Why Women Can't Accept Compliments

The science behind why females seem to put themselves down.

Posted Mar 29, 2016

I can't remember the last time I said "thank you" to a compliment. My usual polite response is either "not really" or "shut up."

A few years ago, Amy Schumer made a brilliant sketch on her show about this exact thing. If you haven't seen it, you can watch below:

In it Amy encounters a typical group of attractive young women who all greet each other with big smiles and generous compliments: "Your hair is amazing." "I love your hat." Instead of gratitude, the complimented women respond with sighs and hilariously self-deprecating retorts: "I tried to look like Kate Hudson but ended up looking like a Golden Retriever's dingleberry." "Are you drunk me? I look like an Armenian man. People are trying to buy carpets from me."

It's satire at its best -- slightly exaggerated but its sentiment, still painfully true. When one of the women actually accepts a compliment with a gracious "thank you," -- a foreign concept to the group -- they all turn on each other in a murderous rampage. 

In real life, the homicidal killing spree would likely be replaced with silent judgement and incredulity. Did she really acknowledge how great she is? She is so conceited.

In the last several years, research has found, that for women, there's nothing quite as terrible as being seen as cocky or too confident by another woman. According to one study, "only 22 percent of compliments given from one woman to another were accepted." Before we assume that women simply don't know how to receive compliments, the study found that they accepted compliments from men 40 percent of the time.

Greg Raines/Stocksnap.io
Source: Greg Raines/Stocksnap.io

Note: In this study, acceptance refers to acknowledgement and agreement (e.g., "Thank you"). Non-accepting responses might include: responding with a compliment in return (e.g., "No, you're amazing."); minimizing the compliment (e.g., "It's not that big of a deal."); or reassigning it to someone or something else (e.g., "My teammate is the one who really came through.")

Moreover, it doesn't matter if we have high or low self-esteem, both types of women have difficulty owning their awesomeness. According to social psychologist Laura Brannon, women who have high self-esteem may reject compliments because they want to seem modest and self effacing. Modesty, the ubiquitous cultural and religious culprit behind society's obsession with cultivating demure, submissive and compliant women, has been inculcated in most women from an early age.

As a young girl growing up in a traditional Asian household, I would regularly watch my mother pacify, serve and prostrate herself to the whims of my father, who had a nasty temper. When I asked her why she put up with him or why she never fought back, she told me that "it was cultural" and that by staying quiet, "she was being the stronger person." It was my first frustrating lesson in being a woman: Hide your true self to placate others.

Women who have less self esteem, on the other hand, reject compliments because this external positivity clashes with their internal view of themselves, says Brannon. This behavior shouldn't come as a surprise when everywhere we look, women are pressured to meet impossible standards of beauty. Just look at Sephora and ULTA, behemoth beauty brands, whose very business models depend on women to feel bad about themselves. Or at least, feel the need to improve.

Again, none of this is new. I've known that beauty is a photoshopped social construct since I took Sociology I in college. But it still hasn't stopped me from wearing eyeliner (to make my small eyes pop more) or concealer (to hide my red spots and freckles) every day. And even then, I still don't feel particularly beautiful, at least not compared to the movie stars or super models that manage to infiltrate every single piece of media I consume.

Most articles on the subject of compliments advise women women to practice being gracious and say "thank you." In this Cosmopolitan piece, the writer found that when she dismissed her friend's compliment, the friend, herself, got irritated:

"It annoyed me. I wouldn't have made the compliment if I didn't mean it. I gave a compliment because I wanted you to feel good, but when you knocked it back I wondered why I bothered. And by putting yourself down it feels like you are fishing for more compliments, to be honest."

What is most striking in this example is that both women assume the other is not being sincere. Is this the normal response of all women? Probably not.

But is it surprising? Not really. We still live in a society where women regularly hate on other women. All you have to do is look at this year's presidential race or google Kim Kardashian.

Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Evolutionary biology may hold the key to explaining why today's female relationships are so complicated. The answer is not complicated at all -- and pretty much the plot of every Kate Hudson romantic comedy. When a man enters the equation, the gloves come off. There are even physical manifestations of this competition. Florida State University researchers have found that women's testosterone (a hormone that is linked to aggression and competitiveness) levels increased when they smelled shirts of ovulating women.

Still, we don't see all other women as equal threats. Attractive women are the most lethal. Researchers at McMaster University conducted a study where an attractive young woman entered a room, wearing either a tight, low-cut blouse and short skirt or jeans and a t-shirt. The women in the room, all test subjects, had the following reactions:

"In jeans, she attracted little notice and no negative comments from the students, whose reactions were being secretly recorded during the encounter and after the woman left the room. But when she wore the other outfit, virtually all the students reacted with hostility."

I don't believe women enjoy being cruel to each other. To me, it has more to do with our sub-conscious instinct to procreate with the best potential mate. When we feel threatened, we are triggered to morph into mean-girl mode. 

Could this behavior also explain why women don't readily accept compliments? Imagine telling an already beautiful woman that she's beautiful -- and then having her graciously say, "thank you." She's not lying by any means, but this still rubs me the wrong way. Some part of me believes that were both of to fall for the same guy, she would have the upper hand. So for her to admit "Yes, I am this hot" only exacerbates feelings of jealousy and competition. Were she to dismiss the compliment, however; I might assume that she didn't know how attractive she actually was, thus making me feel less hostile. 

In this case, not saying "thank you" to a compliment might actually put both of us at ease. She doesn't feel cocky or unfairly targeted, and I don't feel as threatened. It might even be the better solution to keeping our hot-tempered evolutionary instincts at bay. 

Is there a right way to receive a compliment? Tell me what you think in the comments below. 

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