My 18-year-old daughter complimented me the other day – something about my hair or shirt. I forgot what it was, but I remember what she said about my response, which was, “Thank you.”
I know, impressive.
“I like how you just take a compliment,” she said. “I like that you don’t get all, ‘Oh no, I look like crap.’”
Until I was about 40, I rarely took compliments at full strength. Accepting praise without adding a few digs at myself felt sort of cocky, so I watered down nice words: “Yeah thanks, I did lose some weight, but my stomach is fat and my arms are flabby.” The older I got, the more exhausting it felt to pander to my inner “oh shucks” modest girl, so I decided to just say, “Thank you” and shut up.
We ladies, studies show, don’t like to come across as too confident, especially around other women.
Social psychologists have some not surprising theories about why we make such a big stink out of praise. If we have high self-esteem, we knock ourselves down a notch so we seem humble. If we have low self-esteem, how others see us doesn’t match how we see ourselves: “Yeah, thanks, friend, who knows and loves me, but what the hell do you know? I’d rather crap all over myself because it feels weirdly right.”
We probably don’t even know we’re doing it. We’ve had centuries of screwed up, man-made messaging ingrained in our collective psyche about how the feminine is supposed to behave. Nice girls are modest, and modest sounds like, “Thanks, I guess I look okay in these jeans, but I hate my fat ass and, by the way, my hair looks like shit.”
My daughter hates when girls don’t take compliments. She says it sounds like they’re fishing.
Girl number one: “Oh my God, Lisa, you’re so pretty!”
Girl number two: “Oh please, I’m like the grossest thing ever!”
And then for five minutes everyone is supposed to pile on with a gush fest – “OMG, you are too, so pretty.”
Of course teens are a theatrical bunch, but plenty of women of all ages genuinely feel self-conscious under the spotlight of praise, so they throw it back. This might be their unconscious way of staying on equal footing with other women.
Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, says that part of the problem is women get mixed messages all the time about what behaviors are acceptable. “[We’re told] love yourself, but not too much. Be confident, but practice a style of humility this culture never requires of men. Believe in yourself, but never admit it out loud, lest you make another woman who doesn’t feel good about herself feel bad,” she says. “If you’re raised to think it’s arrogant to ever say something positive about yourself, it makes it hard to accept a compliment.”
Our self-bashing one-upmanship is how we convince other women we’re better at being humble, Engeln explains. “We’re convincing them that we win at the game of crushing our own self-confidence,” she says. “I don’t think that’s a win, though.”
Yet sometimes dismissing a compliment privately pisses people off.
“This week I rejected my colleague Laura Capon’s compliment about my new bob haircut, saying ‘Oh, I just cut it myself using a YouTube vid. It’s a wonky travesty…’” wrote Gem Royton-Claire in a Cosmopolitan article.
“So, I asked the ever-straight-talking Laura to explain how it felt when I reacted like that.”
“‘It annoyed me. I wouldn’t have made the compliment if I didn’t mean it. I gave a compliment because I wanted you to feel good, but when you knocked it back I wondered why I bothered. And by putting yourself down it feels like you are fishing for more compliments, to be honest.’”
I know we mean well when we walk back compliments, but maybe it’s a teensy rude to play hot potato with praise. Like when a friend offers to buy us dinner, but for five minutes we give her 87 reasons why she shouldn’t bother.
A friend of mine who has been trying to get over a stubborn weight loss plateau said to me the other day, “You look really good, Laura. You’ve lost weight.” I was about to answer with some pithy, self-loathing remark so she’d feel better about herself at my expense, but I didn’t.
I said, “I have lost some weight. Thank you.” Then I told her she looked great (because she does). Then we stood in silence for a few awkward seconds. The dead air felt weird, like I should throw out a mean punch line about my body. But I stayed in the moment, and we moved on.
Jen Kim suggests women should dismiss compliments from other women so we don’t feel threatened.
“Imagine telling an already beautiful woman that she’s beautiful – and then having her graciously say, ‘Thank you.’ She’s not lying by any means, but this still rubs me the wrong way. Some part of me believes that if we were both of to fall for the same guy, she would have the upper hand. So for her to pretty much admit, ‘Yes, I am this hot’ only exacerbates feelings of jealousy and competition. Were she to dismiss the compliment, however, I might assume that she didn’t know how attractive she actually was, thus making me feel less hostile. In this case, not saying thank you to a compliment might actually put both of us at ease. She doesn’t feel cocky or unfairly targeted, and I don’t feel as threatened. It might even be the better solution to keeping our hot-tempered evolutionary instincts at bay.”
Okay, let me see if I understand.
Women should downplay compliments from other women so the compliment-giver doesn’t feel threatened and the compliment-receiver doesn’t feel “targeted”?
I know Kim thinks this is a female friendly win-win, but it’s actually some seriously catty unempowered game-playing.
And frankly, it’s exhausting.
What’s not exhausting is for women to allow a compliment to stand on its own two feet – no self-bashing, no wiggling out of it or throwing it back with, “Shut up, no way, you’re so much prettier.”
This takes practice. It takes knowing that accepting a compliment is all about being confident and gracious, not cocky or arrogant.
Engeln warns women that we need to watch how we react to compliments because younger generations are watching. “What comes out of our mouths matters. What we say affects what we think and how we behave. One of the best things we can model for girls and young women is how to accept a compliment with tact and grace.”
This hysterical over-the-top “Inside Amy Schumer” sketch about how women handle compliments is a commentary in and of itself.