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Alone in my office one afternoon, I unpeeled the wrapper from a square of chocolate with a deliberate curiosity not associated with office snacking. As the minty candy dissolved in my mouth, I read the words printed inside the wrapper: “Accept a compliment.” I would normally not say yes to suggestions from strangers who work in what I assume is the marketing department of Dove Chocolate, Promises Division. But they aren’t alone in their advice. “Ladies, why the heck can’t we take a compliment?” a writer asked in a January headline. The message: C’mon women. Quit being apologists. Fully accept the compliments you deserve — without any self-deprecation or changing of the subject.

Until this point, I would have responded to a compliment — say, on my hair — with half acknowledgement and half distraction. “Thanks, but [acknowledge recent struggle with hair or hairdresser]. Ha ha ha.” Doing so restored order. But while a simple “Thank you” was not my style, I decided to try it.

Walking home from work, I approached a neighbour on a ribbon of sidewalk that passes for Main Street in our Wisconsin town. I smiled and waved as we neared each other. Caren smiled and waved back and when I was within earshot, she shouted, “I like your dress!” I assumed this was an easy audition for the New and Improved Way to Accept Compliments and simply said, “Thank you.”

A short pause followed. It was so deeply still and awkward that had our entire exchange been filmed and replayed, a viewer might reasonably think the video had paused.

When we reanimated, Caren’s eyes acquired a hard look. “It’s appropriate,” she said. “I like when people dress appropriately.” “Oh. Ummm. Ugh,” I sputtered and continued my walk home, embarrassed. What had I missed by failing to add a remark about how old or inexpensive my dress was? The answer: a coded linguistic invitation. Up until that candy wrapper advice — and my social faux pas — I hadn’t given much thought to the purpose of compliments, but others certainly had. In recent years, compliments and our reactions to them have been placed under a microscope. A 2012 study by Japanese researchers suggested that compliments help people to learn and perform new skills. The same researchers equated receiving compliments with receiving cash; both light up the reward system of our brain, the striatum. A 2017 study conducted in Switzerland equated receiving compliments with sex; both excited our brain’s reward system and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which heads up social decision making.

Deflating the donor

Pop psychologists and bloggers on the topic have been eager to offer advice — often, specifically to women. — A 2004 Psychology Today article was adamant that the only proper way to accept a compliment was “graciously and with a smile” and warned the heedless female reader about the social perils of discounting a compliment in any manner typical of women. “Such answers suck the positivity out of the air and deflate the donor,” it read. In 2015, a Bustle writer offered “7 Tips for Accepting Compliments,” based on the view that “the idea of the human female as meek, humble, shy and retiring is all very well if you’re a 13th century nun, but it’s hamstringing us radically in the 21st century — and running away from compliments is a symptom.”

But even longer ago, in the 70s and 80s, the compliment was poked and prodded by sociolinguistic experts. This robust body of research is still being used today at the University of Minnesota to teach adult English as a second language students the American way of accepting compliments.

According to experts at the university’s Centre for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, two-thirds of the time, Americans respond to compliments with something other than, or in addition to, “Thank you.” We shift credit (“My mum picked this dress out for me.”), make a historical comment (“I bought it on sale.”), question the complimenter (“Hmm, you think so?”) or lob back a compliment (“I like your outfit, too.”). Other times we downgrade the compliment (“This thing is so old I was about to give it to Goodwill.”), reject it outright (“I feel like I look like a hobo.”) or treat the compliment as a request (“You want to borrow it?”).

In other words, in the United States, the compliment is a coded invitation to chitchat, and simply saying, “Thank you” linguistically slams the door in the complimenter’s face. “It’s a platitude that language opens doors,” said Andrew Cohen, a professor emeritus of second language studies at University of Minnesota and who was instrumental in developing the language acquisition research centre.

Don’t I know it. In trying out the supposed right way for a woman to accept a compliment, I learnt what such pleasant commentary really signals for Americans of all genders: connection and conversation I have since shamelessly returned to my previous ways, which is to add a little P.S. or a bit of resistance after saying “Thank you.” To do otherwise would be to miss the big point of small talk.

— New York Times News Service

Carolyn Bucior is a writer in Milwaukee.