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).
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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.