Why, Thank You! You’re Too Kind

I’ve been mulling over Plumcake’s post about accepting compliments since she wrote it way back in April.

One of the things about being read as a woman is that I internalise a lot of behaviours that society expects of women. This includes some things I really don’t like, one of which is constantly denigrating myself and my accomplishments. Nowhere does this become more apparent than when someone compliments me on something I’ve done. My default response to a compliment is to try and minimise my achievement as much as possible, to make myself small and unimportant, because this is what I have been taught to do.

As Plumcake pointed out, this is an insult to the complimenter in addition to yourself. If someone speaks highly of you or something you have done and you try to downplay it, it really does suggest that you think this person has questionable judgment or taste. Or that this person isn’t capable of forming an opinion or independent thought. Since a big part of feminist work, for me, is respecting the personhood of my fellow humans and everyone’s ability to think independently and draw ou own conclusions, it’s important for me to accept compliments with grace. To say ‘yes, you are a person, and you have formed an opinion, and I value it, not just because I like to be complimented, but because it is your opinion.’

To say otherwise, to reject a compliment, to say ‘oh no, you’re wrong,’ is telling another human being that I know better than ou. That what I think is more important. That I know what ou is really thinking. It’s exactly like saying ‘oh no, you don’t like that, you like chocolate’ to a person who has clearly stated ‘I would like a bowl of vanilla ice cream, please.’ It’s insulting, in short.

After I read her post, I started becoming a lot more aware of how I handled compliments, and I was horrified to see how many interactions went like this:

‘That’s a lovely photograph!’

‘Oh, I really hate it, I think the composition is dreadful, it’s really not my best work.’

Or this:

‘I really liked your piece on [subject]!’

‘That piece is so unpolished! I just dashed it off in 10 minutes, it’s so embarrassing how much people seem to like it!’

Or this:

‘You are looking very lovely today.’

‘Oh, I just slapped on some pants so I could run to the post office.’

Even as I started recognising what I was doing and trying to stop, it continued. And then, finally, one day someone gave me a compliment and I said ‘Thanks! I like it too!’ And that seemed to break the barrier; since then, I’ve been much better (but by no means perfect) about graciously accepting compliments. And I’ve noticed that this seems to make some people uneasy; when someone gets a compliment and acknowledges it and doesn’t try to undermine the thing being complimented, it starts to be read as self assurance and cockiness, and I find this, well, fascinating, for lack of a better word.

Because the social rule is that we are supposed to gracefully accept compliments, but the unspoken rule, and what we are trained to do, is that we should reject compliments, preferably in a way that downplays our abilities and accomplishments. This is not the first time I have tangled with conflicting rules of social etiquette and it will probably not be the last. We live in a society where we are said to do one thing and taught to do another and woe betide the person who questions this, or who accepts what we are told to do at face value and ignores social conditioning.

I think that there are a couple of things going on when people can’t just accept compliments. One is the lesson that you can’t take pride in your work. This is trained into people who are presumed female from a very early age. Even suitably ‘womanly’ accomplishments should be underplayed as much as possible, lest you be viewed a braggart. It’s not nice to take pride in your work.

It starts to feed into imposter syndrome. Someone complimenting you feels fake, it feels awkward to be told that, yes, you are actually awesome, and so you need to find a way to distance yourself from your work. To make it a fluke, rather than something you worked hard on/for and do in fact deserve credit for. Because to say ‘why thank you, I am very proud of this as well and it’s nice to hear that from you’ is to recognise your own work and to give yourself credit for it. Is to defy social conditioning.

Another is that we are expected to not take up space. Doing something you are proud of is taking up space. And we are also supposed to be effortless; being complimented on your outfit is an acknowledgment of the effort you put into it, and we can’t have that. Being told that someone likes your writing suggests that writing is work that requires actual time, energy, and effort. We wouldn’t want that. Because that would be to admit that accomplishing things takes work. And that we deserve to take up space. Not just a little bit of space, not just sometimes: we are just as deserving of space as everyone else at all times and that includes the space to be rightfully proud of what we do.

One doesn’t need to go overboard in accepting compliments. A simple ‘thank you’ suffices. And what a difference it has made in my view of the world. How much more empowered I feel every time I say ‘thank you’ when someone compliments me, and leave it at that. My pride in my work needs no justification, nor undercutting with refutations of compliments.

And neither does yours. Go ahead. Say ‘thank you’ when someone compliments you. It feels good.