You’re wearing a new sweater to a family gathering, and an in-law tells you how great you look in it. Although pleased that your outfit is successful, you fumble for words to express your thanks. Before you know it, an embarrassing stream of words rolls off your tongue: “This thing? Oh, I’ve had it for years. Just decided to throw it on at the last minute. I'm not all that crazy about it, but glad you like it.” Your relative seems a little deflated. It seems that your remark had the opposite effect of what you’d intended and you've turned a thank-you into an insult.
It’s difficult enough to give a compliment that truly flatters the recipient. However, when you’re at the receiving end you may feel even more awkward and tongue-tied. We’ve been taught our entire lives about the virtues of modesty. People high in narcissism not only dote on compliments, but expect them. The rest of us are reduced to Jell-O by an attention-drawing remark that flatters some aspect of our appearance, ability, or behavior.
The problem with responding to compliments surprisingly has received relatively little research attention among speakers in the Western world. My search of the literature led me to several empirical studies of compliments among Chinese speakers. In Chinese culture, compliments create a paradox for the recipient because they conflict with the social norm of modesty to an even greater degree than is true in American society. Several other studies investigated responses to compliments in middle-Eastern countries, but I found only one on English speakers, and that was a 2001 cross-national study by Swansea University professor Nuria Lorenzo-Dus, who compared British and Spanish speakers in their responses to common compliment situations.
Lorenzo-Dus was interested in the special linguistic problem posed by compliments, which are a variant of the general domain of politeness in language. Her interest was in comparing English and Spanish speakers as she believed they might differ in compliment norms. The study's findings can help us understand both the dynamics of compliment responses and how to handle the problem in our own lives.
The so-called “action-chain event” of compliment (C) and compliment response (CR) forms the basis for the model tested in this research. C’s can be ambiguous in meaning, because they can either represent an expression of true admiration or of judgment. If I compliment you, it means that I’m evaluating you, even while I seem to be supporting you. Now, turning the tables, when I must come up with the CR to someone else’s C, I’m facing three sets of constraints: 1. accept or reject the compliment, 2. agree or disagree with the compliment’s validity, and 3. the need to avoid self-praise. On the one hand, I want to show that I respect your opinion (hence the need to agree) but on the other hand, I don’t want to seem immodest.
In the politeness vs. modesty conundrum, which strategy wins out? Lorenzo-Dus administered a brief test in which she asked her participants to say how they’d respond to several common types of compliments. Here are three examples:
Situation 1: You’ve just had your hair cut in a different style. You bump into a friend and after saying hello, he/she says: “That hair cut makes you look great. It makes you look younger!”
Situation 2: You've just finished playing a game of tennis (the first one after two months of intensive training); your trainer has been watching the game. When it is finished, he/she says: 'All the effort has been worthwhile. You have played brilliantly today!'
Situation 3: You’re the new sales manager of a large department store. You’re out for coffee with a group of people from work. One of your male/female employees, who’s been with the store for many years, says to you: “You’ve got beautiful eyes.”
These three situations represent different types of compliments: #1 is on something you’ve done to yourself, #2 on an ability you have and something you’ve done, and #3 on a feature of your appearance over which you have no control. Other items on the test had to do with possessions (new car and clothes) and ability (cooking a meal).
Lorenzo-Dus believed that these situations reflect differing power dynamics between the “complimenter” and “complimentee.” In Situation 1, the two are equal in power. Situation 2 reflects greater power in the complimenter, but in Situation 3, the complimentee has the greater power.
In comparing the British with Spanish speakers, Lorenzo-Dus noted that the British tended more to question the truth of the C, and in the process, the underlying nature of the relationship with the complimenter. Speakers of both languages tended to respond with humor, especially Spanish men. Both groups also tended to divert compliments on topics such as natural talent and intelligence to focus instead on behavior, such as degree of effort or training. Some of the Spanish men interpreted Situation 3 when the speaker was a woman in a sexualized manner, saying “Only when they look at you.” The Spanish also tended to be more likely to respond by fishing for further compliments (“Do you really like it?”).
As you can see, then, the study of compliments can reveal interesting cross-national and cross-gender observations. What do the findings mean for you in your own daily life?
Realize that by questioning the compliment, you’re potentially putting your relationship with the complimenter in jeopardy. DON'T disagree but DO accept a compliment at face value unless you have reason to think the other person has an ulterior motive.
If you ask the speaker to repeat a compliment, you may seem to be fishing for more. DON'T ask for an explanation, but DO keep your response to a compliment brief and focused.
If you feel uncomfortable if you’re receiving praise for an intrinsic quality you have, DO redirect a compliment about your inner qualities to effort or luck. In the process, you’re avoiding self-praise, and maintaining the relationship with the complimenter because you’re implicitly agreeing with him or her.
Finally, DO use humor in your response to a compliment. A humorous response can avoid the power dynamics created by a compliment that puts you in a lower position than the speaker. As Lorenzo-Dus points out, “teasing can be used as a power negotiation strategy.” However, if the compliment was indeed an innocent remark, humor allows you to reduce the self-praise factor that so many of us shy away from.
You’re safest strategy for any type of compliment is a simple “Thank you.” Whatever you say from then on depends on your relationship with the speaker such as how close you are, whether you trust him or her, and how you feel about yourself. Understanding your own reactions can also help you offer compliments to others that have their intended effects.
There is an art to mastering responses to compliments, but fortunately it’s one that you can easily learn. Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Lorenzo-Dus, N. (2001). Compliment responses among British and Spanish university students: A contrastive study. Journal of Pragmatics, 33(1), 107-127. doi:10.1016/S0378-2166(99)00127-7