A few weeks ago, I was picking up my son from day care when I ran into a new mom friend. We chatted about our weekends and the kids, but she caught me off guard with a simple comment: “I like your outfit.”
I responded with an overenthusiastic “Thank you!”— because I actually liked my outfit, too. Feeling embarrassed, I looked at the ground and mumbled something about how it’s comfortable, I bought my coat on sale, etc. We both laughed nervously before parting ways.
Now, as an introvert, I’m no stranger to awkward situations— usually ones that I create — but this conversation stuck with me because I’d recently read an article about compliments, and how they often make women, in particular, weirdly uncomfortable.
So I spoke with a local psychologist about this little-discussed but often-suffered phenomenon. And because compliments can be more complicated than you’d think, I also gathered advice from a New Orleans-based etiquette expert on how to respond to them.
Thanks, but no thanks
Dr. Laurie Darling, a clinical psychologist, said some people deflect or minimize compliments because they feel embarrassed, self-conscious or even “undeserving.”
“You're typically more critical of yourself than you are of other people, oftentimes to an unnecessary degree,” said Darling.
She also explained that the person’s perception of the compliment-giver is another factor, especially if the compliment seems forced, or based on an ulterior motive; or because it’s coming from someone who gives so many compliments the positive comments seem insincere, and they become expected.
“When they don't give a compliment, people might think that they've done something wrong,” said Darling.
Folks may find it easier to accept a compliment over email, because they have time to respond, and in a one-on-one situation, rather than when they’re in a group, she said.
Gender also seems to play a role. Society has traditionally suggested that it’s “more acceptable for men to be prideful or boastful than women,” said Darling. In fact, men may actually ignore the compliment to avoid coming across as insecure or needy of approval.
But Darling believes that you’re more likely to offend someone when you rebuff the nice comment.
“You're invalidating the person who's giving the compliment, as well as their observation, which makes them feel like their judgment's inaccurate,” she said. “It can also come across as false humility, which can be off-putting.”
Besides, accepting the compliment helps you develop a healthier view of yourself, she noted.
“That being said, I don't think we should fall into the trap of approval addiction, where we only get our worth from other people's approval of us,” said Darling.
Thanks … I think
Because compliments are not created equally, acknowledging them can be tricky.
Past experience has taught me that remarks can be a compliment or an insult, as in: “You look young enough to sell Girl Scout cookies.”
Sometimes the compliment is really meant to be a slight, like the line I heard one woman tell another at a dinner party: “I like your snot-green sweater.”
And there are those doozies that are meant to be compliments but the person’s delivery inadvertently turns them into an insult: “Your son has the perfect combination of your looks and your husband’s brains.” Um …?
Christina Pappion, a certified etiquette consultant, has a suggestion for handling all types of compliments, beginning with the ones that are obviously sincere.
“Your first response may be to feel embarrassed, or you may want to shuffle the attention to something else, but instead we should feel proud,” said Pappion. “We should accept the compliment and thank them for their kind words.”
When taking the compliment, Pappion encourages people to be genuine and honest, and to maintain eye contact and a “great tone of voice.”
“You don't want to sound overly excited, but you don't want to devalue the compliment,” she said, adding that you shouldn’t automatically respond to a compliment with a compliment of your own because it will come across as fake.
If the comment seems like an insult, ask for clarification on what the person meant, and think before you respond, said Pappion.
“For example, if someone asks: ‘Are you expecting?’ and you're not, pull them aside and say: ‘I'm not expecting, but that's a personal question that I don't feel comfortable answering,’ ” she said. Or simply, “ 'No, I'm not expecting’ and move on.”
The same rules apply when the statement is an insult veiled as a compliment. Pappion believes it’s best to avoid swapping jabs or stooping to the other person’s level.
“Graciously reply while smiling, and talk about a different subject related to the topic,” she advised. “Be honest, and be yourself.”
Etiquette expert Christina Pappion shared a few tips on giving compliments:
- When you’re complimenting a colleague, highlight their skills or accomplishments.
- Smile and make eye contact.
- Don't shout compliments as you’re passing the person.
- Don't overdo it. Compliment the person once and move on.
- Be specific and honest.