There is an art to both doling out praise and receiving it
Last night I met some old friends for dinner. It had been a long day and I really couldn’t be bothered to dress up. And besides, with old friends you don’t need to, do you? So, I pulled out an old black Anokhi kurta (my go-to outfit for all I-can’t-really-be-bothered occasions), now almost grey through over-use, pulled on a pair of jeans and headed out.
So, imagine my surprise when the nice English lady at the next table leaned over and said, “I love what you’re wearing.”
“Oh, this old thing,” I replied, startled into candour. “I’ve had it so long, it’s practically falling apart.”
She started to laugh. I looked rather taken aback (as indeed, I was). At my enquiring gaze, she replied, still chuckling, “I just can’t get over how English that response is. That’s exactly what we’d say back home if someone praised an outfit. ‘Oh, this old thing’.”
I smiled weakly and turned back to my pasta primavera. It was too complicated to explain that this really was an ‘old thing’. That I had had it for years and worn it to near-death. And besides, explaining would look as if I was ‘protesting too much’ (also a very ‘English response’, no doubt). So, it was probably for the best to smile and move on.
But that little exchange got me thinking. What is the right way to receive a compliment? Getting all self-deprecatory and going “Oh, this old thing”? Or being gracious and responding with a heartfelt, “Thanks so much”?
I have to say that my instinctive responses fall into the first category. If someone tells me that I look as if I’ve lost weight, I protest wildly that I weighed myself just this morning and that is Simply Not True. If a dish I have made elicits some praise, I hasten to assure everyone that “Really, I’m not much of a cook”. If anyone says they enjoy reading my column, I smile weakly and mutter, “Oh, you are far too kind!”
And yes, if someone compliments me on what I’m wearing, I rarely ever respond with a simple ‘thank you’. Instead, I rush in with a veritable flurry of idiotic comebacks. “Oh, I got this from Marks and Spencer. Such good value!” “Oh yes, this works well in the summer.” “But I love what YOU are wearing!” Or the ever-reliable standby: “This old thing. I’ve had it for years.”
None of this, now that I think about it, is the right response to someone who is giving you a compliment. The graceful thing would be to acknowledge the praise, say ‘Thank you so much’ and move on. Instead, I end up either embarrassing the other person into thinking he/she has committed some sort of social solecism (‘How dare you say I am looking thinner? I know you are just making this stuff up because you think it will make me feel good”) or indicating that I don’t really value their judgement (“Can’t you recognize a tattered old kurta when you see one?”). Or worse, I act as if receiving a compliment implies a duty to reciprocate in kind (“Your earrings looks amazing”) which only makes me come off as an insincere sod.
In retrospect, as I re-examine those encounters, I probably ended up seeming prickly, defensive, insecure and yes, insincere, to all those who took the trouble to compliment me. And to them (you know who you are, all three of you!) I offer my sincere apologies and the promise to do better next time. In fact, I am going to practice my ‘thank yous’ in front of the mirror every night before going to bed.
There’s just one exception: those who seem to be paying you a compliment but manage to slip in an insult in the subtext. You know the kind I mean, don’t you? “Wow, you are looking so amazing. You really are good at make-up, aren’t you?” “Your daughter is so pretty. Good thing she takes after your mother-in-law.” “What great food at the dinner last night. You really must give me the number of your caterer.” Or even that old stand-by, “You look so much thinner! Have you been dieting?” guaranteed to make the other person wonder just how fat he/she looked before.
Of course, if you put these people – who specialize in putting a sting in the tail – to the test, they would protest that they were completely sincere in their praise. And that you really should not be so ‘sensitive’ or ‘quick to take offence’. But anyone who has been at the receiving end of their loaded ‘compliments’ knows better.
See, just as there is an art to receiving a compliment, there is also an art to giving one. And if you want a simple, heartfelt ‘thank you’ then you should desist from lacing your compliments with even the merest suspicion of malice.
So, how about you try this. Tell a woman she looks amazing, but desist from adding ‘for your age’. Compliment a man on his leather jacket; don’t add that he is ‘very brave’ to wear that. If you are praising the food someone served at dinner, don’t imply that it was anything other than the handiwork of the hostess/host. And don’t, for God’s sake, mention the mother-in-law!