How do you reply to a woman seeking compliments?
May 9, 2017 10:58 AM   Subscribe

I have a couple of female friends who clearly wants me to compliment them. I'm a direct person and I rarely say what I don't mean. Just wondering how would you reply in these situations.

For example,

Friend A: Look at the photos of my baby. Isn't he cute?
What I think: No, I don't think so.
What I said: Ya, the first photo looks cuter.

Friend B: I lost 6 kg and everyone said I look so good now. What do you think?
What I think: Oh you lost weight?! Now that you mentioned it, I think your face looks smaller.
What I said: I think your face looks smaller.

Friend C: Do you know celebrity X is the same age as me? Don't you think I look so much younger than her?
What I think: You look like your age. Plus, she is so much hotter than you.
What I said: I don't know!
posted by liltiger to Human Relations (55 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What I think: Oh my god, you're asking the wrong person! I'm inept at compliments.
What I say: Oh my god, you're asking the wrong person! I'm inept at compliments.
posted by cocoagirl at 11:05 AM on May 9, 2017 [10 favorites]

"yeah, I'm just not very good at this sort of thing." Then change the subject.

But, ya know, there's really nothing wrong with giving someone a shot of self esteem and agreeing with them. You can even just say something generic like "Totally!" or "damn skippy!" and leave it at that. If they ask you to elaborate, just say the first thing I said.
posted by bondcliff at 11:06 AM on May 9, 2017 [23 favorites]

I think you're wrong about the motivation. People aren't looking for compliments, they are looking for affirmation. Just agree with them.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:06 AM on May 9, 2017 [122 favorites]

I think your current answers are fine, and should (to those who can pick up on conversational cues) indicate that you are not comfortable with the compliment train but also have the good sense not to be overtly rude.

If you don't give people the compliments they fish for, maybe they'll learn to fish elsewhere.
posted by sazerac at 11:07 AM on May 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Saying a nice thing to make someone feel good is expected social convention. If you're going to disagree, you have to be very careful about what you say, how you say it and who you say it to. Better to smile and agree, or agree in a non-committal way than to be seen as rude.
posted by cnc at 11:07 AM on May 9, 2017 [16 favorites]

I think you've hit the ideal diplomatic midpoint between "providing honest opinion" and "telling them what they want to hear". I agree that fishing for compliments is a seriously annoying trait. (That last example, oy.)
posted by Autumnheart at 11:11 AM on May 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

Babies are cute because they are babies. They are not asking you to judge their baby in a baby beauty pageant. Just say "yes, your baby is adorable" and then ask them some questions about how the baby is sleeping and what baby tricks the baby can currently do. This is a nice thing that non-baby-having people should do for new parents to make up for the fact that we are not routinely puked on and get to sleep through the night.

Otherwise, I think you can continue to do what you're doing. Probably the only way for it not to be awkward is to give them the compliments they want, and if you're not willing to do that, then it's ok for there to be a little bit of awkwardness.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:14 AM on May 9, 2017 [30 favorites]

You aren't under oath here. I agree that the second and third examples are annoying, but saying something nice is a social convention, not court testimony. Don't go along if you don't want to, but prepare for some people to think you're a jerk.
posted by FencingGal at 11:17 AM on May 9, 2017 [17 favorites]

All babies are cute, whether you think so or not.

Other than that, say what you think, and people will stop fishing for compliments from you.
posted by tully_monster at 11:18 AM on May 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Change your narrative from "I rarely say what I don't mean" to "this person needs some affirmation right now and I can give it."

I also really bristle at the "don't you think" construction but kind of end-run it by giving a fairly straight affirmation. "Doesn't my baby look cute?" is easy: Yes, your baby is super-cute! "Don't you think I (whatever comparison to famous person I probably don't know)?" You look great! or Good for you!
posted by Lyn Never at 11:18 AM on May 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

I am similar to you in that I am awful at (fake) compliments. I tell people when I think their child is cute, their art is great, they look wonderful, etc. If I don't say it of my own volition without prompting, my friends have (on the whole) learned not to ask.

How I would have responded:

To friend A: Yes!

(Babies are a sticky subject. They are expecting effusion and will take a simple Yes! as evidence that you are Not A Baby Person and will mercifully avoid asking you such things in future.)

To friend B: I'm terrible at this stuff, I never notice when people have lost or gained weight.

(Fact - unless it's well over 50 pounds - for reasons unbeknownst to me.)

To friend C: I'm the wrong person to ask, I don't notice that stuff.

(White lie because oof that is the worst.)

These responses are all designed to guide people toward not asking you these questions any more, which I believe is your end goal. Good luck.
posted by pammeke at 11:18 AM on May 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

Haha, I feel you here. Especially with that last example. Try hearing the underlying request instead of the literal one. Example:

literal: Please say that you believe that I am hotter than a beautiful celebrity!
underlying: Please be a kind friend and help me feel good about my appearance, which I'm highly insecure about!

literal: Please say that you believe that my ugly baby is in fact a pretty baby!
underlying: Please say a nice thing about this puking, howling being that I birthed and to which I've devoted my entire life and am hoping is worth the trouble!
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:19 AM on May 9, 2017 [32 favorites]

"You look great!" will get you out of many of these binds, although not the baby one.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:19 AM on May 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

I have basically never seen a human baby that I thought was cute - I fundamentally lack whatever instinct that is - but I also can't see any scenario where any good comes of me saying anything other than "Yup, cute!", or any harm from me propping up the parents' notion of the baby being cute. So I think even if the child were somehow some sort of completely hideous changeling troll-baby I'd at least try to muster up a compliment about a cute outfit or an engaging expression, or something.

On the other hand, I am not a big fan of encouraging discussion about weight loss or comparing women based on their looks, so I would be more likely to answer something noncommittal like, "I don't really know what she looks like" or "I'm no good at judging ages" or "I don't really notice people's weight, but if you're feeling good that's great!" or something.

Someone who is your friend is looking for affirmation of something that's important to them. Generally speaking it's probably worth it to find some way to provide that, but you don't have twist yourself into knots or lie to do it. It's okay to shift the goalposts a bit from wherever the initial question planted them, to get to an answer you can live with, without hurting your friends' feelings.
posted by Stacey at 11:22 AM on May 9, 2017 [10 favorites]

I consider myself pretty scrupulous about being honest, but even I think you're way overthinking the baby example. Comments like "Isn't he cute?" and "OMG, he's so cute!" are basically instinctual when looking at baby pictures. The word "cute" has no fixed, technical definition, so it doesn't make sense to worry about whether your response is strictly accurate. If ever there were a good time to tell a "little white lie," it's in response to someone asking you a rhetorical question about isn't their baby adorable. It would be socially unacceptable to say: "No, I don't find him adorable — in fact, he's one of the least attractive babies I've ever seen." (You've seen the Seinfeld episode about this, right?) Since you can't do that, and the person has made it socially obligatory for you to say something, you simply must respond with something positive.

I don't really see a problem with your friend who lost weight. I agree with the suggestion to fall back on "You look great." Anyone who's so bold as to solicit compliments from you about their looks can't really complain if you tell them they look great. Letterman used to say this to guests all the time, even if they didn't look that great (e.g. the late Don Rickles). Again, notice how often words that sound meaningful don't really have a clear meaning. That someone "looks great" could mean they're extremely attractive — but it doesn't have to. It could just mean they're looking well-groomed, healthy, in good spirits, etc.

We don't have enough info about your friend who thinks she looks younger than Celebrity X. I know you think your friend looks exactly her age. But how old do you think X looks? If you think X looks older than her age, you could honestly agree with your friend. Or maybe you're just not good at judging ages, and you could say that. Or you could just tell her she looks her age. Don't tell her X is "so much hotter" than her, because that would be insulting and not really an answer to her question.

Bottom line: you seem to feel put on the spot as if people were asking you for serious constructive criticism, when they're probably just looking for generic positivity. They might not even realize they're doing this — they were probably raised to speak in this way, so they do it not so much because they want to know your specific assessment, but more because it's their default mode of social interaction.
posted by John Cohen at 11:34 AM on May 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

Society runs on saying kind things that are sort of true. "Being honest" and making someone feel bad is not a virtue. "I'm a direct person, which is why I told you that you look fat and your baby is ugly" is not a point of pride, it's a point of "I either have trouble with or am unwilling to learn the social cues that most people value". Or else it's a point of "I get a charge out of transgressively saying mean things under the guise of being a truthful person" - that's always a risk that you run if you're not wise to your own motives.

Believe me, the world is not telling you its "direct" opinion every time you turn in a work project, ask for a favor, give a present or ask after someone's mother. We don't generally share our "direct", right off the bat opinions with people, because our opinions aren't some kind of barometer of truth - our in-the-moment opinions are so heavily contoured by when we last ate, how our work is going, if our digestions are working, etc that saying "I must tell the truth even if it hurts" about a trivial social interaction doesn't even make sense.

"You always look nice" or "your face does look slimmer" are perfectly acceptable responses, and so is "you look young and full of pep" or something when people ask about age. There's something cruel about wanting to respond to a woman's age comparison (and women have a lot of pain around age) with "you may look young but you sure aren't attractive, unlike this famous lady", and you might want to pay attention to your motives around that.

You might also think "hm, women face a lot of social pressure around beauty and aging; why not say something positive and kind as a counterweight to all the bullshit". You could view it as truth-telling at the aggregate level, if you like.
posted by Frowner at 11:37 AM on May 9, 2017 [101 favorites]

I'll just address the baby one as I think others have already answered for me. I'm with Stacey in finding babies affirmatively uncute, but yeah, when people ask you to say how cute their baby is, you have to basically agree. You can kind of do it obliquely, but if there were ever a go along to get along situation, this is it. I had a friend whose nephew was a baby and therefore ipso facto uncute to me, but was also affirmatively unattractive. Really, honest to god, this was just...not a good looking kid. And he'd always show me photos and say, "Oh, look at Hagrid, isn't he cute?!" My response was usually something like, "Oh, hahaha, look what he's doing in that photo, he's waving Mickey Mouse around!" or what have you. People usually won't notice precisely what you're saying as long as you make "Oh how adorable" noises. That's all they really want anyway.
posted by holborne at 11:41 AM on May 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

You're my long-lost twin, aren't you? Like you, I detest being put on the spot to provide compliments that I don't mean, and like you I try to come up with something to say that is positive, or at least tactful, and also honest. This works for most people and in most situations of the kind you describe, but there are exceptions. One morning in college my roommate appeared in a sweater I hadn't seen before. It was one of those "picture knits" that were popular in the nineties and was pink and purple and had cats on it. It wasn't to my taste at all, and of course I consequently did not comment on it. Then my roommate, who spent all that year constantly demanding reassurance and compliments from me (i.e., she'd ask me how her hair looked ten times a day, and if I said, "Fine," would snap, "Just fine? Can't you come up with a nicer word that that?!") and would harangue me and accuse me of being a terrible friend for not complying, said, accusingly, "Didn't you notice my new sweater? Don't you like it?" I said, "Yes, I did notice it. It looks warm!" But then she demanded to know what I thought of its design, and it was all downhill from there.

Compliments are the gifts of language, and like gifts, they should be voluntary and spontaneous and it's rude and immature to demand them from anyone. I think your responses are fine, that no reasonably well-adjusted person would object to them, that as people in this thread have suggested people who need more flowery compliments will learn not to seek them from you, and that if anyone does demand constant reassurance/compliments from you, the best thing to do is avoid that person as much as possible because they have issues that are their responsibility to deal with and that they aren't dealing with, and it's only going to lead to conflict between the two of you.
posted by orange swan at 11:44 AM on May 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Also, seriously, were you an ugly kid? Have you grown up with people telling you that you're ugly? I was and I have! Friends are not supposed to do that shit, they're supposed to see the beauty in you. Kids who are non-standard looking, women who are not super young anymore and women who are not super slim anymore all have lots of people to hand them shit about their appearances.

Your mistake in all this is thinking that it's your job to reveal the harsh truth to people, as if they all think they're Miss America unless you bring the reality.
posted by Frowner at 11:45 AM on May 9, 2017 [85 favorites]

They're not fishing for compliments, seriously, it's just small talk & social affirmation. Think of it of a social contract like saying fine when people ask how you're going.

You were on the right track with the baby one. He/she is a reall cutie, is pretty much my standard response, maybe pick something in a photo to focus on. I love his/her smile, eyes, outfit/blanket .. . boy Dad looks tired in that photo. etc. It helps change the subject from just having to look at more photos. Remember parents are looking at junior through a fog of sleep deprevation & hormones, of course they think their baby is cute, that's how mother nature keeps babies alive (even if objectively they know babies aren't really cute until they get older)To them it's cute, you like your friends I'm assuming so say the right things.

The weight one is a similar social contract of interactions.

A generic "You look great" is safe here If you're up for it ask how they did it and change the subject from looks and compliments if they make you uncomfortable. Mostly the person is looking for validation that their efforts aren't wasted as diet & exercise isn't fun for most people.

The celebrity one is a woman feeling insecure about age & looks. Find something you like about them and compliment that. Translation, your friend feels bad, if you want them to feel better white lies are socially acceptable here, but honestly take a second look at your friend and find something you like about them & compliment that.

"You really do look good for your age, you've got much better cheekbones/skin/hair than celebrity." etc.

Seriously compliments are just social grease. It's an easy way to make people you are interacting with feel good and it never hurts to see the positive in people around you. If you find it unnatural, maybe make it a habit to compliment one person a day, just randomly. You don't need to lie, just start looking for things to compliment in people. Oh I like your tie, great job on that report, man your homemade lunch smells so good. If you are like most people I bet you like compliments, scatter a few around & make friends & family feel good.
posted by wwax at 11:47 AM on May 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

I totally feel your pain and I honestly am more on your side than most MeFites seem to be. This is annoying, rude, needy, boundary-crossing behavior from people who should know better and often is actually a trap for you so they can later whine about how mean you are, in full awareness of what they're doing. Yeah, some people are clueless. But some people who do this know full well what they're doing.

Especially the lost weight and young for your age thing- I have a coworker who talks about these two things all the time and it makes me so uncomfortable.

I agree the baby thing is the easiest to fudge about. Here's what I would do:

Situation 1: Awwwww.
Situation 2: Wow good job! That must have been hard.
Situation 3: Really? You look great!

Or just something like "mmmmm" or "yeah!" or "oh, wow." that means basically nothing except "I heard you."
posted by stockpuppet at 11:48 AM on May 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

Compliments are one thing; feeding the bottomless pit of the approval junkie who never gets enough is another. I have some of these people in my life.

This is where it gets difficult. I have gotten really good at effortlessly deflecting that expectation. I will say almost anything to avoid giving that fished-for affirmation. It's become a personal challenge.

It is my goal, as someone else commented, to train these people to stop fishing in my vicinity.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 11:48 AM on May 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

They're not asking you to lie to Congress. Just say something nice.
posted by xingcat at 11:59 AM on May 9, 2017 [28 favorites]

"Maybe, but that's just surface stuff. What I really care about is [that you seem healthy and will be able to be my friend for a long time | that you are obviously a wonderful Mom who is completely in love with your kid | the way you always have my back. I'm so grateful that I know you]".

Affirm them, on your own terms, with what's important to you.

People need to know what they're doing right so they know their energy is well spent.
posted by amtho at 12:07 PM on May 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Was anyone you grew up with especially manipulative, pressuring you to give them compliments and attention and positive feedback while being unwilling to provide the same to you?

I had a parent like that and I think it gave me an aversion to the smallest amounts of indirection or untruth in conversations, because any whiff of that reminded me strongly of the overt and complicated manipulation directed towards me when I was younger.

I've realized recently that earlier in my life, there were lots of these etiquette-type social interaction conventions which I reacted negatively to at the time because I associated them with being manipulated. And they are technically a form of manipulation and lying, but a completely different and much more mild and benign form that's a sign of good will and by convention is reciprocated.

So, you can kind of think of it like you're a primate who is grooming a fellow primate, picking the twigs and leaves out of the other's fur which they can't reach with their own fingers and opposable thumbs, and your fellows are there to do the same thing for you when you need it.

If you're similar to me hopefully this is helpful. From your description, you actually remind me very much of one of my siblings and the issues they've had interacting with friends and co-workers.
posted by Sockpuppet Liberation Front at 12:08 PM on May 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

Here's what I would say in these situations:

Friend A: Look at the photos of my baby. Isn't he cute?
Me: Oh my goodness, look at those big blue eyes!

Friend B: I lost 6 kg and everyone said I look so good now. What do you think?
Me: You look awesome. I love the way those pants fit you!

Friend C: Do you know celebrity X is the same age as me? Don't you think I look so much younger than her?
Me: Wow, I had no idea! You're lucky.

In my experience, "I'm a direct person and I rarely say what I don't mean" is almost always code for "I'm a jerk." Your question kind of smacks of self-righteousness. Instead of thinking that these people are phishing for compliments, you should reframe it as, "My friend wants me to share in their happiness. What can I say to do that?"
posted by schroedingersgirl at 12:11 PM on May 9, 2017 [71 favorites]

I feel like the need for personal integrity is fine up to the point when it become a self-righteous way to poke holes in people's good mood or self-esteem.

Ever heard the phrase, "Don't yuck my yum?"

You don't have to fall over yourself to praise these people, but saying something nice to someone, even if it is not your heart's truth, is a very low-stakes way to be a good human. I doubt you are going to lie on your deathbed thinking, "I wish I had told Katie I thought her baby was ugly. What a missed opportunity."
posted by ananci at 12:13 PM on May 9, 2017 [25 favorites]

Something about how you've framed this makes me think youre looking down on these women as shallow. Someone showing you their baby and saying "isn't he cute?" is not a silly girl fishing for a compliment from highly logical, above-all-bullshit you. They're sharing a pic of their greatest love. How about "what a sweetie" or "look at his little overalls" or whatever? You're not the infant attractiveness expert so they're not soliciting your advice as such. They're sharing.

I mean, bully for you if you can get away with communicating harshly, but you benefit from pretty much everyone else in society being nice for the sake of being nice every day. People here, for example, are giving you nicely phrased advice instead of giving you a piece of their mind.
posted by kapers at 12:16 PM on May 9, 2017 [52 favorites]

Wow you're getting some very harsh feedback here. I didn't see anything in your question to suggest that you're being nasty to people. Your responses as you listed them are fine.

Also, I agree with you that's it's annoying to demand compliments! I would never demand that anyone tell me my children are goodlooking or compare my own looks favorably to magazine peoples'; I think that's bizarre.

(But, once asked for this validation, you really can't refuse to give it, because the same folks who'd ask for it are also the ones who'll wilt if they don't get it. And who cares. If it's enough of a friend that you want them to be happy, and what it takes to make them happy is that you agree they look better than Jessica Alba, well, it's not hurting anyone.) That said, you're not monstrous for finding these requests irritating; just try to hear them as poorly phrased requests for love, and you'll find it easier to play along.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:28 PM on May 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

I also value direct communication but I try to make every interaction I have with a friend a positive one that makes them feel good -- I am not trying to be anybody's life coach unless they directly ask for my coaching. So with that in mind here is how I would have responded:

Person 1: "Yes, your baby is ADORABLE! I particularly love [some feature or aspect of the photo - "her button nose" or "his adorable little hat"]." The only case where I'd point out the photo was bad (not the baby) would be if they were asking me directly if they should use it for something, like a baby announcement card or something. Then I'd say "oh I'd use the other one for that, he looks much cuter in it!" or something like that.

Person 2: "You look great! I thought you looked great before, though."
(Or, if i didn't think they looked great before, I'd say something like) "you seem much happier and healthier now, I'm happy for you!"

Person 3: "I can't tell how old anybody is, I'm a terrible judge" (this is completely true, so that one's easy for me.

Your response should be tailored to the outcome you want.

Do you want to navigate these situations with grace and without hurting feelings but you can't think of what to say? Then you should curate some pat responses as folks have suggested here. "I'm terrible at judging appearances, you should not ask me!" etc.

Do you want to not have people asking these questions? Then stick with the honestly. You can keep trying to keep it a shade below "brutal" honesty if you want to keep these folks as friends.

Do you want to maintain your sense of perfect integrity and never have to tell a white lie and yet keep your friends happy? Then work on your altruism. Learn to see the adorableness in every baby and the beauty in every friend.

I do think it's interesting that you ask this question only about women seeking compliments? How do you handle it when men do this, or do you not even notice it?

For what it's worth, I believe in some of these cases, these friends wanted to share something they were happy about with you, not demanding compliments. It is a very passive way to communicate, very common on the west coast, but it's because it's considered self-aggrandizing to say "I got the cutest photos of my baby back, want to see?" or "I feel so happy now that I've lost weight!" or "I feel like I am aging well and I'm stoked about it!" and they are just trying to share these thoughts with you in what they've learned to be a socially acceptable way.

Last thought here - your post reminded me of the movie "The Invention of Lying" - which I felt missed some of the nuance that you seem to be missing about communication. Direct communication is valuable, but it does not require that you share every uncharitable thought that you have at all times. You do not have to share every judgement and it sounds like you don't do this, but struggle when asked a direct question. These questions aren't always actually direct questions, though, and it is hard to sort that out.

It is annoying when people phish for compliments and it is fair to be annoyed. But it is also annoying when someone gives hurtful responses to innocuous questions when a polite deflection is customary. :)
posted by pazazygeek at 12:41 PM on May 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

these friends are giving you an incredible gift by straight-up asking for what they want you to say -- they aren't fishing or hinting or floundering around trying to engineer a compliment, they just request them! they practically script them for you -- they leave you in no doubt as to what they want, so there is no trouble about thinking up the right answer.

if you don't want to lie, even for such a tiny thing and to make someone feel nice, there is also no trouble because it's not lying; it's meta-communication (or whatever you call it), like when the cashier asks how your day is going and you say "fine, thanks" even though maybe it is not so fine. The meaning of your conventional set phrase there is not "my life is nice" but rather "I am a polite stranger treating you as a professional person, neither an intimate nor a machine." That is a true thing that becomes true by and because of your action of saying "fine, thanks."

likewise, a friend says "Don't you think I look pretty today?" and you say "Of course, but you always do!" and you may privately think she is ugly, but you aren't lying. that is because the exact meaning of "Of course you're pretty!" in that context is "I am your friend and I like you." If that is true, then all the sample compliments you listed are also truthfully meant and you should feel free to say them as long as you feel friendly and amiable.

this is the conventional method that most people follow, so if you don't pay superficial compliments you don't mean, when directly requested to, people may understand you to be saying that friendship is not what you mean. which is itself probably not what you do mean.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:55 PM on May 9, 2017 [13 favorites]

I admire your commitment to be sincere and straightforward in your communications.

Try these on to see if they feel more honest :

Friend A: Look at the photos of my baby. Isn't he cute?
Aw, you must be very proud!

Friend B: I lost 6 kg and everyone said I look so good now. What do you think?
Wow, you must have worked really hard!

Friend C: Do you know celebrity X is the same age as me? Don't you think I look so much younger than her?
You are perfect just the way you are.

With these responses, you can validate their feelings and express your friendship and support without having to make an objective assessment.

If you like them, deliver with a big warm genuine smile. If you don't, deliver with a big warm fake smile and add a silent "bless your heart".
posted by metaseeker at 1:18 PM on May 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

also someone who wants you to agree that they look a lot better than some movie star or whoever is quite likely to be joking, a thing women do sometimes. it's like a game. a tedious one if you don't enjoy it, but if that's what they're doing, they're looking for lighthearted extravagant banter, not earnest reassurance. they may be offended if you don't play along, but they will not take you seriously if you do, or expect you to take them seriously either.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:23 PM on May 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Aspie here. That honesty stuff is not about self righteousness (for me, at least) as some commenters above seem to think, but a drive, an inherent characteristic that is hard (very hard & uncomfortable) to displace.

With babies, particularly ugly ones, I now say "oh, he has his own face" implying that this baby is not your average everyday generic baby, but unique.

With weight loss, I admit to being completely unaware, but comgratulate them on their hard work, and say "you must feel so good."

Comparison to a hot celebrity - in Australia, this could only be a pisstake and I would laugh. But to be honest, I can't imagine anyone asking me to say they looked hot, more to confirm they looked alright, and I would happily do that. One exception is my gorgeous daughter who still has no idea that she's gorgeous but it doesn't ever get through when I tell her so.

So yeah, basically like they said up there, find a way to acknowledge people's truths, and go with that. Scripts, scripts and more scripts. It's the only way to survive in a neurotypical world without them tearing you apart, limb from limb, for being "rude" when they started it by asking an impossible to answer question.
posted by b33j at 1:30 PM on May 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

Have you read about Gottman's Bids for Attention? His context is romantic or familial relationships, but I believe it can also be applied to friendships. Bids for attention are essentially little moments where individuals attempt to create connection through small talk, request for affirmation, or non-verbal cues.

It might be helpful if you thought of your friends questions/requests as their attempt to feel connected to you rather than get a specific response.

According to Gottman, here are some things the bidder is hoping to hear/get back:

"I’m interested in you.
I hear you.
I understand you (or would like to).
I’m on your side.
I’d like to help you (whether I can or not).
I’d like to be with you (whether I can or not).
I accept you (even if I don’t accept all your behavior)."

I think in almost all of the situations above you could say almost anything positive followed by "Tell me more."
posted by CMcG at 1:34 PM on May 9, 2017 [22 favorites]

People are giving you an opportunity to be nice. To show yourself in a good light. Don't resist it.
posted by mani at 1:50 PM on May 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

This post reminds me of a bit John Darnielle once did in concert: "When a person says he’s ‘just being honest’, this is a good time to start looking for the exits. Especially a potential romantic partner, people who put great priority on just being honest. That means they’re about to harm you in some very essential way. Not just that they’re going to screw you over or cheat on you. They’re really going to find the vulnerable spot and get to it, because it gives them pleasure. That’s how they get their pleasure. And so they say to you, 'Hey, you know, I just try to be an honest person.’ Oh, my friends, locate all the places to run in a fire."

There are approximately 8,298 arbitrary social customs that seem irritating or pointless to some people but which nonetheless serve as the lubricant that keeps people rubbing along together without unnecessary injury or isolation. Giving small meaningless compliments when solicited is one of them. It's a free country and you're allowed to value being "direct" and almost never saying what you don't mean over doing your small bit to keep the social organism healthy, but be aware that it says something about you. Your choices are choices, not immutable characteristics that you have to live with. Is it actually more important to you to think of yourself as a direct person than to offer a small kindness to a friend? (Conversely, does the value you place on almost always saying what you mean trump everything else when you're around people who have power over you?)
posted by praemunire at 2:15 PM on May 9, 2017 [32 favorites]

Is your directness worth hurting someone's feelings? Why? Just be nice.

Additionally, reflect on the massively gendered component to this. Why do so many people associate this primarily or exclusively with women? Why is it unacceptable for women to voice questions like this? Why might they want to? Why is (usually a man's) someone's right to be "honest" given more weight?

Sexism, is why. Don't be part of a problem that makes people feel bad. Make people feel good, it doesn't cost you anything.
posted by smoke at 2:23 PM on May 9, 2017 [13 favorites]

My best friend once enjoyed a short-lived no-strings-attached romance with a fellow student. When they were breaking up, she complimented the guy on his lovemaking skills, not really meaning anything much by it and just wanting to end things on a friendly note. To her utter amazement, she was treated to a loooong lecture about True Nature of their relationship and her Incorrect Use of the word "love" in reference to their brief affair.

Do we refer to this guy as "Truth Jesus"? No, we refer to him as "That German Guy With A Stick Up His Ass".

All jest aside, your first question on here was Help me figure out why some find me arrogant. Perhaps people find you arrogant because they can see that you are constantly judging them? Just a thought.
posted by rada at 2:50 PM on May 9, 2017 [18 favorites]

To address an element of your question directly: there is nothing gender specific about the responses. Most if not all of this advice goes for other genders too.
posted by einekleine at 3:12 PM on May 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think your responses were fine. I am a person who finds most babies really creepy looking, and I've struggled with what to say to all the proud parents. I agree with others above, that its usually easier to pick out an article of clothing the baby is wearing ("awww look at those cute little shoes! ") or one specific feature ("oh what a sweet smile! ") and compliment that, rather than gush falsely over creepy baby.

For others seeking compliments on their physical selves, " You look great! " seems like an easy, safe response, even if its not true. Just think of it as "these are the words I say in this type of awkward situation."
posted by WalkerWestridge at 4:18 PM on May 9, 2017

I used to value the truth teller side of me (really "truth") and then I really absorbed the lesson in the simple question, "would you rather be right, or happy?"

I feel like you know what people wanted in these situations, which was validation or kindness. You just didn't want to provide it, or at least, you measured out your kindness in very small doses. What's up with you that you see "wanting compliments" as 1) wrong or 2) imposing on you. Imagine a world where people are complimented freely even if they aren't a rockstar whatever. Do you think the result would be a bunch of people having happier days or would it All Come Down because people would forget their pecking order or suddenly become arrogant? Would the world compliment quota be reached? Would you have lost something other than your self-image as More Direct Than Average?

What in your past has made you believe compliments are in short supply or that you must be the arbiter of truth? Were they in short supply at your house? Were your parents concerned you were getting above your britches?

If you want to be truthful and direct, just say "I know you want me to compliment you but for some psychological reason my need to perceive myself as direct is a higher priority to me right now than providing you with a warm and affirmative response as social custom generally recommends." Because that's probably even more directly true in many ways.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:39 PM on May 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm crap at lying, I feel you. (My attempts at approximating the gooing people like that expect, if I don't mean it, have just been implausible and way more awkward than a workaround.) I think what you said in those instances is fine. And I'd be running from B and C, those kinds of requests are annoying and only annoying people make them. Re A - most people would just show the picture (with their expectation clear anyway - absolutely, they want to be told their baby is the most beautiful baby anyone's ever seen), but one could understand things there, because they're more than likely sleep deprived. With unconventional-looking babies, the keywords are "eyes" and "smile". Or, if you know for certain the kid's not e.g. adopted, you could comment on which parent you think it resembles. (Discussion about that will keep them occupied, whether they agree or not, and distract them from the "beautiful" thing. Though yeah, most babies are beautiful.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:53 PM on May 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure the OP is female, FYI.
posted by sucre at 5:00 PM on May 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

"I know you want me to compliment you but for some psychological reason my need to perceive myself as direct is a higher priority to me right now than providing you with a warm and affirmative response as social custom generally recommends."

The person with the psychological problem here is the one fishing for compliments, and no one should be bullied into saying something insincere. I myself try to be supportive in such situations, but there are some that are incredibly uncomfortable and hard to negotiate (such as a musical performance by a vocalist unaware that he/she is continually off-pitch).

Manipulating other people into telling one what one wants to hear is in incredibly bad taste at best and, as current events have demonstrated, deeply destructive to the political and social order at worst. The original poster asked for a tactful way to deflect loaded questions such as B and C (one can only wonder why questioner A would ask "Isn't my baby cute?" unless he/she were in some doubt, but the answer is always "yes," even if said baby looks like Gollum). There is nothing wrong with wanting to come up with a tactful but honest (non-)response. I can't believe people here are pathologizing that desire.
posted by tully_monster at 5:03 PM on May 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

The person with the psychological problem here is the one fishing for compliments, and no one should be bullied into saying something insincere

I dunno man, I don't feel bullied into compliments any more than I feel cursed if someone says "have a nice day." I think it's a common cultural thing to understand that friends sometimes look for compliments in this way and treating it like a zero-sum game is...odd. It is actually easier, for me anyway, to give the expected answer rather than try to figure out the Scale Of All Beauty or whatever.

My point is truth is relative.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:07 PM on May 9, 2017 [15 favorites]

yeah "bullying" is a pretty surprising interpretation. Some people have friendships where you show the other person a picture of your cat and they obligingly tell you it's the best cat they ever saw, and some people have friendships where they meet with blankness when sharing something they're proud of and excited about, so they have learned to give a little prompt like "look at my great cat, she's the best one you ever saw, right?" because it is nice to recognize when people are out of their depth in a totally non-blaming way, and help them out a bit.

there is some kind of weird backlash over how dare you have self-esteem so robust that you are not terrified of finding out that your friends think your face is ugly and your baby is a troll, you just up and ask them to say the nice thing you're sure they already think like a confident person with a friend you know likes you! the sheer neediness and nerve of it all. but I think it's very sweet.

The tell-me-I'm-pretty variety, I don't do myself; I would never dare ask someone to say something nice to me, especially about my person, for fear they might not be able to think of anything convincing. so I like to see other women displaying what I can only interpret as the reckless courage born of a near-total lack of self-hatred. plus, taking pleasure in their physical selves without any pretense that they don't deserve whatever compliment they're after. that kind of innocent simple vanity is pretty unusual in a world where you are supposed to elicit compliments by putting yourself down until somebody contradicts you, but that doesn't make it pathological.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:45 PM on May 9, 2017 [11 favorites]

I have friends with arty hobbies I'm sometimes asked my opinion on, and I handle it by either asking more questions, finding something I can honestly compliment, or reflecting their feelings back. IME, showing some personal interest in the compliment-fisher like this meets their need to be seen / for attention and they do less fishing in the future and more normal small talk.

A: Aww, how old is he? Are these from Easter? I bet you and $partner are so proud!

B: You've always looked good, you have great style / a great smile / a friendly face. Look at you, the talk of the office! Have you been working out?

C: I wouldn't have guessed you two are the same age! How do you stay so youthful? Have you thought about becoming an actor/model? (or specific compliment as above)
posted by momus_window at 9:42 PM on May 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have you thought about becoming an actor/model?

This is the sort of thing which if delivered with insufficient sincerity - which not everyone is able to conjure up on the spot, although kudos to those who can - can go really wrong.

That's why I think it's best to say things you can deliver believably.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:34 AM on May 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't know enough about you, but I wonder if it's possible that you are missing social cues much earlier and replying in a way that leads this person to seek out compliments. Maybe try to get some compliments or enthusiasm and interest about what's going on in their life much earlier in the conversation. I think it's possible this person is trying to assure themselves that you care what is going on, more so than they are fishing for a shot in the arm.
posted by shockpoppet at 9:35 AM on May 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I relate, and have thought a LOT about dealing with these sorts of social lubrication questions. I find it really distasteful to give flippant affirmations - not because I'm a jerk (I'm really nice, just not friendly), but because social etiquette works by being reciprocal - it's supposed to be mutually satisfactory and beneficial and therefore breaks down when the participants are not playing at the same rules. Think of all the insults and misunderstandings that occur when people of different cultures try to interact for the first time.

But of course two people within a shared culture still have different needs and ways of understanding. For someone like me (and presumably you, since you asked) it is exhausting to give others what they need, constantly, while not receiving what I need in return (generally, to be left out of idle talk). Identify your needs and craft answers to steer people there. My strategies for dealing with this are as follows:

1. For true small talk (passing in the breakroom with coworkers I rarely see) I just say 'mmhmm' and exit the conversation.

2. For people I need to maintain positive relationships with but who are not true friends, I ignore the question posed and ask a question of my own. Their questions are rhetorical - you can answer "Isn't my baby cute?" with "How old is he/she by now?", it's fine.

3. For real friends who do this, I employ strategy #2 BUT ALSO recognize that I am obligated as a friend to provide emotional support in the 'language' they speak. I am their friend by my own choice for my own reasons, and if I am give what I feel as insincere compliments, I have the reasonable expectation that I will be getting my own emotional needs met, by them, in ways that may or may not be a native way of expressing themselves. It's part of personal growth and is the 'price' to pay for real relationships with other people, the benefits of which far outweigh the marginal cost of violating my atypical personal integrity rules.
posted by smokysunday at 3:31 PM on May 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I listen for what is behind the comment the person made, remember that I care about them on a fundamental level and wish them the very best and want to encourage them, and go from there. I recognize the opening to validate another human as something sacred and really awesome; our world is so much better when we all support one another. I don't think about the words as much as I do the way in which I say them and the overall context of the relationship. I don't always answer the question as asked. And am realizing I use hyperbole--like, if you say something is the best IN THE WORLD, it's obviously not true (so you aren't being dishonest) but it still achieves the goal of validation. And, figuring out my overall goal of strengthening human connection, I will figure out a way to say something which is true and answers the question and also gets at the goal.

Again, you do NOT have to answer these literally. Answer the underlying question through enthusiastic support of the person, both at the time and over a longer period.

Friend A: Look at the photos of my baby. Isn't he cute?
What they may be saying: I want to share this meaningful baby experience with you / I worked hard at this baby and cuteness is a socially appropriate way to seek attention and validation / I think my baby is cute / I'm worried he's not cute / I want other people to love my baby and support it because it takes a village to raise a child, so, are you in my village?
What I say: He is THE CUTEST I LOVE HIM! / Look at that BABY! / I love his soft face and his hair!
What I do: Cuddle the baby, ask about the baby at other times, generally invest in its life and the life of the family

Friend B: I lost 6 kg and everyone said I look so good now. What do you think?
What they may be saying: I am not sure I look good still / I am insecure about my weight / I wonder if this will make people like me more / I care about your opinion
What I say: You have always looked great to me! / I'm so happy that you feel good about where you are! / I think you looked great before and also now, so that's awesome! Way to go! / Your body is SLAMMIN! / Sounds like you set a goal and reached it, and that is awesome! (I would probably resist telling someone they look good purely based on their weight, just as a matter of principle)
What I do: Validate in other ways over time, e.g., intelligence, accomplishments

Friend C: Do you know celebrity X is the same age as me? Don't you think I look so much younger than her?
What they may be saying: I am insecure about how my body is changing / I'm worried about how society sees me, as an aging woman -- do YOU see me that way? / Do you have a use for me? / Am I still attractive? / Who am I?
What I say: I didn't know that! I like how you look. [name specific thing, but not in a comparative sense] / I don't know much about [celebrity] but you look super great! / You look so great you're gonna have the paparazzi chasing you too! / You're gorgeous darling! / I can't believe it! Wow!
What I do: Validate in other ways over time
posted by ramenopres at 6:21 PM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all your comments. I'm glad that I found a number of good suggestions. I think that many comments just re-affirm the fact that people are expected to give nice comments and people expect to hear nice things ... regardless of the situation. I like how smokysunday employs different response strategies.

Like what Sockpuppet Liberation Front pointed out, there are people who expect you to say nice things but never say anything nice about you. Or worst, they make you feel bad about yourself (for example, talking about your 'failure'). It's not that they are bad friends but it's just something they do unconsciously to feel good about themselves. I'm not sure how giving compliments can affect this kind of behaviour but I prefer to avoid any awkward or emotionally draining situation.
posted by liltiger at 12:11 PM on May 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

So is the problem that these people say mean things to you, and the "I expect compliments" is the cherry on top?

If people are actively talking about your "failure" or otherwise putting you down, I think two better strategies would be the one you've identified (steer clear of draining people) or saying directly to them, "when you say X, it's really hurtful, please stop" and/or "I don't view [being successful in a grad program and living my life] as a 'failure' - I'm not sure why you're saying this to me".

I myself sort of friend broke-up with someone who I know for a fact likes me, but who could not seem to stop saying things I found really hurtful even when I asked. It was "just their way" but it ground me down. (Although honestly, there were complicating friendship circle factors that made this into a break-up - it was hurtful but not break-up hurtful.) So yeah, if someone is making you feel bad and can't or won't stop, they are not being a friend to you.

If someone literally never gives compliments but expects compliments and is otherwise a good friend, maybe you should fish for compliments. If someone is anxious or under stress, IME they can feel well-disposed and admiring, but in the moment their brain is hamster-wheeling and they don't say anything.

I guess what I'm taking from this comment is that the issue isn't the compliments (as annoying as that may genuinely be to you) but how you are treated by the people involved. That makes me wonder why you wrote the question about the compliments rather than the meanness - do you have trouble identifying/responding when people treat you badly?
posted by Frowner at 12:59 PM on May 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Man, complements make me uncomfortable, too, especially the ones in your initial examples. With certain people, I try to subtly or not so subtly question the assumptions fueling the anxiety. So if you ask me about your cute baby girl, I might tell you she looks super tough! (I might also just say she's adorable and ask what milestones she's hit lately, or if I know you really well, "can she do any new tricks?") If you ask me to validate your weight loss, I will ask you if you feel better or if you can do some cool new thing because of the exercise you've been doing. And if you ask me something that relates to how a celebrity in a magazine looks I'm just going to vent about Photoshop or something, because I'm only human, and this here human would almost rather have elective dental work than earnestly talk about various celebrity photoshoots.

I think the issue for me with this behavior -- leaving aside your most recent update -- is that these types of conversation often feel like "hey, here's all this anxiety I've got from being oppressed by the patriarchy, wanna validate my feelings in a patriarchy-approved way?"

Because the honest response for me to that question is "nah, fuck that shit," but that's usually not the kind answer.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:06 AM on July 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

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