When I was growing up, my mom would from time to time offer me a “t.l.” or “trade last.” She’d explain, “Somebody said something nice about you to me, and I’ll tell you what it was, but first you have to tell me something nice someone said about me.” I never heard anyone else use the term so I assumed it was unique to her or her family or perhaps was some local slang from her childhood. But decades later I learned that it’s a real term, right there in Webster’s.
Here’s my dictionary’s definition of “trade-last”: “a complimentary remark by a third person that a hearer offers to repeat to the person complimented if he will first report a compliment made by the hearer.” Here’s an example. Jack says to Fred, “You should see the new deck that Joe built onto his house: He did an awesome job, and all by himself.” So the next time Fred sees Joe, he says that he has a “t.l.” for him, and Joe says, “Okay, here you go: My kid says you’re an amazing Sunday school teacher.” And Fred says, “Thanks, that’s nice to hear,” and then he tells Joe about how much Jack praised his handiwork with the new deck. So Fred feels good, and Joe feels good, and maybe the next time Joe sees Jack he thanks him for praising his deck, and so Jack feels good, too. It’s win-win-win.
Thus, it’s a good way to encourage people to encourage people, and of course there’s plenty in the various New Testament letters about how we Christians are supposed to do that, not to mention that passing along compliments is certainly doing unto someone as we would have them do unto us. So I recommend it.
Note, by the way, that the fact that the compliments are by a third party really sweetens them. That is, it’s obviously nice if Jack just tells Joe directly that he did a great job on the new deck, and Jack should certainly do so, but we humans being only human, Joe might wonder if maybe Jack has some ulterior motive in being so nice. On the other hand, Joe knows that there is no reason for Jack to praise the deck to Fred unless he really means it.
A couple of caveats. Of course, the compliment should be for something that is not morally problematic and, even better, for something that is morally praiseworthy. That is, “Jim says you really pulled one over the security guard at Wal-Mart yesterday” is not the sort of encouraging word St. Paul had in mind; nothing wrong, on the other hand, with the nice-deck comment I use in the example above; and better still would be, “Sue says you are the most thoughtful and considerate person she knows.”
Finally, if you offer someone a t.l., don’t be too much of a stickler for getting your compliment before sharing. And, if you are offered one, do your best to come up with something quickly. Responding, “Gee, right offhand I can’t really think of anything nice that anyone has ever said about you — can I get back to you on that?” is poor form.