How to Best Respond to Compliments in Social Settings

Though all humans are deeply enriched by the affirmations, validations and appreciations of others, many individuals do not respond well to compliments. They may discount the validation and inadvertently also diminish the compliment giver. Why do we do this and how can we learn to graciously receive the recognition and positively respond to the kind giver?

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition discovered six major reasons for compliment giving: “1. To express admiration or approval of someone’s work, appearance or taste. 2. To establish, confirm or maintain solidarity. 3. To express greetings, gratitude, apologies or congratulations. 4. To soften face-threatening acts such as apologies, requests and criticism. 5. To open and sustain conversation. 6. To reinforce desired behavior. The major topics of the compliments were: Appearance or possessions, Performance skills or abilities and Personality traits.”

These findings highlight the positive intent of the compliment giver and his/her generosity in affirming another person’s nature or conduct. The receiver of these accolades about his/her essence and performance is likely to internally feel acknowledged and valued. Yet, some individuals receiving positive evaluations become either humble or defensive and minimize their achievements. “I was only a part of the team who accomplished that” or, “I have a good supervisor” or “I am not sure I really did the best job.” These statements may be intended to exhibit humility but are more likely to feel discounting of the compliment giver.

In social settings compliments between strangers may be discounted, doubted or rebuffed. Being told by a man that she is very attractive, a woman may respond, “Really?” or “I bet you say this to every woman you meet.” or even more aggressively, “This comment will get you nowhere.”  Regardless of the complimenting individual’s intent – a rejecting response is unkind. An unkind reaction diminishes both the speaker and the listener. The woman’s polite, non-encouraging “Thank you” would suffice and would not offend or discount the complimenting individual.

Compliments between women may also not be handled very gracefully for different reasons. The affirmed female may respond from her insecure core. To being complimented on her appearance she may retort with, “Oh, this is such an old dress.” or, “My hair is such a mess today.” The compliment giver may feel rebuffed, hurt and stunned. An opportunity for closeness and emotional intimacy was missed and a temporary emotional distance was needlessly created for these friends.

Compliments should be treated as gifts. The gift-giver has done the best he/she could in attempting to please the receiver. Even if the gift is not thrilling to the receiver, he/she must graciously show appreciation for the intent of the giver and validate the giver’s kindness and effort.

  • Compliment givers: Understand that the receiver’s reaction to your validation is about his/her self-perception and does not detract from your kind intentions.
  • Compliment receivers: Accept the compliment as an intimacy gift. Refrain from projecting your self-doubts upon the giver and be gracious.









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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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