Have I Told You How Much I Like…

With a kind word, the Tufts Free Compliments group tries to brighten up the day

Raised in “stranger-danger” times, when many avoid making eye contact on the street, Brendan Conron, E15, is bucking the trend with one goal—make people smile.

Donning handwritten cardboard signs with the words “free compliments,” Conron and a small group of Tufts friends stand outside Tisch Library on the Medford/Somerville campus for an hour or two every week, offering positive commentary to each and every passerby.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment when you compliment someone and you see them smile or you know that you’ve made their day better,” says Conron, president of the Tufts Free Compliments group. “That’s a big part of the reason why I do it.”

Based on the positive psychology movement that began in the late 1990s as a way to develop a culture of well-being, Free Compliments established roots at Tufts in 2007, thanks to Marc Finder, A11, and is now building a stronger reputation, says Conron. In November the group gained national recognition with a mention in USA Today College on its list of “Six Quirky College Clubs.”

“In the past we sometimes received negative reactions; people said they’ve found us insincere, lackluster or almost fake,” Conron says. “Some people believe that you can’t really give a sincere compliment if you don’t know the person. This can be true, but when you’re complimenting, it is almost a different mindset.”

For Conron, delivering a sincere compliment is an art that begins with examining each person as they pass, and then finding that intriguing feature that makes them stand out and bringing it to light. While physical appearance can make for easy fodder, Conron says the group is trying to lean toward non-material complimenting.

“We try to notice the way people carry themselves, or their attitude, so we could say things like, ‘You look determined, or intelligent or academic,’ instead of material things,” Conron says. “When we say we like your boots, most people think, ‘Well that’s not really a compliment; that’s just noting that you like the pattern of my boots.’”

The group has 10 active members and is looking to become a university-recognized club, a move that would allow these purveyors of verbal bouquets to conduct more formal meetings and host training sessions and complimenting seminars. In anticipation of this, the club has added an online component.

Using Facebook, they have created the “Tufts Compliments” profile, where people can submit an anonymous compliment about a member of the Tufts community that the group then posts on the individual’s behalf. Since its launch in November, the profile has received and shared more than 100 compliments, and they continue to come in.

While the online community is booming, Conron says the core of the group will always be alfresco complimenting sessions.

“I think my generation in general has this barrier of technology where it’s so much easier to talk to someone on Facebook than it is in real life,” Conron says. “Kids now entering high school have had Facebook for a number of years, and that’s the only way they communicate. They’re so used to that easy social-media approach that they don’t remember or aren’t used to putting in the minimum effort in a real conversation.”

Conron hopes the group eventually will become known as leaders in the positive psychology movement. They plan to spread the love beyond Tufts, possibly hosting a few complimenting sessions on Boston Common.

“One thing we really want people to know about Tufts Free Compliments is that there is no hidden agenda. We’re just trying to make you happy,” Conron says. “Even when it’s freezing cold and there are 20-mile-per-hour winds, you’ll see people still standing here and still trying to make you feel good.”

Kaitlin Provencher can be reached at kaitlin.provencher@tufts.edu.

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