Compliments, Insults, and Other Challenges

What if there’s no perfect response?

Posted Jan 07, 2014

(to Siri -

Cartoon by Elizabeth Wagele

My mother gave me advice several times when I was young not to comment on anyone’s appearance. I love that advice, having been told, “Your hair looks great. It’s SO much better than the old way” once or twice. Even compliments can end up feeling insulting. 

There was an interesting article in the NY Times 5-27-13 (“’Fat Talk’ Carries a Cost” by Jan Hoffman) about the ways women and girls talk to each other about their bodies, especially about being overweight. “Fat Talk” refers to body-denigrating conversations between girls and women. It aggravates poor body image and can set the stage for eating disorders. “Some researchers have found that fat talk is so embedded among women it often reflects not how the speaker actually feels about her body but how she is expected to feel about it,” she writes.

In one experiment, 139 undergraduates were shown photos of thin and fat women. Most students chose an overweight woman as the most likable. Then the researchers had the task of figuring out if the students had made their selections because the really liked her or because they thought they should choose her.

When a woman says something deprecating about her body, her friends are likely to lie and say she looks fine to them, and then to say something bad about their own bodies in order to maintain the friendship as equals. It’s hard to break such a cycle. Friends don’t want to be honest because that could be hurtful. If they scold her for being self-deprecating, that’s hurtful too. So it’s difficult to find a response to someone putting herself down. There’s no perfect one so it’s often best to not respond at all.

In another kind of situation, I have an acquaintance who grins and giggles a lot. She will hold her frozen grin so long as she stares at me, I experience it as pressure to grin back at her, but I don’t want to smile when I don’t feel like smiling. I think she’s shy and self-conscious and I feel empathy for her. But she puts me in the position where it’s hard to do anything right. If I grin I’m being untrue to myself. If I don’t grin I’m letting her down. But do you know what I usually end up doing? Being true to myself. It’s always the best policy.


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About the Author

Elizabeth Wagele was the co-author with Ingrid Stabb of The Career Within You: How to Find the Perfect Job for Your Personality.

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