The art of accepting a compliment

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Learning to respond to an admiring comment is a skill in itself, writes Eva Wiseman.

In the past I’ve sometimes got it wrong, the compliment.

Too earnest, too fast, out of nowhere like a soft little sniper. Or chucked from a distance, or too familiar, or too specific. Even the worst compliments, though, I have always maintained, are good, as long as they are genuine and well-meant (and as long as they don’t comment, of course, on the size of a body – a criminal sin in my eyes). Recently, especially when the sun is out, I have found compliments towards strangers forming on my tongue, but the part of me that wants to put off becoming a batty older lady of the kind that camply bothers well-dressed commuters forced me to swallow them.

It was in this state of repressed admiration that I read two things. The first was a comment by Barbra Streisand, underneath an Instagram post that showed Melissa McCarthy walking glamorously with a mutual friend. She wrote, "Give him my regards did you take Ozempic?" I laughed, of course I did. It reminded me of one of my favourite social media accounts, OldPeopleWeb, which collates the comments, photos and general misfires of older people attempting to use the internet. For example, "Congrats on your sobriety Denise but you look dreadful in both pictures all my love Maureen x." In response to the online uproar that followed, Streisand clarified, "She looked fantastic! I just wanted to pay her a compliment." Someone should send her the second thing I read, a Time magazine piece about how to give good compliments. Except halfway through, I started to feel like we were all missing something.

The Time piece was interesting, if slightly vomitous. If a stranger dared to hand me a printed "compliment card" that said, "Your willingness to go the extra mile never goes unnoticed" on the front, and on the back, "You’re receiving this compliment because your awesomeness deserves a big shoutout," along with a reminder that "kind words have the power to brighten other people’s day more than we might expect, and a suggestion to pay it forward", I think at best I might wither, at worst, combust.

In general, though, the writer’s advice was decent and straightforward: give more compliments than you think you should, especially if offering reassurance in fraught situations, avoid comparing the compliment-receiver to someone else and, if nervous about saying the compliment out loud, practise first in the mirror. Which is all good and helpful, but apart from Barbra, what I think most of us need to learn, in fact, is not just how to give compliments, but how to receive them.

My daughter is almost 10, a liminal age characterised by restlessness, one eye and two ears already tuned to teenage life. And I see already that shift from merrily accepting our comments on her lovely drawing of, I think, a walrus, or her cycling abilities, or French plait, to batting them away self-consciously. As children, compliments are simply part of the texture of our little lives – observations on how adorable we are or how clever or what brilliant towers we build are so constant they become mundane. Pronouncements of our beauty are met with a bland smile. It would not occur to us as children to respond any other way: the sky is blue, water is wet, we are gorgeous, this is life.

As we creep towards adulthood, though, the exchange becomes muddier, especially for girls. On the street, harassment comes disguised as a compliment, meaning a high-pitched level of vigilance must be maintained; at home we see how women are socialised to remain humble and modest.

Girls learn to see a compliment in the same way as a calorie, to be wary of and to count carefully. In the same way that we passively teach girls with our adult actions to say no to bread and chocolate, so we teach them to abstain from compliments – it is unfeminine to respond to an admiring comment about your dress without pointing out how it exposes the wrong bit of your arm, or confess how it makes you walk like a goat. And so they see that part of growing up is to meet praise with shame and believe only the worst.

It should be just as unacceptable to say awful things about ourselves as it is to say them about other people. We would never think, never dream of saying something so cruel or cutting out loud about somebody else – we are the ones after all marvelling at others’ skills and earrings and nimble touch – yet all compliments received must be dampened with a flannel of self-hatred. The whole thing makes me quietly despair, until I start to think about accepting compliments as a skill all of its own, something that can be learned, and modelled, and practised, and which has the potential to make a girl more powerful, and take pleasure in her strength and beauty and speed.

I want to hammer these skills into my daughter alongside the times tables, capitals of Europe, spelling of "measurement" – the ability to simply say thank you, as if being handed a parcel or tea, and then, to say nothing else at all. — The Observer