I was recently at a professional event and someone commented to a colleague of mine that she looked really nice and that the jacket she was wearing was pretty. She replied by saying “this old thing—I've had this jacket for years.” And I added that an even more predictable reply could have been “this old thing, I got it on sale.” Do women realize they often do this when faced with a compliment and when the gracious response should be a simple “thank you?” Why do women do that?
I first became aware of this behavior in the 1970’s when I was in college and took a course entitled “The Feminist Movement.” Part of the curriculum was an extensive questionnaire that asked whether we deflected compliments and whether we women said “sorry” when someone bumped into us. Well of course I answered “yes” to those questions as did my classmates which prompted weeks of discussions and “consciousness raising” sessions about women and those responses. But the closest we got to an explanation of why women did those things was the fact that women were raised to be “good girls” and that those were automatic responses that we needed to rethink. So with years of practice, I learned to say “thank you” to a compliment (most of the time) and to not apologize when someone bumped into me or stepped on my toes. But it still remains common for women to say “this old thing” and “sorry” when someone bumps into them. What is it about those responses and why does it happen? What is it about women and compliments?