Refuting Compliments

Why can’t we just say thank you?

Posted Mar 07, 2019

Source: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Wife: “Gee, you look sexy in that new underwear, honey!
Husband: “No, I don’t. I’ve gained five pounds. I look like a pig, and I’m too flabby!

Me: “It’s wonderful that you were able to achieve that, you know!
Patient: “Yeah, well thanks to you and my medication, I was able to.

Boss: “Your work has been excellent and we think you’ve earned the new position of executive assistant, so we’re going to move you into that slot next week.
Office Worker: “Are you sure I deserve it? After all, I’m relatively new here and I don’t think I’m that good!

New Boyfriend: “I’ve really enjoyed our relationship and I’m so glad I met you!
My Client: “Oh, you’re just saying that.

I have long wondered why people have so much difficulty accepting compliments and flattering remarks. I have observed this in myself at times, as well. It seems that people have a tendency to repudiate, (i.e., reject as untrue), or refute, (i.e., prove to be false by arguing with the person complimenting or offering evidence) compliments regarding them as invalid and undeserved. I often wonder why a simple “thank you” is so difficult for so many at moments like these. 

I have the impression that many people feel uncomfortable when receiving a compliment because they assume that accepting it outright will be perceived as boastfulness or arrogance. They believe that simple acceptance will appear as though they were too enthusiastically agreeing with the person complimenting them. It would be as if hearing that someone felt they looked good today, they said, “Yes, I sure do!” in response. People would rather appear humble instead of haughty, and one (unfortunate) way to achieve that, it seems, is to refute compliments. 

Along with this, some people seem to believe that refuting a compliment is a form of politeness and, therefore, accepting a compliment outright must be impolite. Some variation of denial replaces what would otherwise be appreciation and gratitude for the compliment.

Another reason why people may refute a compliment is that they simply do not believe it’s true and thus disavow it. For example, Bob tells Mary that he thinks she’s very pretty. Mary responds with such comments as, “Oh, no I’m not,” or, “I’ll bet you say that to every woman,” or, “You must need new glasses.” One might imagine that Mary, who has struggled all of her life with a negative self-image, would be pleased to receive Bob’s compliment and perhaps even find it reassuring. Instead, she refutes it because his belief about her appearance directly contradicts her own, so Mary has no way to take it in. If she, too, thought she was pretty, she would have been more likely to accept the compliment and be pleased. Unfortunately, this was not the case. In light of Mary’s reaction, Bob winds up feeling like he said something objectionable or problematic when all he did was compliment his girlfriend.

If, for any reason, you are someone who finds yourself struggling with receiving compliments like some of the people in the examples above, perhaps your own quiet reflection might help you understand why. Rather than expressing yourself in a way that challenges or repudiates a well-intentioned other who seems to have nice things to say about you, a simple “thank you” will always do very nicely while you privately attempt to figure out why a compliment or flattery stirred conflict within you in the first place.