How to Give and Take a Compliment

It’s not rocket science (only kind of).

10.20.16
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Recently someone told me I was “decent looking.” If you can believe it, I had trouble accepting such a glowing compliment. I physically squirmed. While it’s easy to admonish myself in hindsight — heaven forbid I come off as anything other than the picture of grace, empowerment and self-assurance — I think that’s doing the exchange a disservice. Because the giving and receiving of compliments, however paltry they may be, is riddled with complexity.

The way girls and women receive compliments has been a hot topic for a few years now and the general thesis is that we do it wrong. Kind of like how we apologize unnecessarily, use too much vocal fry, don’t demand enough money, too often minimize our own language and are too sensitive. That kind of highly dangerous stuff. Last year The Huffington Post provided us with a how-to guide for receiving expressions of admiration. “[Rejecting it] downplays your role and insults the person who paid you the compliment in the first place,” they explain. “When you deny, deflect or self-insult, others may misinterpret your actions and think of you as ungrateful or insecure.”

But, question: when you give someone a compliment and they don’t provide a concise “thank you” and move on, do you think them ungrateful? I don’t. In her book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, author Autumn Whitefield-Madrano says that maybe a lot of us reject compliments for a reason that’s more nuanced than insecurity. Haley Mlotek interviewed her for the New Yorker and together they present a compelling counter-argument.

“Compliments between women, [Whitefield-Madrano] explains, are also ‘a convenient linguistic tool’ that women use as a ‘gateway to connection,'” says Mlotek. “Rejecting or deflecting an admiring comment, rather than acting as simple self-effacement, also serves a very basic and useful social function: it keeps the conversation going. Where a clipped ‘thank you’ would end the dialogue, a joke or confession—’This haircut is ruining my life!’—keeps the exchange in flux. In so doing, it allows for casual exchanges to turn into moments of significant bonding.”

It’s a much more forgiving spin, isn’t it? The point isn’t that we ought to reject nice stuff, the point is that doing so doesn’t have to undermine our position as evolved people. Sometimes I do respond with a simple “thank you,” which is fine, but sometimes I want to share my vulnerabilities instead. Sometimes that feels more honest and conducive to connecting. Sometimes “Thank you, that’s so nice to hear because to be honest, I was a little nervous” serves both. Let’s just live.

Giving them can be tricky too. A friend of mine recently texted me to ask if I thought it was okay to compliment a woman on her appearance. It was a genuine question, and one I couldn’t answer on behalf of my entire gender, but I took a lengthy stab anyway because I’m me and I text in paragraphs with line breaks and everything. (Text me sometime.) I told him that I thought the rules were as follows: yes, but don’t limit your compliments to her appearance. As in: I love the way you pull off that dress instead of I love that dress. And then, perhaps: I love the way your mind works. You’re kind of a freaking genius. I don’t know! Just an idea.

Complimenting kids, girls in particular, can be even trickier. Compliment their brains, not their looks, one article suggests. Compliment what they do, not who they are, says another. It’s a lot to remember, but all of this, including my advice to my friend, circle back to the same point: notice and praise people for their wholeness. And if they respond with something other than a curt “thank you,” maybe just appreciate the further engagement. Maybe out-compliment each other until your heads blow off. Maybe let’s just honor each other for the very odd and special and flawed creatures we all are, rules be damned. What do you say?

I love the way you read this, by the way.

Photos by Krista Anna Lewis; Re/Done jeans, Mari Giudicelli shoes, Nancy Gonzalez bag, Topshop socks.

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  • Harling Ross

    I love uncovering the little jokes and beautifully worded brain massages nestled away in Haley’s articles, like a pig digging for truffles

    • Haley Nahman

      Hahahaha harling…..ur a freak and i love you so much

  • i choked on my lunch laughing at the second sentence. im serious. so thanks for the mini heart attack. I baby sit all the time, run playdates, attend little birthday parties, and really pay attention to the kind of compliments i pay little girls. I don’t think it’s bad to compliment a little girls’ outfit or looks, if that’s the way a person feels most comfortable connecting with a child, but I like to go beyond that, ask about school, about trick or treating, ask for a high five, pay attention to more of them that what’s on the surface, but I understand with a quick hello at the park you won’t sit a child down and tell them you appreciate their wholeness. as for adults, i think the older i get, the better i am at accepting compliments, i think accepting a compliment, compliments the compliment-er. SAY THAT FIVE TIMES FAST.

    • Haley Nahman

      Lol back @ u

  • “praise people for their wholeness” !!! YES! all of this discussion in recent years of how to react to compliments has been confusing in how multifaceted it is, but this gives new light. I think it’s absolutely true that deflecting can be a way to connect with other women, and maybe that’s wrong, but maybe it’s just part of being vulnerable. I’m not sure. But this was wonderful!

  • Stephanie Lloyd

    Haley, I appreciate that your male friend is asking for appropriate ways to compliment women without coming off like a creep!

    Also, it might just be me, but I absolutely hate it when people compliment with a qualifier, i.e. “kinda”. I get
    this all the time from men in my architecture office. “That’s kinda a
    great idea” or “that’s sorta a beautiful drawing”. It always feels
    insulting, although I am sure most of the time their intent is good.

    • Adardame

      Do they use that language when talking about other people’s work or just yours?

    • Haley Nahman

      That would totally annoy me!

  • ella

    And I just love the way you wrote this! This was spot on. The rules of complimenting have become so layered that in a way, it almost defeats its purpose, which I believe if nothing else, is to just stand alone and catch someone by surprise. Maybe? IDK, but I think you cut through all the layers by simply putting it as: praise people for their wholeness <3

    • Haley Nahman

      <3

  • Natalalaa

    First: yes please, I’d love to text you, as your pieces are equally funny and inspiring!
    I’m so into the idea of transitioning positive remarks about someone’s appearance from the pure superficial purpose to a more mindful compliment, which actually means something and isn’t just a polite way to get a conversation started. Of course I like it when someone is also into the way I combinated my clothes ( I mean it takes sometimes more time than I like to admit to get dressed…) but just stating the obvious compared to appreciating the thoughts behind the outfit or that the person obviously feels pretty confident and comfortable with what he or she is wearing is such a more amiable and personal remark. Guess it shows that the complimenter honestly means it and that’s truely a compliment which is so much easier to except and appreciate.

    • Haley Nahman

      Agreed!! I would text you back!

  • Compliments are so hard when they really shouldn’t be, they’re so tied up in relationship politics and other politics now. But I still believe they’re something really special, and when someone compliments something that’s really special to you, it’s a really great feeling

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • The Divine Miss M

    I usually deflect compliments even when I know they’re true – I really did nail that song at karaoke, or my hair does look really nice today (for a change). I feel weird just saying thank you because I feel like agreeing with the compliment comes off as “Oh I know right? I’m so awesome!” I don’t know if it’s a woman thing or an “I was raised kinda Puritan” thing but anything that seems like vanity or pride/ boastfulness kind of freaks me out. I was taught to be modest and (me being me) I took it to the level of self-negation. It’s hard to overcome that.

    • Yeah, I get that. But I like the perspective this post shares. When I want to compliment another woman it’s because she seems really cool to me and I have to tell her. I’ll have to remember that next time someone compliments me, because I never see it from the other person’s perspective.

  • Audrey Fromson

    When the members of my 7th grade lunch table started to argue with one another, I would force us into a compliment circle. I didn’t allow for compliments based on appearances and instead instructed each friend to name attributes that they loved or admired about another friend.

    Middle school, am I right

    • Adardame

      I am impressed. 7th graders can be quite unreasonable.

      • Haley Nahman

        That’s the cutest.

  • Adardame

    I would not normally regard “decent looking” as a compliment, but if you say that’s how they intended it, I will take your word for it. I agree that deflecting compliments is often used to continue a conversation while a thank you is often used to disengage. Personally, I prefer, to say “Well, of course! I’m fabulous!” in an affected tone, but to each her own.

    • Adardame

      I’m not very good at giving compliments. I committed myself to doing so more often, and have given more, but they always turn out kind of awkward. I don’t know what to say after the other person says “Thank you.”

  • Andreina

    I think is perfectly fine to compliment someone’s body. The problem comes only when someone in a position of power compliments someone elses body. For example, among women is nice to get compliments because we are both players on the field, meaning, subject to the same social pressure to look a certain way, but for men the social expectations are not the same. When women compliment their looks it’s actually a good way to reclaim our agency and the value of our opinions.

    Besides, it’s imposible to know someone’s wholeness. The advice about complimenting someone’s effort is great but applies in the context of learning and working.

    I would say: compliment effort on learning and work, compliment directly when it comes to looks.

    • Haley Nahman

      I like this!

  • Mariana

    “…decent looking…such a glowing compliment” This made me lol!
    I find it harder to received a compliment than to give one. When someone say to me “I love your dress!” or “That was a nice gesture!” my tendency is to minimize the compliment, replying “Oh, it was so cheap/it is old.” and “Oh, everyone would do that”. I don’t know, but I think this comes from a place of not knowing or not value myself as I should, maybe? Or I am just weird lol

    • I think it’s come from how harshly the world treats women who think well of themselves? Maybe we’re all just avoiding being branded as full of ourselves, which wouldn’t suddenly be true, but would still be said.

  • Natasha

    So true about keeping the conversation going thing! When other women compliment me I see it as them opening a door to further connection, and a short ‘Oh thank you’ feels like I’m leaving them hanging. Saying more, and yes, often in deflection or self-deprecation or with humor, always feels like the better choice for me.

    • Haley Nahman

      Completely agree! There are so many reasons to deflect beyond insecurity

  • Interesting insight, I find it so difficult to take a genuine compliment and never know what to say when accepting one. Trickier still is giving one, but I think complimenting actions and decisions makes much more sense than assets!

    Besma | Curiously Conscious

    • Agreed, because who’s to say what about me is an asset, really?

  • Susan Machado

    I was reading this loud and at the end says “I love the way you read this, by the way.” thanks.

    • Haley Nahman

      Hahaha I mean, I really do!

  • Yolandi North

    Love this post & I totally agree. Giving & receiving compliments can be damn hard, but you hit the nail on the head: we should honestly honor each other. x

  • I love that you text in paragraphs with line breaks and everything! (compliment!)

    Do you consciously hate shorthand or, like me, does it just not occur to you to do it any other way? (continuing conversation!)

    I’ve definitely deflected compliments for both reasons: insecurity and the way “oh, thank you” has become an awkward conversational plug. What I try to do now is say, “that’s kind, thank you,” and follow up with a (genuine) kind return or a joke/story related to the compliment.

    • Haley Nahman

      That’s such a good way to take a compliment!!

      And actually I’m super into unnecessary shorthand. But I also text in grafs. Aka worst of both worlds.

  • HollyO

    Word.