The good Captain has posted yet another piece of excellent advice about compliments and why it's not a really great thing to always argue with them. She is pragmatic and insightful, as always, and if she keeps this up I'm going to have to resort to just writing mash notes when I don't have anything to add. Hope AwkwardPartner doesn't mind, Jenn.

For those who feel much more socially adrift and panic at the thought of trying this out without some visual examples, this is how you politely take a compliment:


(Snaffled from Rikki Sixx, who conveniently just posted them to tumblr. I can't actually reblog on Blogger, so this'll have to do.)

Note that it is totally okay to be really bashful, if that's how you feel. You can look away, or duck your head, or fiddle with your fingernails, or close your eyes briefly, if nice things still overload your thinky parts. You do not need to be regally unruffled at all times. You are not Grace Kelly. Even people who are awesome in public for a living do this. Noel up there likes to try and hide whenever people tell him he's pretty, mostly on account of this is the total opposite of what the kids used to tell him in school, and undoing the terrible knot other people have been tying for the first twenty years of your life can take more than the second twenty, even if you've got great people around you now. 

The important point is, even if you think the person delivering the compliment has got bats in the belfry, the correct answer to a well-intended, properly-delivered nice thing is "oh, thank you." You are not thanking them for seeing the ultimate truth of the universe. You are thanking them for having attempted to do something nice. Even if the compliment is bizarre and you can't wrap your brain around it, you do the exact same thing you'd do if your Aunt Mathilda gave you the world's ugliest sweater for Christmas, which is graciously recognize the intent and then shove it away in some darkened corner where you never have to think of it again. And even if your brain is gasping like a dying fish right now, going, "But it's not true! I'd be agreeing with delusions!" you need to remember that any answer other than thanks will lead to a long, drawn-out, hideously stressful and confusing conversation wherein each person tries to tell the other that they're completely mental and wrong without ever once being impolite. Do not go there, if only for the sake of your own sanity.

Do not beat yourself  up for not realizing this. The script for delivering and accepting compliments is a social construction, and as such, needs to be learned. Ignorance of these things is not a sign that you are a broken human being -- it can be fixed quite easily, by having more information. I didn't even know that I was doing anything weird until I was in college. For OH GOD REASONS, I missed out on a lot of social lessons when I was younger, and I basically had to beat normal human relations into my head, starting around my eighteenth birthday when I moved off to college and therefore away from the house that contained a lot of the aforementioned REASONS. It will take conscious thought at first. Eventually it'll be automatic. You just need to practice. I suggest finding a friend who has the same problem and making a pact to compliment each other every time you meet -- a lot of people who struggle with anxiety over receiving praise find it by comparison quite easy to dish it out.

(I'll also note that this seems to be a really pernicious problem among people who were labeled "gifted & talented" in school, especially if that started early. People outside that circle tend to imagine that the hella-smart kids get a lot of kudos for it, and we often do. We also get a lot of flak for it. It's been my experience that even authority figures who kind of understand what's going on and have the best of intentions assume that we pick up a lot more ego-buffs from others and deliberately attenuate their own reaction to some of the weirder, more spectacular things gifted kids do, on the theory that they don't want us getting swelled heads. I understand their logic here -- people who grow up being treated like they could do no wrong are spectacularly annoying adults -- but it has a lot of aftereffects, including what's known as impostor syndrome, and a complete lack of any reliable scale against which we can judge our own performance as compared to people who are not us. The end result tends to be people who are terrified of compliments. From our perspective, it seems like either people are misperceiving us very badly and are liable to ask for something way beyond our abilities, or we've inadvertently let someone see that something was easy for us or gave us a sense of finality and accomplishment, and they're liable to throw something bigger/tedious/near-impossible at us as a lesson in humility.)

Now for some of the caveats.

You do not owe people anything for saying something nice. Compliments are little verbal gifts -- giving one in the expectation of getting something back is selfish social blackmail, and if you don't get what you want it's your own damn fault. Nobody is required to hand you a cookie for being a decent human. If the compliment is delivered in all sincerity, then it's customary to respond with "thank you", and as far as reciprocation is concerned, that's it, mission accomplished. It is 100% okay to disappoint people who think that delivering a compliment to you means they are entitled to some of your attention. I recommend it, in fact. If someone is trying to pick you up with flattery, it's pretty much the same thing as 'negging', only from a different angle: Instead of making you feel compelled to prove them wrong, they're hoping that compliments will make you so preoccupied with proving they're right that you feel like you can't let them down by telling them to fuck off. Pretty much any psychological anything can be pathological, if you're implementing it dishonestly or in the wrong context. This is the flipside of genuine encouragement. Someone who's encouraging you is trying to get you to do something you want; someone who's flattering you is trying to get you to do something they want.

Sometimes people are somewhat insane and deliver a compliment that makes you think that they are badly in need of either an optometrist or a psychiatrist, perhaps one who practices on their home planet. Generally, unless they've managed to be truly offensive, "thank you" is still the practical answer. I once had a particularly empty-headed coworker tell me in all sincerity that when he started his own business, he would totally hire me as his secretary. We were sitting in a lab full of computers at the time -- the lab that he worked in and I ran, as the scheduling supervisor, stacked with PCs which I could have field-stripped with a Swiss army knife if I cared to, then put them back together and remotely re-imaged the disk without a problem -- and it was all I could do to not burst out laughing. He was trying to be nice, and I expect what he meant to say was something like 'wow, you're good at organizing and juggling a lot of stuff at once', so what I actually said was 'thanks'. 

Compliments from people who are being squicky-making creepsters do not require a "thank you," although if you deliver one as flatly as possible, wearing an angry expression, it does sometimes make them go away. Many of them will whine that it was only a compliment and that you are totally overreacting. "I wish I could play the piano as well as you do," is a compliment. "I would hit that anytime!" is inappropriate from anyone with whom you are not already doing the horizontal tango, and in a lot of situations, it's even inappropriate from them. This is entitlement raising its ugly head -- they think that they've given you something and that you're now required to dispense something in return. Feel free to be as rude as you need to be to make them go away.

"Thank you" is also the appropriate response to someone who's being catty and giving you a completely fake comment in an effort to make fun of you. You should say it as sincerely as possible. It makes them look stupid. The idea behind this one is that they're trying to be bitchy at you in such a way that if you lose it and start trying to throttle the life out of them right then and there, they can always say 'but all I said was [denotatively nice thing], and they just blew up!' like they were the victim of your unanticipated psychosis. It also works the other way -- if you keep responding as if they really mean to tell you how awesome you are, it denies them the explosive reaction they want. Frustration will often make them try harder, but won't usually make them try differently, with the net effect that they look like they're getting totally, unaccountably, irrationally angry over the fact that they're being nice and you're being nice back

(If all else fails, then just remember that "well, bless your little heart," is how a genteel Southern lady pronounces "fuck you". It works wonders.)

Comments on your appearance can be answered at your discretion. I know this is a touchy subject for many of people. I get them a lot -- these things will happen when you have very long hair and live in an area with a lot of people from the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent. My policy is basically that, while they are sometimes delivered in a rather stupid manner (see: honking, wolf whistles), as long they're not saying alarming things or otherwise acting like a dangerous cretin, there is no call for me to be rude. (I tend not to get the skeezier catcallers, for some reason. The only time I've ever found it alarming to be honked at was in Flagstaff, when the truck was full of rednecks, and they were doing it because I had a scarf on hijaab to keep the snow off my hair. Clueless guys who shout "looking good!" and keep driving are pretty harmless. Racist assholes, not so much.) People who make comments about looks in public are taking their chances, however, and if your policy is to politely pretend you hadn't heard that, they can't really fault you.

If you want to give compliments to strangers in your everyday life, then my advice is to always deliver them en passant (example: "Excuse me, this is my stop, but I just had to tell you that I really love your necklace," just as you're exiting the train). By speaking up and then moving along, you convey the message that you're not demanding any more of their time and attention than it took them to listen to the nice thing, and therefore are not saying the nice things with any kind of ulterior motive. Furthermore, you should never say anything you wouldn't want some stranger on the bus saying to your baby sibling or elderly grandparent. This demonstrates that you have some sort of filtering mechanism between your brain and your mouth, and consequently that you're probably not a depraved lunatic. A random dude on the subway who has enough presence of mind to realize that he needs to tell me, "nice outfit," rather than, "nice ass," probably also has enough social acumen to notice if I am not interested in continuing the conversation.


  1. How about a daily Rat Report? I'd really like that :>)

    1. 6am-noon: Cram selves into nest box. Sleep in giant pile of fur.

      Noon: Mommy gets out of bed and makes breakfast. Clearly she is cooking for rats. Beg for food.

      12:15-8pm: Cram selves into nest box. Sleep in giant pile of fur.

      8pm: Mommy makes dinner. Clearly she is cooking for rats. Beg for food.

      8:15pm-midnight: Pile into hammock. Sleep in giant pile of fur.

      12:07am: Pick fight with other rat. Throw other rat off side of hammock. Clamber up to sleep on top of cage.

      1am-6am: Get cold, cram selves into nest box again.

      Lather, rinse, repeat. Occasionally the bottom rat on the fur pile gets too hot. Then the cage emits scrabbles and squeaking noises as convection occurs. Other than that, they are basically my tiny irresponsible stoner roommates: friendly, lazy, messy, hungry, sometimes quite entertaining.

    2. Thank you! I didn't know know that rats sleep as much as cats, and more than giant African land snails.

    3. Oh my, yes. They are hard at training for the World Napping Championships, to be held in Zürich this spring. They've been given excellent odds.

      Seriously, though, they do sleep a lot. Rats are naturally crepuscular, and tend to spend daylight hiding from daytime predators, and darkness hiding from nighttime predators. Sleeping is a convenient way to pass the time, plus it conserves precious precious calories, which they hoard in a fashion much like Smaug with gold. (No, seriously. If you give them treats they're too full to eat, they'll scuttle off and pile them in a corner. And if they think another rat might find their stash, they'll stubbornly insist on snoozing on it.) Domesticated rats will mostly adapt their schedule to yours, because they can sleep any time -- and I do mean anytime, these guys have stayed totally unconscious through a hurricane, an earthquake, and now a blizzard -- but they only get food and attention when you're around.

      Basically, unless something exciting is happening, like lunch, they're unconscious or forcibly grooming each other until the groom-ee squeaks, which I think they do mostly because rat knuckles are inadequate for delivering noogies.

  2. Wow, this is all completely spot on.

    Also, your parenthetical paragraph summarises pretty much my entire academic career. The sentence on the after effect of a lack of accurate praise being the "complete lack of any reliable scale against which we can judge our own performance as compared to people who are not us". I spent GCSEs and A-levels thinking I didn't quite deserve my straight A*s and As because I felt I hadn't worked as hard as other kids. Things were easy for me because, you know, talent but it meant I always (and still do, much of the time) feel like I'm not working hard enough.

    I started to figure it out in uni and forced myself to practise accepting compliments with a gracious thank you and a smile. And you know what, it actually works! There's still a flicker of doubt or embarrassment, depending on the compliment, but it's so much weaker than it used to be and consequently, I don't spew my own issues onto other people's kindness in public. :)


Post a Comment