How to accept a compliment

Giving and receiving kind words often isn’t as easy as it should be, but here’s how to do it graciously

By Diane Peters

How to accept a compliment

What did you say the last time someone said a kind word about your shoes, or your latest work project? Probably, “Oh, these beat-up old things?” and “Thanks, but Ann did the real work.”

Why do we often balk at the praise directed at us? “I was brought up to believe you could get a swelled head if you accepted a compliment, or you’re blowing your own horn,” says Louise Fox, a Toronto-based etiquette expert. And being Canadians, it’s part of our culture to be humble. Compliments about our brains or our bodies may also touch on insecurities, so we have a hard time believing them.

But we really should learn to embrace these kind words. A 2006 Kansas State University study found that, among 185 women, those most insecure about their bodies got a self-esteem boost from a compliment about their personality or appearance.

You’d think we would be better at receiving them, considering how often they’re given. “It’s almost a barrage of compliments between females,” says Peter Wogan, an associate professor of anthropology at Willamette University in Oregon. For a study published in 2006, Wogan and his team observed 270 compliments among students, and found that most compliments given to women were about appearance.

A little give and take

Want to get better at accepting compliments? Try these tips:

•    Keep it simple. For a straightforward compliment about your appearance, your work or your child’s behaviour at a birthday party, a simple “thank you” will do. If your dress was a sale-rack special or the meal you cooked was overdone, resist going into those details.
•    Don’t put yourself down in response. If a compliment seems to be also asking for information, thank the giver and pass on the recipe for your delicious brownies, or explain how you uploaded those unique graphics—but don’t belittle yourself in the process.
•    Don’t pooh-pooh the comment. Remember: A brush-off is rude. “When you reject a compliment, you’re rejecting the opinion of that person,” says Fox.
•    Perfect your backhand. How do you deal with a compliment that comes with a dig—like an innocent “You look so good now that you’ve lost the baby weight!” or “I really like your haircut; it’s a lot nicer than the last one”? Fox suggests saying: “I’m not sure how to respond to that,” or “I’m not comfortable with that.” This acknowledges the backhanded nature of the remark, and puts the responsibility back on the person who offered it.

Here are some suggestions for giving compliments:

•    Avoid replying to all compliments with another. If you’re always tossing back nice comments, or if you’re so knee-jerk you end up lauding someone’s ready-for-the-junkyard car, people may question your sincerity.
•    Be specific. “That colour looks amazing on you” or “You really know how to put together a dinner party so no one feel stressed” will have more resonance than general comments.
•    Steer clear of body-related observations with members of the opposite sex. In these situations, compliments can sometimes sound like flirting, says Wogan. Comments about a co-worker’s great job on a report or a neighbour’s recent landscaping efforts (versus commenting on their buff workout bod) will help you steer clear of that.
•    Focus on the results. Weight-loss-related compliments may make people feel self-conscious—and further reinforce the idea that we only look good when we’re thin. Focus your comments on a flattering dress, a healthy complexion or a renewed commitment to visit the gym.

When you get better at both sides of the complimenting dance, it helps you get along with others, and feel great in the process. Says Fox: “A sincere compliment is a gift. Don’t worry about motives; just accept it.”

This article was originally titled "Just Say 'Thanks,'" in the March/April 2011 issue of Best Health. Subscribe to Best Health today and never miss an issue!

Best Health Magazine, March/April 2011

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