We in the journalism business learn to grow thick skin. We have to. We unfortunately assume that any piece we publish, whether about a local court case or simply on how we raise our children, will receive some sort of dissent from a few members of the general public. People just enjoy arguing, I suppose, and sometimes the messenger does get shot (hopefully not ever literally).
So you can imagine our surprise when we receive compliments. They come few and far between, often buried by the complaints, and they catch us off guard.
Monday a nice woman walked by my desk, escorted through the building by the our writer Bob Billingsley, and she made a point to stop by my desk to tell me how much she enjoyed my writing. At first I thought she was joking, so I looked up assuming to see a smart aleck smirk on the face of someone I knew personally. But my eyes were met by the face of a stranger, who genuinely wanted to take five seconds to tell me she appreciated what I do. I was dumbfounded.
I uttered a quick and befuddled, “Why thank you!” I’m sure I looked moronic, but she smiled anyway.
After she left, I wondered if I handled that the right way. Was I humble enough? Should I have deflected the compliment with a, “Nah, there are much better writers here,” or “Really? I don’t know…” It almost felt like saying thank you meant I agree that I write well or that I’m acknowledging that I know I’m entertaining. That seemed pompous to me.
“Sociolinguists place compliment responses into three main categories: accept, deflect and reject. These categories represent a spectrum, and most people aren’t uncomfortable at either extreme; outright denial seems rude but full acceptance feels conceited,” stated Artofmanliness.com’s “How to Accept a Compliment With Class.”
According to the article, we dismiss compliments 10 ways:
• Ignore. “The recipient ignores the compliment, either because he didn’t hear it, or because he doesn’t recognize that he’s being complimented.”
• Denial. “The recipient denies the compliment outright.”
• Arguing. “The recipient of the compliment argues against his deserving the given praise.”
• Self-insult. “The receiver downplays the praise by offering self-deprecating remarks.”
• Questioning. “The receiver questions the giver’s judgment, taste, etc. in offering the compliment.”
• Narrowing. “The receiver whittles down a broader compliment into a smaller one.”
• Boomerang. “In response to a compliment, the receiver fires one back.”
• Reassurance. “The receiver has trouble accepting the compliment and seeks confirmation.”
• De-value. “The recipient suggests that the thing being complimented isn’t as great as the complimenter is suggesting.”
• Credit transfer. The recipient transfers the praise to others.
It seemed as though my initial thought process was one of denial. While I said, “Why thank you,” what I was thinking was, “Yeah right; you should see the comments on our Website.”
Why do we deflect compliments in the first place? According to the article, the following reasons apply:
• The fear of being seen as conceited
• The need to restore balance
• The desire to avoid “indebtedness”
• Having low self-esteem
• Inability to be assertive
• Suspicion of motives
• Desire to look even better.
I believe the first reason applied to my situation. Luckily, my own poisonous thoughts didn’t keep me from replying the right way. I prevented insulting the giver of the compliment and making her uncomfortable by accepting it graciously and simply. I didn’t overthink it before responding, and I didn’t make the mistake of belittling what was actually a pretty big deal to me out of insecurity.
On her way out of her meeting with Bob a bit later, the kind stranger stopped by my desk again, repeating her gesture. This time I said humbly and grateful, “Thank you very much; I appreciate it.”
Then I went back to my work, where my job seemed a little easier to do the rest of the day.
Patrick Ibarra is the managing editor of the Mountain Democrat.