Think twice before backhanding compliments

Relationships 101: How to respond to compliments.


Photo credit: Style Pantry


They’re the generous, rewarding, humble part of social interactions that we all love to…


Sociolinguists suggest that the UK is one of the most compliment-magnanimous countries, yet we’re also one of the societies most likely to report feeling unloved, worthless, unlucky, overlooked in the workplace, and dissatisfied with our bodies. It seems like there is a lot in life we just can’t come to accept…

Including compliments.

But surely if our conversations are so heavily studded by compliments, shouldn’t the positive effect be acting like a buoy to keep our head above the water, not like ankle-weights dragging us down into the depths of self-deprecation (but let’s not get started on ankles… Christian Louboutin had the special-edition Barbie dolls remodelled to have slimmer ankles in a new wave of childhood body image controversies). Non-scientific observation here: Compliments (or at least how we receive them) aren’t making us happy. But science says they should do… if we accept them, that is.

Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 23.11.54

Photo credit: Soul Pancake

Soul Pancake’s webisode “The Science of Love” conducted a social experiment to see how our responses to compliments affected our self-esteem. They sat down lots of couples and got them to rate their self-esteem. The person with the higher self-esteem had to write the five most authentic compliments they could offer their partner. That partner (who’d rated lower in self-esteem) then had to respond with ‘Thank you’ – no matter whether they agreed with the compliment or not. After that, they had to then explain what was meant by the compliment – instead of just hearing the words, they instead had to properly digest the meaning and sentiment behind the compliment. The study found that when they processed the compliment, rather than just discarding it, the subjects began to feel better not only about their relationships, but also about themselves too. After the experiment, their self-esteem increased anywhere between 11% to 34%.

The important bit to note is that people felt good about these compliments because they actually thought about them. Instead of backhanding the compliment without a second thought, they appreciated both the fact that someone else was reaching out to them (they had something to be grateful for) and that the quality picked up on, was a genuine observation by their partner (so they had something to be proud of).

The only problem here, is that we don’t tend to respond to compliments with ‘thank you’. Instead, we typically:

Ignore the compliment

You look beautiful tonight”

“Well let’s hope the restaurant lives up to our expectations.”


Deny it

“You’re playing really well at the moment”

“No I’m really not – I’m missing loads of shots!”


Argue about it

“I reckon you were the strongest candidate.”

“No I wasn’t – there were clearly three people who were better than me.”



“Your hair looks amazing like that.”

“But have you seen my skin? I’m breaking out everywhere.”


Insult the complimenter’s judgement

“That was the nicest steak I’ve ever had – you cooked it perfectly.”

“Oh you clearly haven’t had steak cooked for you in a nice restaurant then – this was awful by comparison!”


Devalue what they’ve said

“I love what you’re wearing.”

“No, not this! This is from Primark!”


Fish for reassurance or further compliments

“You’re looking so much more toned.”

“But do I really? I still think my legs are seriously chunky…”


Pass on the compliment to someone else

“The performance was incredible.”

“It was really all down to the producers… they are the ones who deserve the credit!”

The take away: we’ll go to any length NOT to say a straight-up ‘thank you’. Which lands us back in square one. We go around undermining what other people have to say (which is going to be damaging to our relationship with others, not just ourselves, here) – occasionally we’ll go as far as to resent or begrudge the compliment – and one thing is certain, we don’t benefit from the positivity. Accepting compliments requires us to be vulnerable and inviting towards the other person. It’s a sort of social contract to say “I’m allowing you to see the real me, even though I don’t like to admit it.” and “I’m putting a lot of trust in you by believing what you have to say”, which can make us feel unsafe. But on the other-hand, backhanding a compliment undermines the complimenter’s judgement (they’ll probably feel like a moron, wishing they’d never said anything) and can leave them feeling frustrated or alienated (not what you want when you’re just entering into a relationship). On a personal level, chucking away that compliment before you’ve even paused for thought, reinforces the idea that words, and relationships, are disposable; that we should be cynical of kindness; that our own reasons to feel good about ourselves are extinguishing and there is nothing to relight the flame of self-worth. The prognosis is pretty bleak.

So the options are clear: Say ‘thank you’ and reap the feel-good benefits of a lovingly-given compliment, or shun the remark and fracture your relationships and bruise your own self-esteem. Of course ultimately, the choice is yours, but it’s certainly worth thinking twice about.

Emma Pudge

Emma is writing a Think Twice series. You may read her first article here about replies.

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