How do you take a compliment?
July 20, 2007 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Compliments and self-worth: Help me help my friend understand not everyone thinks she's stupid.

A friend of mine gets the following email from a professional colleague after she organized a two-day meeting with 15+ people involved.

I wanted to thank you for organizing such a productive meeting. It really quite well, and we're all excited about XXX. Thanks for organizing everything, getting the right people in the room for us, and also for supplying breakfast, lunch and organizing the dinner. It was a great trip overall!

Her response to me:

Am I crazy? This doesn't sound like a compliment. This sounds like pandering. Any trained monkey could've done what I did -- made a few calls, made a dinner reservation, etc. I feel like the ugly girl being told I have a great personality.

The question: How can I make her take a compliment for what it is? She seems to feel that this compliment is somehow demeaning and humiliating. How does she break the rut of feeling like everyone thinks she's stupid and treats her like she's in the Special Olympics?
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Human Relations (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: MeFi's favorite self-help book, Feeling Good, would teach her how to recognize and combat cognitive distortions. In particular, she is Disqualifying the Positive.

That said, it's pretty unlikely you'll be able to do it for her.
posted by callmejay at 11:40 AM on July 20, 2007

She sounds crazy to me. Unless I am missing some sarcasm in the e-mail, that is very nice thank you note.
posted by rabbitsnake at 11:41 AM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: Man, I'd love to get an email like that.

Organizing things like that are no cakewalk - well, unless you're a person for whom organizing things like that are a cakewalk. For many (most?) of us, it would be (much) more difficult.

People who are naturally good at something (like being well-organized and detail-oriented) sometimes fail to understand how those of us who are not good at those things can be impressed by them. Tell her to take the email at face value - it really is a compliment!
posted by rtha at 11:42 AM on July 20, 2007

Yep, she's got to get to that point herself - nothing you say will make a difference.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:42 AM on July 20, 2007

I don't understand what her complaint is. It seems that she knows her responsibility was for organizing the meeting, doing XYZ, in a functional, assistant/office management capacity, and that's what she got complimented on.

What kind of compliment does she think she should get? Is this masking a sense of larger job dissatisfaction? I don't understand her point of view at all. It might seem patronizing if she was in charge of a large presentation or contributing something in a business capacity, but she just organized the meeting. Which, yeah, isn't exactly rocket science, but it's still pretty necessary.

I don't think it's about the compliment, I think she just hates being an admin assistant or whatever.
posted by mckenney at 11:44 AM on July 20, 2007

The question: How can I make her take a compliment for what it is
You can't. You can't fix someone's sense of worth for them. But I think the proper response is:
Am I crazy?
Also, what rtha said. I think that people who are naturally organized and detail-oriented have no idea how rare that talent is.
posted by craichead at 11:45 AM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: When she goes to Starbucks and orders a coffee, does she thank the person who hands it to her? When a waiter refills her glass, does she thank them? When she calls someone and the receptionist says, "I'll put you through," does she respond, "Thanks"?

Does she do any of the above because she's being condescending, or simply because it's polite to acknowledge the work that someone's done for you, even if it's part of their job description?

The email she got is not really a compliment, it's a thank you note. People send thank you notes because it's the polite thing to do, and because it makes everyone feel good to be appreciated for the work they've done.
posted by occhiblu at 11:53 AM on July 20, 2007

Is she being shunted into an office management role that isn't necessarily part of her job? Or maybe it is part of her job but not the intellectually challenging part, which she never gets compliments on? There is a tendency to praise women for their organizational skills and men for their intellectual originality.
posted by transona5 at 11:57 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

What occhiblu said.

Of course a trained monkey could do what she did, and you'll just end up patronisingly alienating her if you tell her otherwise. But she should step into her colleague's shoes, and realise that her colleague was politely thanking her, not implying that organising the meeting was an especially difficult task.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 12:04 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, I think many of us specifically thank people for doing work that's probably "beneath" them, as an acknowledgment that doing it was probably a pain in the ass as well as tedious, and so deserves extra appreciation. Not because the task was hard and they did it well, but because it was obnoxious and they did it anyway.
posted by occhiblu at 12:07 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As an inference apropos to the commentary so far, perhaps she doesn't get any recognition for the rewarding parts of her job. To get an effusive compliment about something menial when you value other and unreconized parts of the position can seem like patronizing.
posted by rhizome at 12:11 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Any trained monkey could've done what I did -- made a few calls, made a dinner reservation, etc. I feel like the ugly girl being told I have a great personality.

This is not really about being able to take a compliment, it's about your friend feeling like she has a worthless job where her skills and talents are not being used. It seems that she thinks her job is so damn demeaning that any affirmative feedback (and I'm with occhiblu that it's really more of a casual thank-you than a compliment per se) is actually an insult to her intelligence.

She needs to either 1) get a new, more fulfilling job or 2) come to terms with the fact that this one is near-brainlessly simple, and look for fulfillment elsewhere. Hopefully through either mechanism she can get over this attitude of disdain towards her coworkers.
posted by rkent at 12:11 PM on July 20, 2007

There's a difference between "Thanks" and "Thank you, barista! My drink [...]

I think there's a plate of beans involved here. To me, the difference is that one's oral and the other's written (by someone who probably doesn't write these things often).
posted by mendel at 12:11 PM on July 20, 2007

I imagine there's a lot more behind this story (which you imply when you mention she feels she's in a rut). Does your friend like her job? Both what she does and the people she works with? If her skills are in line with her job position, it's possible she's doing something that feels like a piece of cake that other people would not be able to do.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:15 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Any trained monkey could've done what I did -- made a few calls, made a dinner reservation, etc.

It's worth noting that, in my experience, making the calls and the reservations is something that a lot of people completely drop the ball on. It never fails to amaze me how many people tasked with such logistical undertakings completely botch them up, and often don't even seem to care.

So from my perspective, it's just a thank you note, but it's also likely a thank you note from someone that (a) recognizes that it's a thankless, pain-in-the-ass job and (b) actually does appreciate that she pulled it off without screwing it up, because that's more rare than you'd think.
posted by davejay at 12:19 PM on July 20, 2007

I bet the friend would have been fine with a note that said "Sally: Thanks for setting up the meeting. Everything was perfect as usual."

I'm working on the assumption that the "professional colleague" who sent the email is not a direct supervisor, or someone who often asks her to do this sort of stuff. The "Thanks for being great, as usual" does seem appropriate for a boss to send (because presumably she and a boss would be engaging in an ongoing conversation about this stuff, and her performance); the tone I get from the quoted email sounded like someone outside the division or company trying to express appreciation for the friend helping out someone to whom she does not report on a regular basis. Hence the more flowery language.

If the email did come from her boss, then I agree it would be over-the-top enough to sound condescending.
posted by occhiblu at 12:20 PM on July 20, 2007

I suspect some of this has to do with the colleague. On first reading it doesn't seem so bad, but if you read it as though it was written by someone you've had issues with, then yeah, it does seem a little condescending.

It sort of turns weird there at the end, with the itemizing of the meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Did that really need to be spelled out? Was the writer just desperate to list things that "seemed" like successes but were in fact a normal part of your friend's job? And how offended would you be if someone complimented you on your ability to do basic tasks you were hired for? Imagine being thanked for attending a meeting, and for having the foresight to bring a notepad and pencil. Wouldn't you feel as though you were being talked down to?).

Also, the writer makes no real connection between your friend's efforts and the success of the meeting. A better compliment would have been to say: "The food and facilities were wonderful, the meeting went off without a hitch, and thanks for making sure everything went smoothly". Here there's a disconnect; the writer mentions the meeting went well, but then thanks your friend for performing basic tasks. There's no mention of how those tasks affected the participants, or how it was appreciated; it's just: "We're excited about our product, and thank you for successfully putting us in a room and feeding us three meals." How flattering.

It can be read either way, I think, and if it came from someone who's normally condescending, then your friend's analysis may not be so crazy after all.
posted by stefanie at 12:20 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: How does she break the rut of feeling like everyone thinks she's stupid and treats her like she's in the Special Olympics?

Not getting defensive over a polite, professional acknowledgment would be a good start.

She read that whole note and apparently zoomed in on "made the dinner reservation," and is interpreting the entire note through that filter. However, the majority of the note is attributing the OVERALL success of the meeting to her efforts.
posted by desuetude at 12:29 PM on July 20, 2007

i would probably write a note like that if i was desperate to have a word count of more than one ("Thanks.") my perception is that the author isn't condescending, but rather thinks that more words = more thanks = better.
posted by uaudio at 12:30 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: On should-have-previewed: I'm not saying that this is well-written thank you note. It is typical, though. People are terrible at writing acknowledgments. I took the itemizing of the meals thing as a clumsy attempt to make the note warmer. But only take to heart compliments which are well-communicated is a recipe for extreme bitterness.
posted by desuetude at 12:33 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: Someone is expressing appreciation for a job well done. That's all. Your friend is spending too much time on this. She needs to stop interpreting a basic thank you note as manipulation.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:36 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: This may be a product of the fact that the hottest labour market in the country is a few hundred kilometers away but this is a sincere compliment. General, overall competence is a rare thing and it is a really really good feeling to put something in someone's hands and know you can trust them, - my entire job is making sure people don't make public mistakes.

Your friend sounds like a good employee. This is a kind note and something she should save for her salary review.
posted by Deep Dish at 12:38 PM on July 20, 2007

rtha has it, and occhiblue finishes it up nicely.

It sounds like a sincere thank-you note. That's all.

I've actually faced this issue from the other side, wanting to show appreciation for something without appearing condescending or pompous.

I've written and re-written little small thank-you emails like this dozens of times.

It can be quite hard to not sound overly-surprised that the person was actually able to pull something off successfully. :-P
posted by Ynoxas at 12:41 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: I'm with uaudio. Sometimes my thank-you notes seem weird because I want more than one sentence. Also, compliments (and criticisms) are more effective when they are specific rather than general. I think the writer was trying to give a specific compliment rather than "thanks, good meeting." and maybe he/she just wasn't very creative.

I would be mortified if one of my clumsy, quick thank-yous was posted to internet to be hyper-analyzed. This was obviously an attempt to show her appreciation, not to write the perfect compliment.
posted by parkerjackson at 12:52 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: One more thing: someone I work with is the admin for a department full of insane people (fortunately, it is not my department). She schedules and reschedules meetings and conference calls for about six different people; she does a lot of their travel arrangements; they have quarterly meetings with other people outside the company that require her to arrange travel, visa, and reimbursements for up to 40 people traveling internationally.

She makes it all look really easy, because she's good at it. I am so very grateful that her job is not my job, because I would be terrible at it and would then not have a job.

Unless your friend has a history with this colleague, and there's some subtext to the email, she should just say "You're welcome." Also, yes - writing a good thank-you note is hard.
posted by rtha at 1:14 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: The person in question is trying to be professional by thanking the organizer, that's all. Tell her not to beanplate the wording and just accept that the what the sender intended to say was, "thanks for doing this stuff so that all we had to worry about was showing up."
posted by misha at 1:26 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: Sometimes a plate of beans is just a plate of beans, and a thank you note is just a thank you note. Even if this was meant to be the most deeply-coded backhanded compliment (which it'd have to be, it looks like a normal thank you to me), there is absolutely no harm in taking it as a cheerful thank you. Tell her to politely tell the person "I'm glad you enjoyed it!" and move on.
posted by mikeh at 1:45 PM on July 20, 2007

Best answer: Context is important in any communication, and I think there's quite a bit of context missing in this one. The apparently condescending bits of this note may not be condescending at all. Perhaps the writer has been in past meetings where the organizer scheduled breakfast and dinner but completely forgot about lunch, leaving the attendees to fend for themselves. On the other hand, maybe the writer is just a jerk.

I suggest your friend take the note at face value, look for context where it is evident, and try to assume that people have only the best intentions (until they prove otherwise).
posted by jknecht at 2:20 PM on July 20, 2007

Is your friend relatively new to her job? Is she replacing someone? Possibly the previous person tasked with setting up a meeting really botched the job up. If this was the case even a simple task done correctly may seem impressive to her colleague.
posted by senador at 2:48 PM on July 20, 2007

I don't know what your friend's job is, but she may be sensitive about being seen in an admin role, if she isn't an admin. She may also feel that her other professional work was overlooked.

I think the compliment-maker was going out of their way to be specific, perhaps providing some good fodder for salary review time. They may also feel that the admin work that people do is often overlooked because women are just "supposed" to do that stuff -- so they are doing what they can to acknowledge this work. Your friend may feel that it's patronizing because your friend has been socialized to think this (traditionally women's work) is grunt work and "admin-y".
posted by acoutu at 2:53 PM on July 20, 2007

Is she hanging around with people who don't usually mean what they say? Or whose compliments are all of the underhanded variety? Because in that case, we of the Global Alliance for Preserving the Communicative Usability of Language would back you to the hilt in telling those people to knock it off before you break all their fingers.
posted by eritain at 3:59 AM on July 21, 2007

It sounds as though your friend hasn't attended enough poorly organized meetings. The meeting can seem unending if the lunch doesn't arrive until 1:30 or if the hot lunch is left there forever to make the room smell.

A two day meeting for 15 people is very expensive - salary, travel, lost work time. A well run meeting makes it a worthwhile investment. It also makes the meeting chair look very professional and prepared.

I'd assume the compliment is pure in intent.
posted by 26.2 at 3:01 PM on July 21, 2007

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