Flip side of compliments

January 31, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

When florist Doug Hutzell visited a Hagerstown shop just before Christmas, he complimented the owner on her decorations.

"You should have seen them before they were all picked over," she responded.

Hearing that, a light came on for Hutzell. He realized the shop owner had done what he usually does when someone admires the shop he co-owns, The Village Florist in Hagerstown.

He appreciates kind words, but like many people, he's hard on himself and usually will say something self-deprecating like what that shop owner said.

Hutzell is not alone.

Accepting a compliment is hard for a lot of people, says Clay Warren, professor of communication at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


Warren has a theory about the reason that goes beyond personalities, beyond their efforts to appear modest - both of which are factors.

People are socialized to be analytical and critical, he says. We are trained to bring what we hear down to a skeptical level.

In receiving a compliment, we de-emphasize what we hear - not thinking that there are "highlighting" points about ourselves.

Warren also cites the effects of the media. We are exposed to "such a blast of shocking things" - large scale violence and sex on television, for example - that we discount our own experience.

"It's hard to highlight things out of my own humdrum life," is a way that people devalue compliments, Warren says.

Someone may tell you you're a good singer, but compared to someone Barbra Streisand, your singing may not seem like a big deal. "We tend to compare to stuff that we shouldn't," Warren says.

Laura E. Drake Witz, a professor in the University of Maryland's Department of Communication, provides another way of looking at the difficulty compliments present.

Receiving a compliment is a situation in which the rules of conversation conflict with social rules, she says.

There are rules of conversation, situations in which something is said and a certain response is expected, Witz says.

For example, when someone offers food, there are two possible responses: acceptance or refusal.

There are also social rules - learned mostly when we are teens and young adults. Those social rules - especially for women - include not putting yourself above another, Witz says.

When someone offers you a compliment, the rules of conversation dictate that you respond by accepting or refusing.

But social rules also come into play.

If you simply accept the compliment, you risk breaking a social rule by elevating yourself.

So what do you do to resolve that conflict?

Witz cites the work of conversation analyst Anita Pomerantz, who looked at thousands of compliment situations. Pomerantz, of the University of Albany, determined that people deal with compliments in four basic ways:

  • Total rejection: "You look nice," someone says.

    "This old thing," you respond dismissively.

  • Acceptance with some kind of qualifier: "Nice shirt."

    "Thanks. I love this shirt. It was a real bargain."

    In this example, you are meeting all the rules - both conversational and social, Witz says. You are accepting but simultaneously rejecting.

  • The return: "You look nice."

    "Oh, you look great, too."

  • Reference shift: "Fabulous lecture," you're told.

    "I have to credit Dr. Smith," you answer.

The topic of accepting a compliment is covered in Witz's interpersonal and advanced interpersonal communication classes - taken by students from a variety of majors.

Although he's not yet mastered the art of accepting compliments, the shop owner's reaction made Hutzell aware that there's another way to respond.

"If I would just say 'thank you' and be done with it ..."

The give and take

Teresa Adams, director of career services at Hagerstown Business College, teaches Presentation Skills for the Professional, a course required of all students.

Her focus is the business setting, but a compliment is a compliment is a compliment. The rules to determine how people accept a compliment also seem to apply at the office.

Adams provides some compliment-giving advice:

  • Be consistent - not sexist. Women are often complimented on how they look, men on what they do.

  • Be specific. Instead of "You really did a lot of work on this project," it would be better to say "This part of your project really helped me."

  • Don't wait too long to give a compliment. The impact is lost when the compliment is delayed. Being timely is extremely important.

Adams also has some thoughts on accepting compliments.

  • Don't argue or qualify.

    If you respond by saying "Oh, it was nothing," you may actually risk insulting the compliment giver by implying that he doesn't have high standards.

  • Be prepared. You don't need to have a Golden Globe Award acceptance speech in your pocket but expect that someone may praise you for something you've done.

  • Say thank you.
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