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?
One explanation might be that our culture places inordinate importance on appearance and women spend inordinate time and energy in that pursuit and when finally acknowledged, feign indifference, perhaps a left-over Victorian notion of modesty. In my research of women and the notion of beauty in our culture I found that women find it very difficult to feel okay just the way they are in a culture that promotes self improvement at every turn. A compliment validates the effort of trying to look good; and with that comes the complicated relationship with that validation which includes discomfort with compliments while paradoxically craving them. I would also suggest that there is a lack of awareness in the automatic response of deflecting a compliment which might suggest that there is some degree of denial about wanting validation.
So when will women consistently say “thank you” when someone pays us a compliment or says something nice about how we look? Now might be a good time.