Shift compliment
February 9, 2021 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Someone caught on to the idea I appreciate a certain compliment. Now people do it regularly, but it isn't what they think. Help.

Someone let on that I appreciate being complicated on "being smart"- but didn't actually contextualized the enjoyment. Now, I occasionally receive very oozy, "you're so smart!!" pops- which I secretly cannot stand. It's true, I am slightly fond of the idea- but not how they assumed.

I'm actually a slightly serious or deadpan person, and unless I've done something truly inspiring (in action or achievement) or I've participated in a conversation with someone we both knew was amazing, the general compliment makes me cringe inside like no other (it's usually most when I don't really know the person).

How can I change this? I have a few ideas, but please share.

I am happy to push other's perspectives of themselves, but when it comes to it being done for me, I need it to feel very grounded or "real," or I just won't really connect.
posted by firstdaffodils to Society & Culture (16 answers total)
I think we are missing a ton of context here? But like, you can’t control other people’s behavior, just your own. So learn to take a compliment. Especially if it’s strangers doing it, there’s no way for you to prep them to not say the thing ahead of time. Just be gracious with an “I try to be” or a quick “thanks” and swing the conversation off yourself as soon as you can. Then if you’re still stuck on it later you can work on stopping thought spirals through different techniques, whatever works for you as an individual. But they don’t mean anything nefarious, most likely. It’s okay to like being complimented for being smart, and also okay to not really connect with a compliment you have received, but it’s not okay to require people to only compliment you when you have achieved something you personally deem laudable. In fact, you could try reflecting back on them. When they call you smart, you can try to compliment them in response, maybe “thanks, you’re a good listener” or “you are so upbeat today” or whatever is relevant at the time, and see if that kind of give and receive helps you feel better about getting the compliment in the first place.
posted by Mizu at 9:08 PM on February 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I'll simplify: it's that it seems disingenuous. Not trying to control conversation. Thanks!
posted by firstdaffodils at 9:11 PM on February 9, 2021

Best answer: I get this a lot. They're not wrong, it's just in context it's not relevant. I think I get what you mean.

So try responding with "hey I've just done this a lot," or "I read a lot about this," or "this is one of my favorite topics, I talk about it a lot."

You're not pushing back on them because you're not disagreeing that you have knowledge of the thing, but it shuts down the implications of "smart." (E.g. you were born with innate knowledge of this thing, I could never know this thing because I'm not as smart as you, I could never learn to manage this basic task on my own because if I fluff you enough about it I think you'll always just do my work for me...)
posted by phunniemee at 9:25 PM on February 9, 2021 [14 favorites]

Best answer: the general compliment makes me cringe inside like no other (it's usually most when I don't really know the person)
This is a pretty personal compliment and it is not surprising that it bothers you when getting it from someone who barely knows you. "Nice Shirt" from a stranger or "Good Choice" from a waiter seem okay because they are both coming from actual knowledge of your choice in clothes or food. But if they try to say you have great taste, it starts to feel fake because they don't have all the facts.

phunnimee's point that they may just be buttering you up to get out of their own work is something to watch out for as well.

How can I change this?
Are you asking for it to stop or to change your own reaction?
posted by soelo at 9:58 PM on February 9, 2021

I've noticed that some women compliment other women this way a lot. I also felt, I don't know, borderline insulted? Because it seems that they think that whatever minor grocery selection or household tip I just regurgitated is the height of my accomplishment. However, I'm trying to reinterpret it this way:

It may be an attempt to lift up everybody and make "smart" be more current than comments on appearance, when someone wants to say _something_ and isn't sure what to say.

If you're feeling saucy, you could say, "Yes I am! And so are you."
posted by amtho at 10:18 PM on February 9, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have always had a lot of trouble taking compliments, especially generic ones like this. "You're always good at doing X" bothers me but "You did a good job doing X yesterday" does not. I've never really had any luck changing how people compliment me, except for close friends. For close friends I tell them straight up I don't like it and some of them learn to respect my wishes. "I don't really like compliments as they make me feel awkward" is enough for that. But for coworkers it's not worth it as trying to change it seems to come across as fake humbleness and makes people think I'm full of myself which is the exact opposite of what I want.

I'm finally starting to do better at taking generic compliments, and my recent Psychology education has been helpful by making this very explicit: Nearly all compliments are disingenuous in some way because the social part of our brains is constantly trying to increase our own social status by complimenting those around us that we respect/value. This is just how (most) humans work at a really fundamental level, and 99% of the time the people giving disingenuous/false compliments aren't really doing it on purpose.

So for me when I hear a generic compliment that I dislike, I try to rephrase it in my head as if they were saying "I want to express that I respect this person in a way that elevates both me and them. But I only know a few things about them so I'll call them smart instead of reaching for something specific and messing up." Because that's probably what is actually going on in at least part of their brain.
posted by JZig at 11:35 PM on February 9, 2021 [6 favorites]

This is one form of what I like to call 'social lubricant' -- meaningless courtesy.

Personally, I would respond, in a tone not unlike Kathy Bates, "Well, where I come from, you're either smart or you're crunchy and taste good with ketchup" (phrase derived from Tolkien by way of Marcel Marceau). The intent is that I'm not soliciting praise, I'm just being true to my nature (pauses, stings frog on back). But then again, I'm a sardonic ass and this is the response people expect from me.

You can respnd by glossing over it with a quick "Too kind" or 'You're too kind", which I picked up from this guy. This response both acknowledges and downplays the compliment.
posted by zaixfeep at 12:34 AM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Looks to me the only thing you can do is to answer "Thanks, but I've seen this before. No big deal."
posted by kschang at 2:44 AM on February 10, 2021

Not that I get the 'you are smart' compliment often; but when I am training new hires or co-op students, and I am able to answer their questions about a job I've been doing for many years that they have no idea about, I respond with "I don't know about that, but I can tell you that I am knowledgeable' Good example: Not smart enough to spell knowledgeable with 100% certainty, but knowledgeable enough to go to google and verify the spelling.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 5:26 AM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Hmmm. I admit that I'm reading between the lines here, but I get the sense that what really pleases you is that when someone tells you that you're smart, but the tone suggests that they don't say that much, and so you can tell that you impressed them. Whereas, when someone who's just a compliment fountain says that you're smart, the tone suggests a lack of sincerity, and it backfires.

If I'm guessing correctly that that's the case, that could explain why you feel weird; you're picking up on the people who are just feeling like it's something to say, and you're noticing it's different from when people are genuinely moved to say it. That happened with me a lot for a while - I went through a low-self-esteem period, and my mother started heaping praise on me for every last thing I did and it made me feel uneasy (like, "enough, Mom,"). But there were two occasions when either a friend or a work colleague paused after seeing me do something, squinted at me a moment, and then pronounced, "you're really good at this, you know," and I basked in that.

If that sounds familiar, then...I'm afraid I don't really have good answers for how to handle it. I think I finally started doing the gentle down-playing with Mom ("Oh, shucks, I just do this a lot, it's no big deal") and she just finally got over it and it stopped. And I just thought a lot more about the more sincere compliments (to the point that I can remember actual sensory details of both of those moments) and that reinforced my self-esteem; probably to the point that Mom started sensing I didn't need the Fire Hose approach so much and THAT'S what made her stop.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 AM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

sometimes when I'm uncomfortable with a compliment I use "you're so sweet" or "that is so kind!" instead of "thank you." It kind of feels more like I've done my job of appreciating the courtesy and returning it, rather than engaging with what was said.

But I agree that in this case "oh, this happens to be something I've worked on a lot" may be more what you're looking for.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:36 AM on February 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

My recipe for any compliment that doesn't actually sit right with me is to say "thanks!" and smile. The complimenter feels like they accomplished something, I feel like I accomplished small talk.
posted by aniola at 7:38 AM on February 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "This is a pretty personal compliment and it is not surprising that it bothers you when getting it from someone who barely knows you-"

This is really the crux. I have no problem returning the gesture or saying "thanks!" and moving forward. I love playing the compliment game, but I want it to be good.

"You're smart!" Could be replaced with "you're XYZ!" (strong/talented/whatever-anything), and the situation would still feel flat. It's because if someone is blindly taking advice from someone else, it feels like an easy out, or as if they're not actually involved or paying attention- which usually sends other yellow/red flags ("chill, if you're just zipping thru this interaction, what else are you missing?").

These are great, thank you!
posted by firstdaffodils at 8:34 AM on February 10, 2021

Response by poster: Similar to when someone bluffs too much in an attempt to polish a social interaction or create intimacy/a friendship.

"Oh, I was there, too!"
"Pretty sure you weren't, but let's keep talking!" (/internal response, never stated)
posted by firstdaffodils at 8:41 AM on February 10, 2021

I"m not sure the social context where "someone" notices you appreciated a compliment and "let on" to others so they do it too. To me, it implies a very close intimate group like where people talk about each other to try to support the positive function of the group. If that fits, then maybe a gentle hint in the ear of the same "someone" that you really prefer specific praise rather than generic ("That was a great suggestion" or "I appreciated your comment about x" rather than "you are so smart") might find its way back to the others.
posted by metahawk at 10:18 PM on February 11, 2021

Response by poster: Good answers, thank you! I actually don't think I like this compliment anymore. We'll see how it goes!
posted by firstdaffodils at 10:27 AM on February 28, 2021

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