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.