If someone says you look great, do you respond by saying you actually look more like a hideous hag? What about a compliment on your clothes? Ever reply, Oh, these old rags!? Or a personal achievement--are you compelled to give credit away immediately? Why can't women--even grown, accomplished, confident ones--take a god damn compliment? My column this week takes a look.
At a party last Saturday night, I was complimented a number of times in the way that women routinely compliment one another. What could be better? Compliments make you shimmer for a second, levitating a little in the glow of the complimenter’s generosity and your own vanity. Nice shoes! What shade of lipstick is that? Where’d you get that purse? I love it. Besides answering where I’d gotten the bag, I expertly deflected the other compliments. These shoes are ancient, I said. I wear them with everything. I should throw them out. You like this lipstick? Really? I thought it made me look like a corpse. Then I said I was heading back to the island in the kitchen for more food—which, I added, would just serve to hasten my eventual death from morbid obesity. When I offered compliments in return—remarks that I genuinely meant—my friends responded similarly. Are you sure this doesn’t make me look huge? God I look so tired, but thanks anyway. For lying to me! I wasn’t lying at all. But I knew exactly what she meant.
Somehow, these weird yet predictable deflections didn’t stop us from making one another feel great. The warmth and appreciation we were trying to convey came through and did its job. Women excel at social love-festing. Though I was compelled to reject the kind words, the simple fact that my friends offered praise was effective. And I’m certain my compliments in return made them feel positive. We say nice things to one another because we mean them, of course (and also because we really do want to know where things are “from” so that we can covet and collect them ourselves) but also because this is how we support and connect with each other. It’s one of the ways we fill each other up.
It feels good to admire a friend, to celebrate her accomplishments, and then to tell her so. She feels noticed, and better than she did a moment before. You feel good for having caused that feeling. But then—and here is where it gets complicated—it must follow that it also feels good, to the giver and receiver, to respond to the compliment by denying its veracity completely. This phenomenon, perhaps even more than the act of offering positive feedback, is knitted into female relationships from an early age. With some exceptions, the practice seems to remain rampant in adult female dynamics. It’s something we expect from one another.
On a recent episode of Comedy Central’s raunchy and funny Inside Amy Schumer, there was a skit dealing precisely with this familiar interaction. A group of female friends encounter one another on the street and begin immediately complimenting one another—on their clothes, their careers; news of a pregnancy. Each and every one of them not only deflects the compliment on cue, but obliterates it with some grotesque “actual” version of things. “You look pretty,” one says to the other. “I look like Susan Boyle’s toothbrush,” she responds. “Congrats on the promotion,” one says. “I’m gonna get fired,” the other responds. “I’m legally retarded.” Also in the mix: “I’m a cow.” “I’m a size 100.” And of course, “You’re just being nice.”[Renee Schumer Photo]
“Inside Amy Schumer”on Comedy Central
This pattern of chatter continues, a good-natured volley of compliments followed by dramatically rendered opposite versions of them. One woman refers to her own breasts as “spaghetti squash.” Every kindness answered with a refutation of it, which somehow feels to them like an even larger kindness in return. It goes on this way, the round robin of self-loathing and false modesty, until a final friend arrives and one of them promptly compliments her. “I love your jacket!” she says to her. “Oh, thanks,” the friend responds. And that’s it. Just a smile and a “thanks.” Silence falls. Tense glances are exchanged. The other women look baffled; then horrified. Within seconds, and without further comment, each commits suicide. Right there on the sidewalk. One pulls a Glock from her purse and blows herself away. One breaks her own neck and collapses in a heap. Another dumps gasoline over her head and lights herself on fire. Amy Schumer walks into oncoming traffic. With the exception of the spontaneous mass suicide, every second of the skit is remarkably—and hilariously—realistic.
Why does this dynamic persist? Why are women made uncomfortable by other women acknowledging a compliment and simply accepting it? Without qualifications, without self-mockery and diminishments. Folding it into her understanding of herself and maybe even, my goodness, believing it enough to act as though she agrees! Men, as everyone knows, don’t do this. Before tearing a sheet from the Man prescription pad, which rarely cures a Woman bug, I should slow down. Because that fact by itself is not a good enough reason for women to stop the pathological compliment blockade. There are plenty of things men don’t do that limit them and define their interactions as well. Note: shallow, surface conversations that rarely mine the depths that females will mine together. Relationships can go on for years without real substance and import. Which doesn’t trouble men at all. Note: Requiring less emotional feedback and validation from their friend relationships. And offering less as a result. Also fine with men. Note: Having such high self-esteem that any compliment they’re given might feel too small rather than too generous. I’m glad to hear you think I’m as awesome as I think I am, a confident man might think. Or say out loud.
No matter what you think of those differences, positive or negative, and the ways that they either help or hinder men—and I think they do both—we can agree that there are stark differences. Who has ever registered with any frequency, a man receiving a compliment about a job promotion or an athletic accomplishment with self-mocking swatting? Oh I just got lucky! So many others were more qualified than me, but I just lucked out! Or: I can’t believe I won the game for my team. I’ve been playing terrible lately and I don’t know, it just happened!
Furthermore, men don’t, as a matter of course, compliment each other’s physical appearance and clothing. They don’t build connective tissue that way. None of the men at the party Saturday told my fiancé he looked so handsome tonight and that they really, totally loved his new jacket. But if they had, he would have said simply, Thanks, I like it too, and then continued to greedily assault the hors d’oeuvre trays without reservation or comment.
There are complicated and countless reasons women behave this way. Perhaps we’re socialized to be more humble, more aware of creating an atmosphere of equality between friends. Women are proficient at this—the exchange of mutuality. If you compliment me, then I will deny the reality you’ve painted by cutting myself down. This is our contract. Otherwise, what…? You’ll think I’m vain? You’ll think I’m quite full of myself? You’ll think less of me and I’m not comfortable with that. That’ll keep me up all night! And then, when I notice something wonderful about you that I’d like to call attention to, you are beholden to play the role of the denier. Otherwise that’s not the seesaw we’ve arranged here. Otherwise the imbalance might make both of us feel unsettled. Sometimes we are genuinely surprised and shocked by a compliment, and our self-lacerating response is just that—a humorous way to express actual feelings. My shoes are, in fact, way too old, and I should throw them out. Even though my fashionable friend said she liked them.
Modesty as a virtue is something many women—though not all—value and understand, but it also works within the framework of our various discomforts and insecurities. Some of them, I’m sorry to say, uniquely female. Specific kinds of insecurity play a role in womens’ inability to receive compliments: If you feel badly about yourself, a compliment upends that, and can almost feel threatening. If you’re clinging to this pattern of thought in your career or workplace, and thereby diminishing yourself in a way that elevates others and holds you back, it is ill advised. Here is an area where holding oneself in high enough esteem to accept kudos and accolades will rightly serve women the way it serves men.
This habit of reflexive modesty is not always presenting itself for dark, dire reasons. It’s not always sinister and strange. Sometimes, it’s difficult to separate the things about womanhood and female friendships that are hindrances and blessings. Sometimes—actually very often—it is just plain fun to self deprecate in the face of admiration. It’s fun not to take yourself seriously. It’s fun to make your friends laugh by pointing out less than wonderful things about yourself.
I like the way women do things. Even when we can’t get out of our own way, the alternative looks hard to adapt to. Or just doesn’t feel right; a baggy fit I can’t get comfortable in. If you tell me you like my tight dress, I enjoy admitting to you that I’m so constricted I can’t even breathe. A friend of mine was wearing towering, skeleton twisting spikes on her feet for an event recently, and on our way to a bar afterward, she had to be held up by two of us on either side to remain bipedal. The pain vibrating through her body was self-inflicted and excruciating and we couldn’t stop laughing. When we complimented her hot shoes, she admitted that although she looked sexy, her metatarsals were, in fact, pulverized. And if she hadn’t done that, we couldn’t have laughed about having to carry her to a bar like a double amputee. This is the cherished vulnerability wild card.
I’m almost positive I won’t be able to change this about myself. I’m sure a lot of the women I know won’t change it either. Also certain is that this kind of psychology hurts us in ways that are larger, and more societally far-reaching than just rejecting a compliment about looking pretty in a certain outfit. It would be beneficial to be able to divide these kinds of interactions—those with friends and intimates from those with colleagues and bosses and society at large. Wouldn’t that be nice? But some knots are slow to untangle. If you remove too much of one thing, you lose some of another. I know women need to be able to—in a phrase I find bossy and irritating and not unlike men on the street telling women to “smile”—take a compliment. Feeling worthy of admiration and compliments is vital. And being able to offer them without the expectation of deflection is important as well. Like many of the things about women that can be frustrating, challenging, more layered with emotion and anxiety than it is with men, I don’t mind it. And this particular, very female-driven dynamic will likely persist. I mean…I think it will. Maybe it will? What do I know? I’m just a big dummy! You tell me. You’re way smarter! No, you are! No, you! I’m heading over to the food again, stuffing myself and making this old, stained dress that you said you liked even tighter than it was an hour ago. Thanks though!
No, no. Thank you.
This column first appeared on South Brooklyn Post on April 3, 2014.