Back at the beginning of this year, a bank clerk named Judith was helping me with my lost credit card. It was a normal, human, everyday interaction. After I complimented her on her nail polish, though, she started to squirm like there was something uncomfortable in her undercrackers.
“I don’t usually go for this, I usually go for letterbox red,” she sighed. “I don’t even like this color, really. It’s a bit too dark, don’t you think?”
The nail color in question was maroon, which isn’t a dramatic deviation from red, really. But had it been luminous orange, even, Judith must have liked it enough to pay someone to paint it on her nails.
Yet instead of saying "thanks," she reacted like I'd leaned over and whispered, “I know your secrets, Judith.”
But Judith and her hated manicure inspired me to really test if any woman would accept a compliment. The 28 days of February were ahead of me, so I came up with a plan: 28 compliments to 28 women over 28 days. Someone surely would snap one up, right?
It was hardly the most difficult social experiment to carry out. I am a natural complimenter. I like things, especially jewelry. It’s lucky I became a writer, because a pickpocket or a chatterbox also seemed like natural vocations.
So did any women accept one of my freebie compliments? Did anyone own it and relish the joys of non-fished-for praise? I distributed my kind words to strangers, coworkers, pals, and family. Sadly, not one of these fabulous women stood back and accepted their compliment.
A colleague I have always admired as a power-player, became uncomfortable when I said her earrings were pretty. “Oh, I found these at the bottom of the drawer. They are really old,” she stumbled.
Then, my friend became unusually defensive when I said her eyeliner looked good. “It’s fucking hard getting older, okay.” A sales assistant, who was selling me the same style of shoes she was wearing, exclaimed: “They make my cankles look awful but they would look good on you. I wish I had the legs! I just hate them.”
But perhaps the oddest reply goes to a barista after I said her coffee was delicious. “I’ll be honest, I’m not that good,” she grumbled. “There’s a dude a few doors up who I prefer.”
The compliments I dished out were hardly radical. It was just about taking a moment to big-up some women who did have something to justifiably compliment. My defensive pal, with her sudden fear that she had the eyes of an old lady, hadn’t smeared eyeliner around her face. It was Adele-perfect.
And it wasn’t a gentle rebuffing, either; the majority of the 28 females I spoke to instantly tore themselves down. At best, a few did this weird uncomfortable laugh, a version of saying: “Please stop.”
I myself am a keen accepter of compliments. I love them! But, I have to say that even I get flummoxed when the compliments are especially heartfelt, and I have an inkling it’s because I don’t believe them. After all, close family are pre-programmed to look at me with rose-tinted vision due to an excess of shared genes.
Psychologist Guy Winch, who wrote Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts, thinks rebuffing compliments is something women have learned over time.
“Many women are socialized to be humble, modest, and to avoid external displays of pride or arrogance,” Winch says. “Therefore, their default response is to be demure and rebuff compliments.
“Because this cultural expectation is so common, there is far less tolerance for violations of this expectation among women than there is among men. Studies have found that women are twice as likely to rebuff a compliment from another woman than from a man.”
But the science behind it is this, he claims: We dodge compliments that we feel are outside our own self-concept, because it makes us feel uncomfortable.
“If someone feels unattractive and a friend says, 'You look so pretty in that dress,' you might question whether the compliment is authentic,” adds Winch. “And [you might question] whether the person issuing it has an agenda, or whether they might respond poorly if you accepted the compliment and said ‘Thanks.’”
But how can we deviate from what appears to be our natural setting? Winch, a seasoned TED talker, says that the first step is to acknowledge that accepting a compliment is actually beneficial to self-worth. Savor the compliment instead of immediately batting it away.
“Like any kind of habit or behavioural change, doing it will initially feel uncomfortable,” he admits. “So the challenge women have is that they have to train themselves to be able to accept compliments.
“Saying ‘thanks’ will feel iffy and arrogant, and even anxiety-provoking when they first start doing it. Those feelings are natural, but they are not a sign you are doing something wrong.
“You have to anticipate the discomfort and tolerate it until it subsides. When it does, you will have a sign that you have done something significant for your self-esteem.”
So upgrade yourselves — especially you, Judith — and take comfort in the fact that accepting that compliment is beneficial for your emotional wellbeing. Your self-worth will thank you for it later.