Chances are this scenario rings painfully true for pretty much everyone reading this. Compliments are tricky territory to manage, especially for women — whether it's giving or receiving them. Give a man a compliment, on anything from his hair to his drink choice, and the assumption is usually that you're looking to get horizontal with him. Give a woman a compliment, and she's more likely to deflect it, for fear of being thought vain or full of herself.
In a 1988 study, Janet Holmes, a sociolinguist and professor at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand, explored women's and men's complimenting behavior. She noted that the women in her study gave and received compliments overwhelmingly more than men. "Women use compliments as a way of establishing good rapport with others — especially other women. Men use compliments to women as a way of breaking the ice and establishing good relationships," she says. It's important to note, however, that while women are better at doling out praise and receive more compliments, that does not necessarily mean we are accepting those compliments.
While women are better at doling out praise and receive more compliments, that does not mean they are accepting those compliments.
Wogan, who conducted a small-scale study in 2006 of his class, which had the students tracking their compliment habits, says that in his experience, women use compliments in a more egalitarian way — to build up a community and support each other by saying something nice. Unlike men, however — who are also less likely to downgrade or deflect compliments — women have a subconscious worry about being perceived as too full of themselves or arrogant.
Add to that the anonymity of the internet, where people are more likely to observe and judge (and, in many cases, attack and belittle) someone based solely on appearance. It's not necessarily the most hospitable environment for fostering and nurturing that needed self-confidence.
Case in point: A Tumblr user tried a social experiment in which she would accept a compliment from every man who commented positively on her appearance. She answered agreeably with an, "I know, thank you." The responses varied from, "Being vain won't get you anywhere it just makes you a bitch [sic]," to someone expressing hopes that she would get cancer.
Examples like this illustrate why it's understandable that women would be hesitant to answer affirmatively when given appearance-based compliments, especially by a male. And while there are other types of compliments one can give — specifically, skill-based and personality-based — Wogan says those are much rarer in all interactions, regardless of gender.
Women are brought up to apologize for their intellect and to deny positive comments about themselves. I think this is slowly changing, but it's a hard habit to break.
Which brings us back to woman-on-woman compliment rejection. If women are so focused on building each other up, why is it that we can't take a simple compliment about our hair or shoes? "Our study, and most others, deduced that the main reason for such downplaying of compliments is that it reinforces feelings of equality and solidarity between female compliment givers and receivers," says Wogan. "Women are brought up to apologize for their intellect and to deny positive comments about themselves," adds Dr. Wechsler. "I think this is slowly changing, but it's a hard habit to break."
Hard definitely, but 100% necessary. Deflecting or being embarrassed by a compliment serves no purpose to you socially or professionally. In fact, it might be hurting you in both areas. According to economist Linda Babcock and writer Sara Laschever in their book Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide, women tend to worry about how their actions will impact relationships — which is why they tend to be so crappy at negotiating.
More so than that, women tend to devalue their worth when given performance compliments, which, understandably, gives higher-ups a less appreciative view of their skill set. Adds Wogan, "If you are not comfortable with celebrating yourself — to let the compliment ride and have other people see you as really excellent in some regard — then when it comes time [for a promotion or raise], it's hard for them to negotiate."
What's more troubling, researchers have long pointed out that a mother's self-image directly affects her daughter's. While most studies center around body image and eating disorders, it makes sense that if a daughter sees her mother deflect compliments with a negative response about herself (i.e., "I hate my [X]..." or "My [X] is so ugly"), then a daughter will learn to focus on what her perceived "flaws" are rather than recognize that "thank you" is the appropriate response to positive feedback.
Says Dr. Wechsler, "I think it's helpful for women to talk to each other about how hard it is to take a compliment, and to call out good friends when they deflect compliments." By demonstrating that behavior, women have a greater chance of initiating the trickle-down effect to pass that positivity and self-confidence to their loved ones.
So, let's keep that momentum moving forward. When someone compliments you — on anything from your cool new lipstick to your mad coding skills — look them straight in the eye, smile, and say, "Thank you so much." Or better yet, start adding more meaningful compliments to your interactions with friends — like telling them what a big heart they have or how you admire their honesty. The more women build up our self-confidence little by little, the more likely we are to recognize our true worth and potential. Then, maybe we can try tackling that whole "sorry" problem next.