Life

Why Taking a Compliment Is Actually Trickier Than It Seems

Two businessmen congratulating another one.
What’s the best way to respond to a compliment?
Purestock/Thinkstock

Like clockwork, every few months there’s an article or viral anecdote revolving around women’s apparent inability to accept compliments. Along with these articles come the usual round of admonishments on the perils of false humility and advice on how to love yourself and accept those compliments, girl! But according to a recent New York Times op-ed, compliment refusal is common for Americans across the gender spectrum. Citing experts at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, Carolyn Bucior writes that only one third of compliments are met with acceptance; instead of replying with a simple “thank you”—the obvious and easy answer—we employ a variety of different hedging methods meant to signal our modesty.

We shift credit (“My mom picked this dress out for me.”), make a historical comment (“I bought it on sale.”), question the complimenter (“Hmm, you think so?”) or lob back a compliment (“I like your outfit, too.”). Other times we downgrade the compliment (“This thing is so old I was about to give it to Goodwill.”), reject it outright (“I feel like I look like a hobo.”) or treat the compliment as a request (“You want to borrow it?”).

But according to Bucior, avoiding “thank you” serves a different purpose than proudly trumpeting our deflated sense of self. She recounts an awkward moment when one of her neighbors complimented her dress and she responded with a simple “thank you.” Her neighbor’s eyes “acquired a hard look” and she was left wondering what she had “missed by failing to add a remark about how old or inexpensive [her] dress was.” As Bucior’s account demonstrates, more often than not, the simple compliment is much more than an observation of a cute jacket or a new hairdo. It’s an opening rhetorical salvo: “In the United States, the compliment is a coded invitation to chitchat, and simply saying, ‘Thank you’ linguistically slams the door in the complimenter’s face.”

Using compliments as a means of approach, of course, brings about its own problems. For one thing, if the majority of compliments are not freely given without the expectation of chitchat or some form of denial, that makes them fundamentally insincere. They become another surface-level form of politeness meant to make the day pass by faster rather than something we genuinely mean. But even if we do mean them, that doesn’t untangle the knot of expectation and communication that Bucior has identified.

To my mind, Bucior’s encounter with her neighbor went south in two different ways. The first is squarely her neighbor’s fault: If you want a conversation to continue, try asking a question with your compliment rather than expecting the compliment receiver to hedge their acceptance with some kind of resistance—this will make it clear to everyone what your intentions really are. The second can be mostly attributed to Bucior: It’s possible to both accept a compliment without negging yourself and give a little more than “thank you.” The majority of the compliment follow-up statements that she mentions are, at their core, negative self-talk. Rather than shifting credit or downgrading a compliment on say, your outfit, simply accept it and mention how you thought it was perfect for the weather today or some other chitchat-appropriate rejoinder.

That said, it’s also entirely fair to accept a compliment and keep it moving, I’m firmly in the camp of people who think we engage in small talk far too often and that compliments shouldn’t demand significant reciprocation. And anyone who locks you with a “hard look” after you decline to coyly refuse their compliment is someone who probably isn’t worth the small talk anyway.