By lawblogger • November 06, 2007•Other Issues
I’ve noticed that I really can’t. Professionally, I seem to demean myself a lot by refusing to accept compliments and by trying to make other people feel more comfortable around me by pretending that I’m not really that good at anything. It's not that I don't think I'm good at anything, it's more that 1) don't want to be seen as a braggart or as someone with a huge ego and 2) my socialized impulse always seems to be brushing off compliments rather than accepting them. I notice that a lot of other women behave similarly, either reflecting a compliment back at the giver ("No, you did such a great job!") or by completely deflecting it ("It wasn't anything special.") or by countering the compliment with a self-effacing comment ("Well, you should see how awful I am at X.") I don't notice men doing any of the above when given a compliment.
I can't say for certain how this anti-compliment trend developed for me, but I have a few guesses. First, I think as women we are given a message (subliminally, subconsciously, indirectly, and even directly) that you don't want to set yourself apart and rock the boat. See, I used to be one of the girls in school to whom people turned when they needed to copy off of someone during a spelling test or when they needed someone to confirm their problem set answers. Socially, it was a bit of a hassle. The “smart girl” thing was great when report cards came around, but it didn’t exactly make me the coolest girl in school. I’m curious if other people also went to schools where it wasn’t cool to be smart. In any case, that's something for another rant. By the time college rolled around--and it wasn’t a huge social disaster to be smart--I had already adopted a “you’re smart, I’m smart, we’re all smart” attitude, which basically involved playing myself down and other people up. “Oh, you got a C on that test? It was super hard!” (while I covertly cover up my A+). Part of this equalizing behavior has always included brushing off compliments.
Second, I think (some) women are uncomfortable stepping into their potential. There are those women who are naked in their ambition, who we berate for "Queen Bee Syndrome" and resent for not being teamplayers, and then there are the teamplayers. Some of the teamplayers, i've become convinced, consider it part of being on the team to maintain ordinary. Too used to being beaten back into our places, a lot of women are hesitant, in my opinion, to step into the spotlight (perhaps because of the brutal treatment the Queen Bees are given).
Regardless of the reason, what is the cost of deflecting compliments? First, I think we look less confident in ourselves and in our abilities when we can't just say "thanks" to acknowledgment of a job well done. Second, I think we might actually trick people into thinking that we aren't as great as they thought we were by responding with anything other than enthusiasm to a compliment. i always assume that if I've received a compliment, the way I respond doesn't change the sentiment behind the compliment, but I think my assumption has been short-sighted. Have you ever met the person who thought s/he was GREAT even if s/he was actually pretty mediocre in your opinion? Chances are, at least from what I've seen, a lot of people will be taken in by that person's projected confidence in him/herself. That person may have an unwarranted reputation for brilliance that helps his or her career. On the flipside, I've also known the quiet, unassuming types who don't get nearly the credit they deserve. There is something to be said for tooting your own horn or for not cutting the toot off mid-trill when someone else toots your horn for you.
Ladies, I think we have to learn how to say "Thanks" when people give us well-deserved praise.