As professional women of color, my girlfriends and I are constantly dishing about work over booze and greasy food. In my mind, it's the cheaper, browner, better version of Sex and the City (aka Girlfriends, duh). I cherish these moments because it's such a luxury to have this space for communion. We laugh about absurd microaggressions in the workplace, compare wounds and horror stories, and share survival strategies for navigating spaces that weren't meant for us. Inevitably, the problem of impostor syndrome and compliments comes up.
Even in the most affirming spaces, compliments give us trouble. We don't quite devolve into the absurdist tennis match of flattery that Inside Amy Schumer depicted, but we're definitely not that good at accepting praise. Compliments are sticky and intimate in a way that's revealing. Compliments force you to engage with the uncomfortable idea of how others see you — and even more uncomfortable — how you see yourself. So even though compliments are part of the minutiae of work and personal relationships, their power and weight should not be underestimated.
After all, "humility" and "gratefulness" can be coded for marginalized peoples — symptomatic of a larger erasure. When you enter a space in which you have historically not existed (like many of my friends' schools and workplaces), you are supposed to be humble and grateful just to be there. Which, you are. But you are also often angry and hurt and have questions, the kind of criticism that gets undermined when you deny or downplay your value out of politeness.
It has been a journey, but I have reached a point where I am not stumbling over my existence whenever someone compliments me. As with most things in life, I ask myself, "What would Oprah do?" There are a million Oprah interviews I like to share with my girlfriends, but there's one in particular that I like to share with them when we are talking about being better at taking compliments. In the corpus of glorious interviews Oprah has bequeathed the world, it might seem underwhelming. But there's a brief, subtle, and informative moment in there that was, for me, life-changing. It comes at the very end of an hourlong Hollywood Reporter roundtable featuring some of the biggest actresses of the 2013 Oscar movie season. (Because that year included the release of 12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, and The Butler, this roundtable included an unprecedented *THREE* women of color: Lupita N'yongo, Octavia Spencer, and Oprah Winfrey. That's right, The Hollywood Reporter actually passed the Racial Bechdel Test!)
At the 50:15 mark, Julia Roberts praises Oprah and her impact on American culture, as one does in Oprah's presence. Do you know what Oprah does when she hears the billionth compliment of her life? She smiles, looks her complimenter in the eye, and waits patiently for her to get out the compliment. Then she says, "Thank you, that was my goal." Simple, direct, kind, and intentional, Oprah's line proudly confirms Bullock's assessment, while — yes — humbly hinting that it was no accident. She worked for it.
I shared Oprah's strategy with my girlfriends because, to paraphrase Lilo from Lilo & Stitch, "squad means family, and family means no one get's left behind." And because every girl squad has its own lines and mantras that get passed around, I asked my colleagues and writers I admire about their relationship to compliments.
Here's what they had to say:
The quickest way to free myself of those awkward seconds that follow a compliment is to say, 'Thank you.' Those two words are entirely remedial. Receiving a compliment for work I've done — an essay I spent real time on, for instance — is easier to accept than a compliment that zeroes in on who I am as a person, how I look, etc. That stuff's trickier, so much so that my go-to emoji is the monkey covering its face.Attention of any kind is something that makes me uncomfortable, but I'm slowly moving away from that, having since found groups of women who I admire and whom I trust who've taught me how to bask, or rather, inch closer to basking. So much of learning to tolerate compliments — and I do mean tolerate — is to consider the ways compliments, at least among women, help me connect to those around me. The return? I write more (in the first person), I'm less persuaded by the silencing effects of modesty, I retweet praise, and during those days of deep self-doubt, I direct my attention to the last compliment I received about my work. Compliments provide me with a sense of purpose. They reorient me. —Durga Chew-Bose
I want them and am pissed when I don't get them, but then when I do get them I don't know how to take them! I can't let my husband tell me how gorgeous he thinks I am without ruining the moment by intellectualizing his comments; if someone tries to tell me they like a story I've done, I become anxious. My response is to rush them through it — or worse, try to change the subject. And while I always say, 'Thank you' (I am a Southerner, after all), it's often hard for me to feel genuinely worthy of the praise I'm accepting. The irony of all of this is that I project an outer confidence that belies my very acute impostor syndrome. I think the next time that little voice inside me dares to whisper, 'Who do you think you are?' I should probably just be more like the woman everybody already assumes I am. #TimeToOwnIt—Errin Haines Whack
Generally speaking I operate under the assumption that if someone says something nice to me, they... mean it? And it's true? So I just say, 'Thank you!' I find the joke that women in particular can neither give nor receive sincere compliments to each other kind of tired — it just doesn't ring true among the vast majority of complimentary interactions I've been apart of, or witness to. For instance, there is no space on Earth I've seen compliments more freely and easily given than in women's restrooms. —Katie Heaney
I love compliments. They are marvelous. In the last five or so years (I am 32) I have really leaned into accepting them. I used to be so wary, because you are so used to being subtly diminished by compliments, 'You're so pretty!' to mean '...but not so smart,' for example. And the pleasure of my late twenties and early thirties has been in realizing that compliments are lovely things, and there is no harm in accepting them, and indeed reveling in them.I am also much more able to give compliments, particularly to other women. I reach out so much more to show appreciation — I email younger writers, especially black girls, when I read work of theirs I like, and say so.My advice is to think of yourself as your friend. You would never down a friend who had received a compliment — it would be, 'Yes, girl!' so apply that to yourself. If you're flustered by a compliment (it happens to the best of us) have a stock reply. I love: 'That's so kind; thank you.' But I have been known to say a delighted, 'I know, right?!,' which is less gracious...—Bim Adewunmi
I've always struggled with taking compliments, and my deflection tactic of choice is usually self-deprecating humor. Compliments seem intimate to me, allowing someone to actually see something about you, and responding with a joke feels like it balances the compliment out somehow, creates a wall. On our third date my girlfriend complimented a flannel shirt I was wearing, in a genuine and romantic way that I wasn't prepared to handle. So I responded: 'This is a maternity shirt.' Which wasn't a lie, actually. It was a thrifted maternity shirt from Talbots, of all places. But she has helped me, since then, learn to start saying, 'Thank you.' To let people in. —Jessica Probus
I am finding it easier to take compliments as I get older. I began to recognize how damaging it was to shut down compliments I'd receive, and I realized that dismissing the compliment was not only rude to the person who was kind enough to say something supportive and nice, but it was a shitty way to treat myself. I have no idea where my dismissive reaction stemmed from, but I can take a guess — years of downplaying myself to not appear overconfident or ambitious, particularly when surrounded by men, or other women who I wanted to appear not 'cocky' or 'boastful' around. Why is it so scary for women to just say, 'Thank you'?I don't want women to go through life responding to compliments about their work with, 'Oh it's just a thing, it's not that great' or compliments about their appearance by saying, 'Oh, I look so awful really' — because really, when do you *ever* hear men give that kind of response? I refer back to this every so often as a reminder :)—Rossalyn Warren
I think (and talk with my girlfriends) about this ALL THE TIME. Only in the past few years have I started accepting compliments with an enthusiastic and genuine 'thank you,' because I read somewhere about how this is important for women who tend to downplay their achievements and/or worth, and it stuck. But internally it's always still followed by anxiety over seeming rude/guilt for not giving some version of the same compliment back to them (which I'll do sometimes — 'YOUR hair looks amazing today!' — but then it seems kind of cheap), or I'll say, 'Thank you' and then add a caveat or explanation — like when people complimented my haircut, my response was always some version of, 'Thanks so much!! I was just so sick of having long hair,' or 'Thank you! I hadn't cut my hair in two years; it was so gross.' There's definitely still a discomfort in saying thank you, and letting that thought just sit there.—Arianna Rebolini
I get very annoyed by false modesty and always have. From a young age (around middle school) if any of my friends would respond, 'No way,' or 'No, omg you are so much more ____ than me!' when I complimented them on something, my response would usually be either, 'Why would I lie about that, I obviously think it's true since I have no reason to be sucking up to you right now; be reasonable,' or a more concise, 'Shut up.' Most of my old friends have learned not to reject my compliments, and I find that if a woman does that too often, I usually don't like them. This is probably for other reasons that are related to not being able to accept a compliment, like low self-esteem, self-abasement.That being said, reacting to a compliment with, 'I know,' also sort of makes the compliment irrelevant. An alternative is, 'Thank you, yeah I was feeling really good about that today!' or something similar. In spite of my reaction, I am not unsympathetic to women who don't feel worthy of compliments, it is just one of my pet peeves.—Ema O'Connor
It's really important to believe the compliments you receive. I struggled with that a lot in school, certain that most compliments I got might be — though they predated Mean Girls — some kind of Regina George 'I love your skirt' situation. Now, as an adult, I (99% of the time) don't have to worry about that kind of duplicitous immaturity, and even if it's there, it doesn't bother me, because I believe the majority of people who give compliments genuinely mean them, or mean well by them; they want a person to feel good about him or herself. I like to compliment people for this reason, but I really mean the ones I give. That informs how I receive compliments from other people. I usually smile and say, 'Thank you,' and feel good about myself, especially if it's something new I'm trying or something I'm really proud of/makes me happy. Also, I've learned that compliments are a great way to start a conversation, especially among women, and learn more about someone, or an opportunity to share something about yourself. I'm naturally a pretty quiet person, but when someone compliments me, I open up more. Like, 'Oh, this dress? It's my mom's from the '70s that I redesigned a little bit.' I think compliments can be great icebreakers and help people get to know each other better.—Mariah Summers
One thing I don't know how to do well is how to exchange compliments with strangers. What happens after the compliment and the 'thank you' are exchanged? Do you keep talking? Do you, as the complimentee, have to come up with more factual information pertaining to the subject of the compliment? I get so neurotic over this. Is a stranger complimenting you because it's genuine, or do they have an ulterior motive? Do strangers think I have an ulterior motive when I compliment them?I had bright blue hair for a year, and strangers talked to me and complimented me on it all the time. I didn't mind it most of the time, except when men shouted at me from their car windows. A dude once asked me if I 'worked in entertainment,' whatever that means. People talked to me on the subway, and I could see it in their eyes when they hoped the blue hair meant I was 'a weirdo' and that I could give them a good subway interaction story they could share with their friends over drinks later. I never wanted to give them that satisfaction.—Eleanor Kagan
I used to think I was good at taking compliments, because I am confident and I frequently say on my own, 'Wow I am the shit.' But upon further reflection, I realized that as soon as I am complimented, I feel the urge — nay, the NEED — to fire one back right away. That, and I change the subject a little, because even though the compliment was given to me, I feel that to spend any more time on it would be somehow bragging. And then if another compliment is added on top of that, it's like, HELP IDK WHAT TO DO LET'S TALK ABOUT YOU NOW.—Elaina Wahl
I struggled with this for a long time — still do — but I have settled on what I hope is a graceful and gracious response, 'Thank you very much.' And if there's a little more verbal dribble on either side, a follow-up, 'Thanks, I really appreciate that.' Or some variation. I used to deflect or self-deprecate, but that also undermines your interlocutor in a way that is not totally awesome.—Jina Moore
I reply with a humble, genuine, 'Thank you.' Then I quickly scan the person if they have something that I can compliment back, followed by a short, 18th-century poised laugh and a sigh, after which I pretend someone is calling me — slowly fading into darkness, wanting to melt and disappear too.—Karima Kahn
"I'm the first person to encourage other women to accept compliments."
I'm the first person to encourage other women to accept compliments when I give them out but it doesn't make me any better at accepting compliments when they're directed my way. It's an unfortunate paradox but also a realistic one; sometimes it's easier for women to try and lift one another up when failing to acknowledge our own greatness individually. It always feels simpler and more natural to give someone else advice without taking it myself, but when it comes to embracing and accepting compliments I'd like to one day be able to walk the walk instead of just talk the talk, so to speak.
I was once given the advice that to take a compliment, you should smile, say, 'Thank you,' then shut up. No one really wants to hear the deflections and explanations of why we're actually not worthy. If it's a stranger or acquaintance, they just don't care. If it's a close friend, they probably disagree with you — they are your friend for a reason, after all!It took me some practice, and it felt a little dishonest at first. But after a while, I stopped having that gut reaction to disagree with compliments and was able to enjoy them for what they are: ephemeral pleasantries, the kind of thing that should make you smile for a second before you move on.In that spirit, I try to spread those bright little moments around: If someone is wearing killer shoes, does a great job on a project, or has an infectious laugh, let them know! —Claudia Koerner