They’re funny things. They make people uncomfortable, no-one knows how to respond to them, and it’s always hard to tell if it’s meant sincerely or not. Then there’s the awkward thing that happens when someone says ‘I love your shoes’ and you were quietly falling in love with their bag or their shirt or something but now if you say so it just sounds like you feel the need to return the compliment in some way and so despite your verging-on-the-stalk-worthy interest in said shirt or bag you can’t now really say anything. Or you have to give a great long speech about how much you wanted to compliment them on their choice of shirt/steal it but then they complimented you first and so now ‘it sounds like I don’t mean it but I really really do’. And then you sound even more sincere. Great.
Then, anyway, there’s the fact that it’s quite hard to sound as if you mean it anyway. At least in my own head, I always sound either sarcastic or superficial and shallow and completely as if I’m just saying it rather than genuinely meaning it.
Then you realise that there are some people you really appreciate and you’re hopeless at telling them how much they mean to you. Like your sister, or your mother, or your best friend. But then you realise that they probably realise that anyway, with any luck.
So, really, compliments are a total pain.
But the thing is, actually, they make all the difference in the world. Perhaps you told me I looked beautiful, and I just shrugged, grinned and said ‘I know’. But weeks or months down the line, sometimes, I still grin. I still remember the exact wording of the first real compliment I got on my looks from someone who wasn’t related to me. A then-rather-awkward young man (well, boy, really), said that I was developing ‘rather endearing freckles’. Later I picked up words like ‘stunning’ and ‘beautiful’ from entirely biased sources and perhaps I didn’t recieve those words well at the time but I learnt something, two or three years ago, which is very simple: if you don’t really know how to respond to a compliment, whether you believe it or not, just smile and say ‘Thank you’. I won’t say I remember every compliment I’ve ever recieved – I don’t – but I do treasure a lot of those moments where someone comes out and says something sincere and complimentary. My current favourite is ‘super-competent self-confident superwoman’, is I believe the wording, tempered rather by ‘until you get drunk’ (at which point I get all giggly and silly and a bit childish, and also highly apologetic for being drunk, apparently. This, I think, is an improvement on former times).
What’s really worth remembering is that actually, if you say to someone ‘I love your dress’ and they say ‘oh this old thing? I’ve had it forever’, which is our oh-so-British self-deprecating get-me-out-of-the-spotlight automatic response, let’s be honest – it actually sounds rather insulting, suggesting that the complimenter has little taste, or doesn’t know what’s new and fashionable and good quality as opposed to ‘this old thing’. If you’re told you have good legs and you respond, ‘oh, goodness no, I need some more exercise’, it may sound all conspiratorial and aren’t-we-all-imperfect-together in your head but it kind of implies that you’re holding yourself to higher standards because you can. I hate it when you say to someone ‘I think you’re really pretty’ or ‘you look lovely tonight’ and they go, ‘oh, no, I hate my hair’.*
Of course very few people actually take those literal meanings when a compliment is rebuffed – but that kind of self-deprecation is a rebuff, a rejection of your values, and it puts you at a distance.
It’s very simple: say thank you, and smile, and try to understand why that person thinks that thing about you. Say, ‘yes, this dress is one of my absolute favourites, makes me feel like Audrey Hepburn/The Edge of Love/Grace Kelly’ *stupid pose*. Make a joke out of it, sure, but make it obvious that you value the compliment. They wouldn’t say it unless they meant it. Better still, believe it, savour it. The friend who taught me that this was the way to go – yes, a boy – spent seemingly hours in the top floor of our old haunt, Cafe Django’s, quickfiring compliments at me and getting me to look him in the eye, smile, and thank him. It took me a while to stop squirming in my seat like a little girl. But I’m glad he did it. He also got me chocolate raisins, which was probably worth the humiliation…!
Sorry – it’s just one of my bugbears. It’s so simple, really. It should be so obvious. But it took me years to learn.
*I’ve got a strange feeling that most people (from a huge survey sample of ‘some of my friends’) want hair which is more or less the opposite, in style, of the hair that they actually have. I’ve never understood this.