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How Do You Respond to a Compliment? Why It Matters

Research reveals how handling compliments can make or break a relationship.

When you are getting to know someone, and offer a compliment, what type of response do you expect? Most of you probably expect a simple “thank you.” Consider what you would think if the response to your compliment about how great someone looks, or how smart they are, was “I know.” Would you perceive this type of response differently in person rather than in an online dating context? Perhaps, and research reveals why it matters.

Virtual Compliment Reception

Maria DelGreco and Amanda Denes in a journal article aptly entitled “You Are Not as Cute as You Think You Are” examined the issue of perception when it comes to giving and receiving compliments.[i] They began by noting that the initiation of a heterosexual dating relationship involves gender-based interpretations of communication cues. They note that the challenges of relationship initiation may be even more pronounced online, and may lead to negative consequences.

One of the ways prospective daters attempt to build rapport is through the use of compliments. DelGreco and Denes adopted a research-based definition of a compliment as “a speech act which explicitly or implicitly attributes credit to someone other than the speaker, usually the person addressed, for some ‘good’ which is positively valued by the speaker and the hearer.” They acknowledge the value of compliments in developing relationships, noting that in an online context, genuine compliments are most effective.

What type of compliments do people receive? They recognize that women are usually complimented on their appearance, and men are usually complimented on what they possess. Regarding the “correct” response to a compliment, DelGreco and Denes note that most English speakers expect a simple “thank you.” With regard to gender-based differences in responses, they note that women report responding with appreciation more than men.

They report that the studies they considered in their research demonstrate that although compliments are frequently used as conversation starters, in pursuit of securing a date, “gendered and cultural expectations and differences can lead to miscommunication, confusion, and conflict.”

Expectancy Violation Theory

DelGreco and Denes used expectancy violations theory to explore the perception of women's responses to compliments in an online dating communications context. Using a sample of 413 undergraduate students in the United States, they found that women who violate expectations in a negative fashion—by responding to a compliment with agreement and self-praise, were viewed more negatively than women who violated expectations in a positive fashion by disagreeing with the compliment, or women who confirmed to expectations by responding with a simple “thank you.”

They note that their findings illustrate the impact of expectancy violations theory within a novel context—online dating. Explaining their results, they note, “evaluations of women who engaged in positive violations differed from women who conformed to expectations on all outcome variables, with individuals in the positive violation condition rated as lower in social attraction, conversational appropriateness, likability, power, and self-esteem, compared to individuals in the conformist condition.”

They also found that evaluations of women who engaged in negative violations were rated as “lower in social attraction, conversational appropriateness, and likability, as well as higher in power and self-esteem, compared to individuals in the conformist condition.

They note that this finding is, in fact, consistent with prior research on expectancy violations theory, which suggests that “negatively valenced violations lead to worse interaction outcomes than conforming to expectations.”

They also recognize that the fictional messages they studied on the online dating site represented the initial communications between the parties, a fact that must be interpreted within an environment that is already devoid of interpersonal cues.

Among other conclusions, they note that within contexts lacking other cues, women who negatively violate expectations, such as by coming across as overly confident, are less likely to be successful in online dating, and may even be more susceptible to online harassment.

The Social Value of Graciousness

Apparently the power of a simple “thank you” appears to be the most effective response in the anticipation stage of prospective romance. These two simple words are expected, well-received, and might even indicate an endearing touch of humility—which is psychologically attractive and appreciated regardless of how physically attractive someone is.


[i]DelGreco, Maria, and Amanda Denes. 2019. “You Are Not as Cute as You Think You Are: Emotional Responses to Expectancy Violations in Heterosexual Online Dating Interactions.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, August. doi:10.1007/s11199-019-01078-0.