simply call the group “pointless.” One student mentioned that the compliments “border on the superficial,” reminding him “of how social interactions can often be a mere show and lack truth behind them.”

While these students and many others wouldn’t necessarily voice these sentiments to the Tufts Compliments group, their comments highlight the critical attitude of Tufts students. This school’s rigorous education certainly works to develop strong analytical skills. However, we often carry these investigative habits into our social relationships. Senior Jason Wilson remarked that “Tufts students are uniquely skilled in criticizing and sometimes we apply our critical thinking skills to situations when they’re not necessary.” Sometimes, a compliment is just that, and as such should be accepted, not scrutinized.

One interesting and potentially more successful supplement to the group’s mission is their Facebook page, where students can post compliments about their friends. To some, this platform for positive interaction seems ostentatious. Sophomore Nathaniel Williams compares it to “the difference between posting on someone’s Facebook wall and sending a private inbox message; why do compliments need to be public?” Tufts Free Compliments, however, claims that they “are only attempting to encourage and facilitate positive interactions but [they] don’t drive it.”

The Facebook forum also gives its users the option of anonymity—which, the group argues, is useful for those who feel too shy to express their compliments verbally. Perhaps this just demonstrates another example of how social media platforms inhibit real-life personal engagement. Nevertheless, the concept’s growing popularity is undeniable. Brendan Conron, who also runs the Facebook page, cites that “Since October, about 50% of colleges in the United States, and even some high schools now have similar online complimenting pages.”

Whether or not online and face-to-face compliment groups succeed in creating a better social environment is unclear. It seems that the success of their goals relies entirely upon the individual. Sophomore Philippe Maman mentions that he feels the group’s goal isn’t realized because “they just repeat similar compliments to each person that passes, making their method more obligational than genuine.” While this may hold true for some students, standing outside Tisch Library with signs, smiles, and potentially flattering remarks certainly doesn’t trigger many harmful social effects.

So, before adopting skepticism about the sincerity of Tufts Free Compliments, we should keep in mind the importance of the group’s enthusiastic intentions to spread positive social interaction. By transferring our intellectual criticism into the social aspects of this community, we can perpetuate unnecessary negativity. Tufts Free Compliments attempts to actively counteract this mindset. As Conron says, “If I can make at least one person happy per day, then it’s worth it.” And that’s definitely not “meh.”