The Art of Flattery

Confessions of a Socially Awkward Grad Student

If there is anything I fail miserably at doing, it is receiving compliments gracefully. Compliments make me nervous. Effuse praise makes me positively wish to flee. I feel as if I am thrust up on stage and I don’t know my lines. The audience is waiting and all I can do is draw a blank.

I used to try the whole deflection routine. You know, the one where you tell the flatterer that they’re totally wrong.
FRIEND: Your hair is lovely today!
ME: Ugh, no. I had to scream at it for hours this morning to make it stay.
FRIEND: Well…it looks very nice.
ME: No it doesn’t. I hate my hair.
And therefore, Friend has poor taste. Way to reward a compliment with an insult.

So I discover that tactic is not modesty so much as rudeness. Advice columns suggest instead just saying “Thank you” warmly. I try that, but the “Thank you” inevitably precedes a big, empty space in the conversation. A pregnant pause where it feels like the other person is always waiting for something and I always struggle to close the gap.
FRIEND: You did an awesome job on that article!
ME: [smile warmly] Thank you!
…pause
ME: [grinning wider to stave off nerves] So…how about this crazy weather we’re having?
Ugh. Awkwardness galore. Plus I just feel immodest. I try to send a grateful smile, and feel I just come off looking smug.

Then I get to thinking: what if I follow up the compliment with another compliment?
FRIEND: Hey, cute dress!
ME: Aww, thank you! That’s very kind of you to say (Bing! Compliment 1!). I really like your shoes (Bing! Compliment 2!)
FRIEND: Oh really? Thank you, I… (And SCORE! Attention effectively diverted and friend feels good.)
Fantastic plan, right? Except sometimes I am caught off guard and don’t have a genuine compliment handy. Not because I don’t like the person, but just because all I can think to offer as a compliment would be something stupid to say in that moment. Like when they’ve complimented your new coat and you look at them to compliment an article of their clothing and they’re wearing the same outfit they’ve worn once a week for the past year. So what do you say? “I like your…eyes”? “Oh that sweater always looks good on you”? If you’re lucky they take the compliment, but to my ears it sounds trite and disingenuous. Even if I genuinely mean it, it comes off sounding like I only said it because they complimented me.

Thus my only option left is to compliment first. So what is it now? A war of the compliments, where you hope to pre-emptively compliment and hope your companion doesn’t have second-strike capabilities? First one to strike wins?

I have only met a couple of people in my life who roll off geniune compliments so easily, I feel completely comfortable in their presence. There is no pregnant pause, no awkward silences because they’re not waiting for a response. They’re not waiting to be complimented in return, or congratulated for their own kind words. And I find it so easy to compliment them because there are no expectations. They say thank you warmly and the conversation moves on effortlessly. And I can give a sigh of blessed relief. All relationships should be so easy.

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