A couple of blog-portal-space-location thingies I frequent have touched recently on the subject of not knowing how to react to compliments. That’s familiar territory for me, so I thought I’d chip in…
In life it's sometimes easier to fly beneath the radar; to dress anonymously, to reveal no opinions, to avoid distinctive cologne, to nod and/or smile at the appropriate moments. I have certainly been guilty of this kind of behaviour for large tranches of my life.
Yet whilst I may not go out of my way to impress others, I suspect I am not alone in preferring that people in general think well of me. It's affirming and confidence-building to know that people recognise and appreciate one's efforts and abilities. If people must notice me and form opinions of me, I concede that I'd much rather those opinions were positive ones.
And yes, sometimes compliments have come my way. Someone will say "you're funny", or "you're clever", or "I wish I could think up stuff like that", or even (once or twice) "you look nice". How generous of a fellow human being to offer words of encouragement! How validating to hear that one is considered relevant, useful, worthwhile! What joy to know that one is contributing to the happiness of others by simply being! Well, not quite.
There are a number of potential responses when one receives a compliment:
1. Gratitude. A simple acknowledgment of the kind thought, and a heartfelt thank you for the sentiment behind it. Example: “What a lovely thing to say – thank you”. Probably the best way to react.
2. Reciprocation. Responding with a compliment of one’s own. Example: “And you are looking rather resplendent today too.” Also a gracious and pleasant response.
3. Agreement. Where one reinforces and even bolsters the compliment. Example: “Yes I am rather splendid, aren’t I?” A little unseemly, I’d suggest.
4. Fishing. Where one attempts to pull ever greater words of praise from the complimenter. Example: “Oh really, what makes you say that?” Possibly even worse than Agreement.
5. Deflection. Shifting the praise onto someone else. Example: “Ah, but I had a good teacher”.
6. Rejection. Denying the validity of what has been said. Example: “You obviously don’t know me very well!”
7. Diversion. A silly or bizarre comment aimed at quickly changing the subject. Example: “[Insert Dad’s Army character impersonation here]”
8. Ignorance. Carrying on as if the compliment never happened. Usually borne out of embarrassment.
9. Silence. Pure, inept, eye-contact-avoiding silence.
On a very, very good day I might manage a version of Number 1 above and force out some mumbled acknowledgment. Normally I’m a combination of 7, 8 and 9, and mostly 9. It’s awkward. I blush. I stare blankly. I shuffle uncomfortably. What should be a moment of celebration and bonding is quickly swept away because I am paralysed by a fear of being thought immodest, unfriendly, ungrateful, ill-mannered, smug or ignorant. And this from a man who can, I think, more honestly than most claim not too be too preoccupied about what people think of him.
Examples, you say? It just so happens that I can offer three:
Exhibit A. It is 1994. I am in the upper-sixth form (Year 13 for younger readers). A young lady from the lower sixth / Year 12 arranges for her friend to pass me a note. Whilst I no longer have said note in my possession, the words contained therein are so memorable I have no trouble in recalling them verbatim after all this time. It was the young lady’s belief that I was “Clever, witty, handsome… a bit of alright.” (The last bit probably sticks in my mind because ‘a bit of alright’ was a long outdated phrase even then.) My reaction? I’m somewhat ashamed to say there was no discernable reaction. I remember being shocked, having hardly spoken to the young lady before, and of course flattered, not to say amused at the ‘handsome’ bit. But I made no effort to respond to the note. I read it and disposed of it. Now of course, one might be forgiven for assuming that her gender played some part in my silent rejection of her advances. On reflection, I’m reasonably sure that had the letter been authored by an equivalent young man, I wouldn’t have been able to cope any less inadequately than I did. Katherine, I’m sorry.
Exhibit B. The story of another misguided female admirer. The year is 2000. A young lady in my office is clearly taken with me. I’m not the quickest at recognising such situations (largely because, contrary to the pattern emerging in this post, it has hardly ever happened), but the young lady is not subtle. Whilst she doesn’t go as far as to put her feelings in writing, she is noticeably pleasant towards me, seeks out my company, and, memorably, on more than one occasion, seductively sings the eponymous title lyric to the Britney Spears song “I was born to make you happy” as we pass in the corridor. Once again, I ignore the compliments; carry on as if the situation were normal. At one or two social events I recall letting people think we were an item (what the heck, she was pretty hot), but we never were, though I think (hope) by this time had the young lady been a young man I might have fought back the compliment-related discomfort enough to properly respond.
Exhibit C. Again, the year 2000. On reflection, quite a year for admirers (which does leave me puzzling whether I am 11 years past my best). I have just played a highly competitive and enjoyable game of football. My team lost 1-0, but unusually, I am in no way deflated, such was the high level of collective and personal performance. My dad tells me I played ‘brilliantly’ – a biased opinion if ever there was one, but nonetheless a descriptor he has never used before or since. A senior team mate whose opinion I respect refers to my performance as my best ever. Again, nice to hear but hardly impartial. Then in the bar after the game, the opposing team manager seeks me out. This is a man who spent several years in the professional game as a player and coach, and ought to know what he’s talking about. He tells me I was the best player on the pitch, and would have a chance of playing professionally. I stand, open-mouthed, like a total buffoon, for fully ten seconds. I have never been so lost for words. Eventually I mutter something nonsensical and unintelligible. He wanders off, presumably thinking I am some kind of brilliant football-playing deaf-mute.
Sorry about mentioning football again. It does tend to find its way in no matter what the subject.
I’d like this paragraph to draw together my thoughts and make some conclusion or other, but it so rarely does. But then I never promised to resolve or throw light on anything, I only said I’d chip in.