One by one, the women sit down in front of the camera. “I think you’re beautiful!” their female interviewer exclaims to each.
The camera rolls as their faces register the compliment. One woman roars with laughter. One bursts into tears. “You are, too!” another quickly interjects, like a prizefighter parrying a blow.
The remarkable video is part of actress Holly Fulger’s Hollywood Beauty Detective series. It’s an instructive look at how difficult it can be to hear praise from fellow females. Research has shown that women and men have different conversational patterns when it comes to compliments—guys often manage to just say “thank you” to each other, while women struggle to accept each other’s kind words. This is the case even though the ladies are more likely to use compliments in the first place. Linguist Deborah Tannen has found that women use compliments as a ritual to build solidarity and rapport.
So why is praise such a minefield for some women? Is there a better way to give and take a compliment?
Giving and receiving a compliment is a potentially fraught experience not due to the content of the conversation, but because of the subtext lurking beneath its surface, like an Eel of Awkwardness, just waiting to brush up against your legs and make things weird.
First, when it comes to compliments about appearance, attention is focused where many a woman is loath to have the spotlight—on her exterior. Most of us invest quite a bit of energy and hope into personally counter-programming our culture’s relentless messaging that beauty, size, and shape are the most important facets about a woman. At the same time, even the most confident woman struggles to silence the inner critic who ruthlessly judges her body and face. We’d prefer if our accomplishments or creativity or strength was noticed by others—those are aspects the mean voice inside doesn’t target quite so mercilessly. No wonder that a compliment about how we look can be distracting and distressing. Researchers have noted that giving a woman looks-based compliments can knock her off balance enough to even lower her score on math tests.
Second, giving a compliment of any kind implies that the complimentee should care what you think. There’s a hidden hierarchy at play. Peers can compliment each other, and somebody higher than you on the social ladder can dole out praise. But when going the opposite direction—up—all but the most sincere pat on the back sounds like fawning flattery. That may be one reason why compliments from men are accepted more often than those from women. No matter how egalitarian our society seems, the guys are still in many ways on the top rung, and the structure of our conversations seems to reflect that.
Responding and receiving
In their book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts, Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James Pawelski share that there are six primary ways to respond to expressions of appreciation. By switching from negative to positive answers, women can help turn compliments from a risky endeavor to a social strategy with almost unlimited upside.
One common response the Pawelskis identify in complimentary conversations is deflection. A new mom tells a friend that she enjoyed the meal she brought over after the baby came home. “It’s OK, I didn’t really have to go out of my way,” the friend replies. This response flicks the compliment away like an unwanted ant on a picnic blanket. But the giver of the compliment may hear, “It’s OK, you’re not that important to me.”
A second common response to a compliment is reciprocation. A new acquaintance comments, “I just love your earrings,” and you blurt, “Your earrings are so cute, too!” even though she is wearing plain gold studs which, though classic, are not remarkable. And you both know it.
This reaction happens when compliments make us feel vulnerable like we are in debt. “If someone pays you a compliment, you now feel like you owe them something, and you want to pay them back just as soon as you can,” the Pawelskis write. Plus, immediately returning the admiration quickly moves the spotlight off you. Phew. The problem is that this mirroring often seems phony. If women give each other compliments to build solidarity, immediate reciprocation can actually have the opposite effect.
Another common response is discounting. Someone told me they enjoyed an article I’d written. Before I could stop, I heard myself saying, “Thanks, I think it was really disorganized though.” Attempting to argue with someone who is just trying to say something gracious is never a good idea. Why are so many of us so heavily armed with reasons to prove our accomplishments don’t count? I can only speak for myself. Perhaps a woman needs practice hearing kind words about herself, from herself. Then when she hears kindness from others, it will feel more like the truth and less like her inner critic has been invited to do battle.
The Pawelskis say that deflecting, reciprocating, and discounting are symptoms of “responding without receiving.” They’re also bad habits we may not even notice we’ve developed.
Instead, to show a conversation partner that we’ve truly received their compliment, we can answer by accepting—this is the simple, minimalist “thank you,” that many guys seem to have down pat. A more advanced skill is amplification. This technique is still less complicated than the negative responses I twist myself into. Simply by sharing how a compliment makes me feel, I can build a stronger connection with the person praising me. “Thank you, it really makes me feel good that you noticed,” is an effective example.
The most sophisticated compliment response of all is advancement. Saying thanks, expressing your emotions, and then taking the opportunity to connect about a related subject that matters to you both, is a pivot that definitely takes practice. This could look like: “Thanks, it means a lot to me that you liked my cooking. I’m doing my best to find more nutritious meals that are still tasty, and I’d love any ideas you have on how to achieve that.”
It’s even better to give than to receive
But what about giving compliments? That is important to do well, too. Of course, the only accolade worth sharing is a sincere one. It’s also worthwhile to make the effort to praise others for positive attributes beyond their looks. But beyond the obvious, there is actually a simple trick to make it easier for friends, family, and coworkers to accept your compliments.
One hint: Try pairing your compliment with a question. The person you’re praising can focus on answering the query instead of having to come up with a split-second response to the compliment. For example, instead of just saying, “These cookies are delicious!” try, “These cookies are delicious! Do they take long to make?” Even with looks-based compliments, this technique can make an interaction happier. “Your hair is amazing!” is easily followed by, “Who cuts it for you?”
It may seem incredible, but small changes to conversation habits can make a big difference. By making an effort to become good compliment givers and receivers, women can slay the beast of awkwardness and unlock the connection potential of compliments.