I Look Good In Purple! Or, Compliments Are Awesome

As a culture, we seem profoundly uncomfortable with compliments -- particularly those among us who have been socialized as women.

Feb 29, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

I dated this guy, for a while, who wrote love letters for a living. I don't know how much money he made doing it, and it turned out he was actually kind of a giant asshole. But the idea of that was fascinating and wonderful to me.

Please note: He never once wrote me a love letter.

Around the same time, I had this friend who liked to introduce people she knew to each other. She'd always include a bit of information that might be relevant, things that the people had in common. Some really great friendships sprang out of that -- and I always admired how natural a thing it seemed to do. It came across as very gracious.
 

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I tried an experiment for a while: I wrote spontaneous emails, I left people notecards, I mailed out handwritten letters -- all with appreciative sentiments. I wrote to all kinds of people in my life because I love all kinds of people in all kinds of different ways. It wasn't about romantic love -- it was about "you are awesome and I appreciate that." 

Unfortunately, most people didn't seem to have any idea what to do with that. 

As a culture, we seem profoundly uncomfortable with compliments -- particularly those among us who have been socialized as women. Unexpected compliments catch us off-guard, make us stutter and deflect, make us demure and insist that, no, really, it's not even worth noticing, much less commenting on.

Or at least that's what most of the people I know do.

It's this bizarre game of modesty and self-denigration. I totally play it -- I'm terrified of hubris. The last thing I want is for someone to think I think I'm better than anyone else. 

Except all of us have things at which we are better than other people. All of us have things at which we are worse than other people, too. That's actually pretty awesome. That's what makes us individuals, after all.
 

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I am going to say some nice things about myself. It is possible this list will sound egotistical. Here we go:

  • I look excellent in purple. 
  • I'm super at spotting font changes. 
  • I'm good at applying eyeshadow. 
  • I'm a solid writer. 
  • I am a wonderful friend.


Now I am waiting for someone to come along and tell me that, no, actually purple makes me look florid and cartoonish (which, uh, is actually a large part of my aesthetic - the cartoony part, not the florid part). Because part of my difficulty in accepting compliments (even ones from myself) is based in the fear that they just aren't true.
 

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Maybe it's because flattery is the surest route to duping people. Maybe it's just because I operate from a deep well of insecurity. But maybe it's really that I've been trained to distrust the idea that I might be doing well, might be doing something right.

That's not any specific person's fault so much as it is the outcome of American culture's idea that we're all equals. Which, yeah, equality (in as much as it exists) is a great concept. But it's a complicated reality and it's not all sunshine and daisies.

My great-grandmother told me that the proper response to a compliment is simply this: Thank you. I've since read it in any number of "ways to take a compliment" advice pieces. 

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Simple gratitude, even if I don't believe a damn word of what's being said. Simple gratitude, because otherwise I'm rejecting the compliment someone is paying me.

I'm not, as a general rule, a person who advocates for doing things that make you uncomfortable just so other people will be more comfortable. So I recognize that this argument for just saying thank you when you get a compliment is a little out of character. But this is a special occasion -- this is someone saying something nice to you.
 

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Stay with me for a minute: I'm totally biased when it comes to myself. We all are, right? I have my opinions of myself, and they're all informed by, like, my history and baggage and brain chemicals. It's possible that I am not always the most objective judge of my own accomplishments, characteristics, whatever. It's possible I am harsher with myself than I am with anyone else. It's more than possible - it's flat out probable -- that I'm completely unrealistic in my expectations and examinations of myself.

Writing five compliments for myself (much less the picture captions) was such an exercise in squashing my own urge to downplay myself. Acknowledging that other people might just be a better judge of that sometimes is actually even more embarassing. It feels like a weakness or some sort of personality flaw. 

It's hard because it means I have to trust someone else's opinion above my own about the most personal topic of all -- my identity.

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Today is Say Something Nice On The Internet Day. And that makes me want to write nice things to people. I love so many people and so many different things, that I have a lot of nice things to say! The capacity for love is infinite!

Please note: Sometimes I just really do say things that are that painfully earnest. I gotta be me.

The natural conclusion of this would be to say that I worry about repeating that old experience, making people uncomfortable if I say nice things to them. But I can't do that without worrying more -- there are a lot of reasons why compliments can be genuinely skeevy and I don't want to come across as advocating people ignore that. And this isn't about me -- it's about the way our culture makes it so hard to give and accept genuine compliments. It's about the way it is a battle to just say thank you and accept a compliment; sometimes believing the compliment doesn't even come into play.

"Love letter" has this romantic connotation that can be weird if you're, for instance, telling a friend who is asexual and aromantic (hi, s.e.!) how much you value their friendship. "Love letter" doesn't seem like quite the right word when you're just telling someone (hi, Lesley!) they are one of your bosom companions. But we don't seem to have a term for that, other than the generic idea of a compliment, for telling people that you think they are awesome. What should we call that?

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I don't know every single one of you. But I'm pretty sure there is something that probably makes you awesome. There is probably something about you that is really interesting and I wish we could sit down and have a conversation about it. Yes, this makes me a giant extrovert. 

Because I cannot say something nice about you (well, unless I DO know you), I hope you will say something nice about yourself. Yes, here, in comments. No, you can't repeat what you wrote for Hannah. I totally want to read it. Give yourself a compliment, write yourself a love letter. Say something nice about yourself on the Internet, please. 

Thank you.

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