Let’s reduce this to a transaction: do you know what to do if someone randomly, out of the blue, hands you fifty dollars? I think maybe that’s why the phrase is “to pay someone a compliment.” Pay them for what?
None of us seems to know what to do with a compliment shoved into our hands like a fifty dollar bill. Secretly (because it’s not okay, you see, to be seen needy), we will gobble it up, spend it internally on candy and sweets, but for this to happen, we have to be granted the dignity to devour the words in private. A public compliment is an embarrassing thing. Acknowledging it is hard: a terse “thank you,” and then on your way. Really, we’re hungry, scuttling the beach like crabs, approaching those scraps of compliments sideways and round-abouts, wrestling with their ungainly weight, only to tear the words apart and stuff them down our craws. We need the nourishment.
Be careful with compliments, then. Sometimes they’re used as bait for traps, sometimes they’re poisoned. Worst of all, sometimes they can be used to domesticate us, slowly, timidly offered at first, and then before we know it, we’re under someone’s control.
Be careful with compliments. They nourish. There should be no strings. And sometimes, I grant you, there aren’t any. Don’t pay in compliments, expecting something in return. Give them like food to the mouths of friends.