How take a compliment — and how to give one

Photo: Memphis CVB via Flickr

The New York Times published an absurd article called “How to Accept A Compliment,” by Carolyn Bucior. Like all of us, I have struggled with this question. Here I offer a practical suggestion on what to do about it (which is more than the Times did).

The Times article quotes the Center for Advance Research on Language Acquisition, which says that two-thirds of the time, Americans respond to compliments with something other than, or in addition to, “Thank you.” Here are some examples of responses to a compliment to a woman on her nice dress:

We shift credit (“My mom picked this dress out for me.”), make a historical comment (“I bought it on sale.”), question the complimenter (“Hmm, you think so?”) or lob back a compliment (“I like your outfit, too.”). Other times we downgrade the compliment (“This thing is so old I was about to give it to Goodwill.”), reject it outright (“I feel like I look like a hobo.”) or treat the compliment as a request (“You want to borrow it?”).

These sorts of responses are problematic, because they shift the attention away from the compliment or attempt to invalidate it. Certainly, from my experience, this is a problem for people who are experiencing imposter syndrome, the feeling that you’re not as good as people say you are, that you are just “faking it.”

Personally, as an insufferably arrogant egotist, I have had the opposite problem. When I was younger, on receiving a compliment, I was as likely as not to say, “Yes, I am” (smart, analytical, a good writer, etc.)

While my response and the self-undermining responses of those with imposter syndrome are complete opposites, they fail for parallel reasons. In both cases, you are basically saying to the complimenter, “Your opinion is worthless.” The self-underminer says, “I don’t deserve the compliment,” while the arrogant egotist says “Your opinion isn’t needed, I already know I’m great.” Both leave the complimenter at a loss.

A better way

After many years of watching the awkwardness of people receiving and responding to compliments, including me, I figured out a better way. And since authors get a fair amount of compliments, it was something I needed to do.

The point is to compliment the complimenter on their judgment. So here are some of the things I say.

“Thanks. It’s really kind of you to say that.”

“I worked really hard on that. It makes me feel great to hear you say you liked it.”

“Coming from you, that means a lot to me.”

Clearly, such remarks are most effective in situations where someone compliments you on your work. In such cases, you are validating the complimenter’s comments by praising their judgment. This tends to work better than saying they’re wrong (“No, it’s really not as good as you say.”) or saying that they’re right (“Of course I’m an excellent writer.”) And as Carolyn Bucior described in her article, it works far better than just, “Thank you,” which leaves the complimenter unrecognized for their excellent judgment.

Gender makes things more complicated, of course

Up until now, I haven’t mentioned gender. Plenty of secure and confident women don’t have a problem with compliments. Even so, gender is typically the source of lots of problems with compliments, especially for women early in their careers who are feeling some version of imposter syndrome.

I hope that my suggestions might solve some of those problems, because even if a woman feels that she doesn’t deserve the compliment she has received, she can certainly say, “Thanks, it’s kind of you to say that.” And once you say that, you might actually start to give yourself credit for what the complimenter thinks you did well.

Of course, that’s not the end of the gender and power problems. It strikes me that when a person of higher or equal status gives you a compliment, my response is workable. (When your boss says “Your hard work paid off — you really nailed that presentation,” you can certainly respond, “Thanks, I really appreciate your saying that.”)

But what happens when a lower status person compliments someone of higher status? For example, what happens when a junior colleague (possibly male) tells a person in authority (possibly female), “Wow, you did a great job”? That can be a problem, because it’s not really the junior person’s job to tell the boss that she did well. It may even be a power move, a ploy to show that the complimenter is the one who really knows what’s best, not the person being complimented. This is a case where a curt, “Thank you” is probably the right response.

Of course, I’ve been commenting on compliments that are related to work. In the workplace, there is also the issue of compliments on appearance. A man who says to a woman in the workplace, “Wow, you look great,” isn’t necessarily giving a compliment. He’s inviting a conversation about a woman’s appearance, which is a potential come-on. (Yes, this same uncomfortable problem can happen to men, but let’s be honest, it’s a lot more likely to happening to women.) The only appropriate response I can think of is to change the subject. Perhaps some of the women reading this can explain a better way to deal with this problem.

How to give a compliment

Given how many people have problems with receiving compliments, you’ve got a responsibility to give them carefully. You’d like the recipient to feel pleased, not awkward. So here are some suggestions for workplace compliments:

  • Focus on job performance. Talk about what people did or accomplished or how they grew in their jobs, rather than how they looked.
  • Be specific. “Your presentation was extremely well organized and changed people’s minds” is a lot better than, “Wow, that was great.”
  • Put it in writing as well. Send an email, write down what you liked and why it worked. This gives the recipient time to figure out how to respond rather than putting them on the spot.

The interesting thing about this advice is that it works well for criticism as well. Be specific and put it in writing, and everyone will be better off — and a lot less awkward.

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  1. As a dinner guest, I’m often seen out with the parting words, “It was pleasure having you.” I’ll reply, “Well, I really feel like I’ve been had.”
    At my 30-year-old daughter’s wedding, her sister confessed, “I have to be honest: Your speech was the best.”
    I replied, “I have to be honest: I know.” (Birds of a feather, Josh.)
    On National Public Radio, when the host thanks the interview guest, the guest thanks the host:
    “Thank you, [Guest].”
    “Thank you.”
    What happened to “You’re welcome,” “You’re most welcome,” or “My pleasure”?

  2. I feel discomfort receiving compliments and I love validation. For various reasons, I have an impulse toward skepticism when I am complimented. I wonder what angle is being played. But similarly, I landed on versions of “Thanks, that is nice to hear.”

    As a writer, I am less concerned with whether work is liked and more what it is liked for. “That was so funny!” on a CV, might be a red flag (or not.) As you say, I try in compliments to find something specific. I want people to know why I liked something.

    I knew a stage director who was great at giving complimentary but ambiguous phrases. “You’ve never been better!” “I couldn’t stop watching you.” “Such a unique take on Hamlet.”