Compliment: You look nice today.
Response: No I don’t. I’ve got bags under my eyes. I haven’t slept at all.
Compliment: Nice sunglasses.
Response: Oh thanks, but they’re old and scratched already.
Compliment: Cute shoes.
Response: Oh, they’re old. And scuffed. I’m really hard on shoes. See the heel? It looks like someone’s been chewing on it.
What a collection of self-deprecating comments, and that was just in the span of a five-minute experiment in our newsroom one day last week. It’s an example of the quirky human tendency to deflect personal praise.
And not only deflect, but often destroy.
Men do it sometimes (the response about the sunglasses was from a guy), but women are by far the bigger praise assassins, able to take your compliment, throw it on the ground, stomp on it and set fire to it, beating their own self-confidence to a pulp in the process.
Such responses occur so often they’ve become fodder for a hilarious — and raunchy — video created by Comedy Central’s Amy Schumer that’s been making its way around the Web in recent weeks (bit.ly/12yxerc). It shows a group of girlfriends running into each other on the street and flattering one another about clothing, weight loss and hairstyles, only to be met with responses such as, “I’m, like, a size 100 now,” or “I paid, like, $2 for this dress. It’s probably made of old Burger King crowns,” playing the game of one-upsmanship in false humility.
At last another friend arrives, is complimented and merely says, “Thank you!” and the rest of the friends go nuts.
The video is obviously extreme and silly, but many women admit they do this sort of thing all the time.
Beth Siti, a graphic designer who lives in Point Richmond, Calif., has made a conscious effort to stop tearing herself down after receiving nice comments. But it’s tough.
“I used to do it even more than I do now,” she says. “I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing, that we’re taught not to brag. Or if it comes from feeling excited when you’re in the spotlight for a moment — that somebody noticed that my hair looked nice or that I have cute shoes.
“I mean, you want the compliment,” she says, “You want people to notice your cute shoes. But in a way, knocking it down is a way to make yourself feel more comfortable about it. ‘Oh, these old things?’”
It’s also kind of annoying for the bestower of the compliment when the recipient basically rejects it, says etiquette expert Lizzie Post of the Emily Post Institute. Post is Emily Post’s great-great-granddaughter and co-author of “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” 18th edition.
“It’s so obnoxious when people do that,” she says. “It’s odd, too, because often the same people who would easily accept praise at work or at a tennis or soccer game if you said, ‘Great shot!’ are the same ones who are unable to accept a compliment about physical looks.”
Post says she has many friends who do the “praise rejection” thing, and it creates an awkward situation for the person offering the nice words, she says. “You think, ‘What do I do now? Just drop it?’ “It’s definitely refreshing when someone just says ‘Thank you.’”
To be sure, a simple and sincere “Thank you” is indeed the appropriate response. “It’s not arrogant, not cocky, not conceited,” Post says. “It’s polite. If someone says, ‘I like your dress,’ say, ‘Thank you, it’s one of my favorites, too,’ or ‘Thank you, I really do appreciate that.’ It’s not hard.”
Tom Plante, psychology professor at Santa Clara University says there isn’t a simple answer to why people, especially women, find it hard to accept personal praise.
“Part of this issue is that we often have to manage very mixed messages about ourselves that can be challenging and embarrassing when we’re confronted with them,” he says. “So while we try to present ourselves in a positive, attractive and appealing manner, but when our efforts have been noticed, then we often feel pleased but also embarrassed, since we don’t want to look like we are narcissistic or trying too hard.”
Plante agrees this tendency is especially true for women, who are often raised to be more humble than men. “More assertive and self-confident women take the compliment, say ‘thank you,’ and move on. But those who struggle more with self-esteem issues “are less likely to handle the compliment without blushing.”