“I love your hair!” — I tracked every compliment I got for a week (narrative nonfiction)

Surprisingly, this project started as the exact opposite of the tagline.

I like to give compliments. More than that — I make a point to say it every time I find someone unique. I love alternative fashion and trying new things. I recently began collecting data to track how often and what kind of compliments I gave other people.

But putting myself out there, socially or physically, makes my heart beat like I sprinted 100 meters. It’s scary and nerve-wracking and hard. The good news: it all becomes much less so when a girl points at my shoes, and shouts “Cool!” before jogging on her way. She’s already run off and out of my life, but I’m left with the warmth of her words for hours.

Compliments seem so simple when you give them out, but when you remember how they feel to receive…they’re powerful, aren’t they? After awful days, a kind word from a stranger can make me manage a smile by the end of it. I was thinking about all this when I came across Giorgia Lupi’s beautiful data visualization projects.

She creates genuine art pieces, abstract yet purposeful in design and intention. You think it’s just a picture, before realizing every color, shape, and placement is a data point. A caterpillar for a bad day, a butterfly for a good one. A red line that means I love you, but a red dotted line that means I hate you. Data visualization uses creative symbolism, rather than dreary old line charts.

Statistics can, somehow, be an art form. And fun? I needed to take a stab at it.

So: why not track how many compliments I give in a week? The short time frame for snappy results. (Yes, even data tracking is all about instant gratification these days.) I’d of course track the number, along with the ‘kinds’ of things I said. Did I like their skirt, or did they have an interesting name? While I predicted the vast majority would be me telling girls “I love your fit!”, I also wrote down if whoever I spoke to was a guy, a girl, or somewhere in between. With my Docs app locked and loaded, I was ready to jot down every compliment I gave in a week.

I started on Monday. With only one class and plenty of homework to do, it’s a day where I don’t interact with many people. I sat down next to a classmate with amazing rainbow-dyed hair and a very cool black trench coat. Of course, I had already complimented her on those things weeks ago — no dice.

Rather than anything physical, as I had expected my first data point to be, my first compliment was on her music taste. Our project for that class was to make a lyric video. She had chosen Normal People Things by Lovejoy.

“I love that song!” I butted in excitedly during a comnversation. “I thought about picking that one, too.”

“Really?” She perked up.

“Well,” I shrugged with a lopsided smile. “I’m certainly not doing it now, but you’ve got great taste…”

We chatted a bit more about the frontman, before returning to work. She thanked me politely, and that was the summation of day one. After class, I was straight back to my dorm (read: bed) where I didn’t even speak with anyone else that day, let alone get the chance to compliment them.

Day two was when gears shifted. Early Tuesday morning (a.k.a. 12:15 AM) I was click-clacking down the stairs and crushing grass under my heel as I made my rush for the bus. Alas, the endeavor was for naught. The 12:30 had already filled up and left without me.

Thankfully — tragically? — I was far from the only one. At least 20 fretful students were left in the dust, huddled together like penguin chicks who had lost their mothers. To be fair, it was a tad brisk out. Mid-70 something, which is sheer frostbite levels for Floridians. Luckily, I had my black trench coat on to valiantly fight the blizzard off. (Inspired by the girl in my computer class, in fact.)

Rather than joining the huddle, I beelined it to the grass on the side. See, I knew something that the juvenile fresh meat did not: there was a discreet, secondary bus hidden here to pick up overflow. It was really more of a van, though, with only twenty spots compared to the bus’ fifty. With my strategic position stalking the plain-clothed backup driver, I got prime real estate in the front row. I was a king, lounging on his throne to watch as the peasants scrambled over the grass and into the van.

A boy with a few piercings hurried next to me, and I complimented his nose ring first thing. He blinked, a bit surprised and out of breath, before gesturing to my outfit with a smile.

“I like your whole,” Vague hand gesture. “Dress, skirt thing. You’ve got, like, a whole look going on. It’s cool.”

I replied with how it was a dress I put a vest over — to make it look less dressy, isn’t that funny? — and only had my epiphany far, far delayed. I had sat down to track my data in the evening, opening my document, before pausing.

Wait. I realized. What am I supposed to do if someone else compliments me?

In all my brilliant wisdom and forethought, I failed to consider that other people like to give compliments too. Under my data on him, I decided to jot down a brief bullet point. He mentioned my outfit. Other people’s words weren’t a statistic I was thinking of tracking, but I thought I might as well.

Still, I left it only as a bullet. Ever since I’ve started making an effort to do so, I don’t usually get as many compliments as I give. This was likely a one-off, and there wouldn’t be more data for me to add any other day. I’d probably scrap the whole category soon.

Left Halves: Compliments I gave. Right Halves: Compliments I got.

At the end of the week, I ended up getting 66.6% as many compliments as I gave others.

“I love your shoes.” was barely out of my lips before the girl walking parallel with me said, “I was about to say that too!”

Wednesday, a goth girl looked me up and down at the same time I did her, and jinxed me when we spoke at the same time: “Your style is so cool!”

Still, not every compliment I gave was about fashion. Tuesday, a boy stopped me with a mini succulent in his hands, and told me with a disbelieving laugh that they were giving them out for free. An act of pure, spontaneous joy, wanting to share something nice with the first stranger he saw. I told him his tiny plant was adorable, before going off to get one of my own. (I named her Demon Lord, for reference.)

I had initially worried I might end up with no data. I was so wrong. Did I really speak up that often when I came across unique people? Strangers with good style are the most intimidating, after all. You can’t help but want to impress them, to refrain from saying anything embarrassing, and I often chickened out.

Despite that, I usually went through the entire day completely forgetting about my self-assigned task until I sat down, and checked my data each night. I was pleasantly reassured to notice that yes, this is a real habit, and no, I’m not just hyping myself up in my head.

I was also making a point of not giving more compliments than I usually do. I only gave t them to people and things that stood out to me. However, going to a Pride Student Union meeting on Thursday certainly helped fill my data chart.

Opinion: Rose. Clothes: Lavender. Item/Accessory: Spider Lily. Hair: Daisy. Name: Tulip.

Even without the key to the chart above, I think you can tell what day I attended the meeting. Each flower represents one compliment, the species tells what kind, and color is the gender presentation of the person receiving the compliment. Thursday was the only day where I colored flowers red, for an androgynous presentation. Can you tell orange was chosen for feminine? Leaving purple, of course, for masculine.

When you first meeting someone, a compliment is a great icebreaker. At the PSU event, the overlapping of subcultures also made it a hotspot of dyed hair and alt-fashion that I’m a huge fan of. It certainly skewed my data. If I tracked a week when there was no PSU meet, I don’t think Thursday’s bouquet would typically be so full.

No matter. I attended and had a blast. One person I introduced myself to had bleached-brown hair with darker roots. My hair is naturally hazelnut but with blonde bangs and under streaks.

“We have the same hair,” I said to the person who did not have the same hair as me.

“Mm?” They looked up.

“You have light and dark brown hair, I have light blonde and brown hair.” I waved a hand around my hair. “Conceptually, we kinda have the same hair, don’t we?”

They laughed at my absurd logic, but nodded anyway. “Oh, yeah, totally.”

My chunky streaks were a hit at the Students with Cool Hair Union. One person even came halfway across the room just to say so.

“I’m Mina.” They introduced themselves after complimenting me.

“Wow, we have the same name,” I said to the person who did not have the same name as me. Luckily, I had befriended my not-hair-twin earlier, and they stood with me as proof that this strange tactic of friendship worked.

“Really?” Mina asked.

“No. I’m lying. I’m actually Kayla. But, Min-uh and Kay-luh are kinda the same. If you squint your ears.”

“You’re crazy,” said Mina’s friend, Jupiter, whom I had complimented on his name. He was smiling, though, so I knew my weird friendship bait had lured enough fish to justify the approach.

“Yeah, my name isn’t even Kayla, it’s Kayla Marie. Or Kai-lah, if you’re Hispanic.”

“Do you prefer it the Spanish way??”

“Maybe. I like it ‘cuz it sounds like ‘calamari’ when you say it fast.”



“No, no, with the accent.”

Kai-lah-mah-ree — holy shit, it does sound like calamari.”

It’s so cheesy to say, but the power of kind words stood out the most to me then. The room was full of kind strangers, all doing their best to make the intimidating first meet of the year feel welcoming in the way we all knew how. Simple, sweet remarks about a unique piercing, DIY dye job, or shared taste in music.

Friday was an unfortunate case of no new data. Nothing given or received. The weekend, however, surprised me in a much more pleasant way. Those two days were the only ones where other people complimented me more than I did them. I noticed they were all from women older than me, and it was a wonderful shock every time.

It’s telling, how I didn’t quite have the confidence to speak as liberally outside of school. During weekdays, I do my best to breach my boundaries and be as extroverted as possible. On weekends, I haven’t quite reached the level of maturity to do the same off campus.

Still, the proof that other women also make an effort to compliment others left me optimistic. In a year or two, once I’ve graduated from university, I think I could reach their esteemed ranks.

In total, I gave out 15 compliments and received 10. I don’t think I could’ve managed half that number a few years ago. It’s probably just because I’ve grown into my style as I’ve gotten older, but I like to think it’s more than that. We’ve all struggled in recent years. As a response to that, more than a few people have decided to make concerted efforts to be kinder. Orange was by and large the most common color to be complimented. 16 out of 25. Phrases like women support women have been tossed around like a dryer on high, but there might be some truth to it.

Regardless, compliments make everyone feel better. More than that, it also feels nice to give them. They might compliment you back, as data has proven, which is great! But, when I started this experiment, that was nowhere on my mind.

Truly, just the joy of making someone else glow is enough. Yeah, society is failing and the future is bleak. Flowers are blooming in the attic, nowhere near as pleasant as the ones collected for my vases. Still, on a personal scale…all we can do is try to brighten up our small worlds. Making a difference in our tiny spheres, schools, and clubrooms.

To make people’s lives better, we can easily do it one step at a time. One word at a time.

“Cool!” I say to a stranger as I run past, late for the bus again.

She blinks down at her skirt. Until I pointed at it, she seemed to have forgotten its existence. As she touches the velvety fabric, she sees what had made her buy it in the first place. The raised floral imprints, the bold forest green, and a realization that other people love it too.

Her eyes crinkle, and a smile creeps up her cheeks.


Kayla Marie is a Political Science and Digital Media double major, currently attending Florida International University.