Head down and mind immersed in his college studies, Ian Skarbek walks briskly against a cool wind until a friendly voice catches his attention on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. (pop. 31,079).
"Hey, your beard is coming in nicely," shouts Brett Westcott, standing along a busy sidewalk and holding a "Free Compliments" sign with fellow student Cameron Brown. "I like your smiley face button too," Brown adds, pointing to a bright yellow button pinned to Skarbek's backpack.
The unsolicited compliments elicit a broad grin from Skarbeck, 21, heading to his next class.
"These guys really brighten my day," says the junior from Waukegan, Ill., who credits the two strangers for distracting him momentarily from the pressures of schoolwork, tests and the impending need to find employment in a tight job market. "Kindness goes a long way, and these guys go out of their way to show kindness to complete strangers."
Dubbed "the compliment guys," Westcott and Brown, both 20, station themselves for two hours each Wednesday afternoon in front of Purdue's Wetherill chemistry building and, with rapid-fire repartee, shout compliments to passersby along a bustling sidewalk in the heart of campus.
"I just wanted to go out and do something nice for people," explains Westcott, a civil engineering student from Plainfield, Ill., who came up with the idea last year at the beginning of his sophomore year. Holding a homemade poster, he handed out the first compliments one Wednesday during a long break between classes.
Within a few weeks, Brown, whom Westcott had met during their freshman year, joined him in the midweek ritual. "I'd noticed a lot of people were down and sad around campus with the economy so down," recalls Brown, a business management major from Sylvania, Ohio. "A lot of my friends were graduating without jobs, so I wanted to go out there and give them something to smile about."
"I like your curly hair," Brown tells a sandy-haired woman.
"Nice tennis shoes," Westcott shouts to a jogger.
"Love your smile," Brown says to a passing co-ed.
At a university of more than 39,000 students, the guys estimate they shout about a thousand compliments each Wednesdaythrough rain, sleet, snow or freezing cold.
"Giving a compliment is pretty easy, really," Brown explains. "We say things like, 'Great coat. Cool headphones. I dig your goatee. Very nice bicycle.' If someone is eating an apple, we'll compliment them for having a nutritious snack. If they're drinking from a water bottle, we give them a thumbs-up for staying hydrated.
"Everybody has something to compliment. Everybody has something good in them. It just takes a second to find it."
After student Amanda Beering heard about the guys during her freshman year, the Carmel, Ind., resident made a point to walk by the chemistry building on Wednesday afternoonsjust to see what Westcott and Brown would say. "They're the best part of Wednesdays," says Beering, 19, who now occasionally joins the guys and offers compliments of her own. "I'm not as good at it as they are, but I'm getting better."
Chemistry department chairman Paul Shepson declares himself the guys' biggest fanand not just because they compliment him weekly on his neckties and beard, or for being a "snappy dresser."
"One thing I like is that their compliments are always tasteful," says Shepson, 52. "They never say anything crude. They are gentlemen, but not in a nerdy way."
Shepson praises Brown and Westcott for not only affirming people, but for teaching a life lesson to students, staff and faculty alike.
"The world would be a better place if people routinely took the time to notice others around them and interact in a positive way," he says. "They've taught me to make eye contact, smile, be kind to others and show I care. They make me want to be a better person."
Now that is a compliment!