Thursday, June 28, 2012

Values, Stereotypes, and Big Feelings: Compliment Week, Part II


I’d planned on writing about male-to-female compliments, but honestly, the more I read of these compliment studies the more fascinated I become. I’ll get to male-female compliments soon, but for now, a few findings of compliment scholarship:

1) Compliments reveal our values. A successful compliment must be about something that’s recognized by both the complimenter and the complimentee as having value. (That’s not to say that both parties have to personally value the thing being complimented—I’ve been complimented on haircuts I hated—rather that both parties have to recognize that it has value. Otherwise, the compliment isn’t complete.) The consequence here is that compliments can tell us a good deal about what we as a culture actually value. Studies have repeatedly found that the number-one topic of compliments given to American women (from both sexes) is appearance, so—surprise!—it seems we value women for their appearance. (Correspondingly, we value men for their skill.) But here’s the thing: Part of the way we assign value is observing where and how others assign value, which means that sometimes we generalize our values in order to make sure they’re recognized. Compliments are verbal gifts, and who wants to give a gift you’re not sure the recipient will value? So complimenting women on appearance is the spoken equivalent of giving them a nice lotion, a bar of chocolate, a bottle of wine: a gift that is valuable not only for what it actually gives its recipient (soft hands, a satisfied sweet tooth, a hangover), but because we all understand its function as a generic placeholder for sentiment.

2) Compliments based on positive stereotypes don’t feel so great to hear. When people give compliments to a member of a group based on positive stereotypes of that group, the recipient, understandably, is likely to be displeased. As in, if you’re white and start telling a black person how great black people are at sports, you’re not exactly doing anyone any favors. Now, appearance-based compliments aren’t usually directed toward a group; they’re directed toward an individual. Yet I still wonder about the implications of group stereotypes here. If you tell me you like my lipstick, we’re both acknowledging certain assumptions about women as a class: that women should wear lipstick, and that wearing lipstick is something to be rewarded. It’s also assuming that there’s a right way (and therefore a wrong way) to wear it, meaning that it might be possi
ble for me to fail at femininity at a later date.

3) Compliments can make us feel bad. Or...good. Women who lean toward self-objectification do so because they’ve internalized the idea that, as a woman, they are there to be looked at. Is there anything that more clearly ascertains that you’re being looked at than a compliment about how you look? In this study, women who scored high on a test measuring their tendency to self-objectify reported feeling more body shame after receiving an appearance-based compliment. But! In another study, women who had that same personality trait of self-objectification reported an elevated mood after hearing an appearance-based compliment. (In both studies, the compliments were controlled and took place within the bounds of the study; subjects weren’t reporting back on real-life experiences.) With my entirely inadequate scientific background—I fulfilled all my college science requirements with astronomy—I’m going to take a leap and say that these experiences aren’t as contradictory as they seem. While I’m unlikely to brighten my mood when I’m feeling bad about my body, the body shame brought on by self-objectification isn’t quite the same thing, at least not for me. I’m guessing it’s more about the kind of body shame brought on by a hyperawareness of one’s appearance—the same sort of hyperawareness that John Berger was writing of when he wrote in Ways of Seeing: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” Truth is, sometimes my mood is elevated when I notice
that I’m being looked at. That doesn’t mean I don’t simultaneously experience the detrimental effects of that self-consciousness.

4) When we don’t say “thank you,” it may be because we care. As sociolinguist Robert Herbert points out, we all know what the “correct” response is to a compliment. Think of the prompt parents give to their children after someone has given them an unexpected treat: “What do you say to the nice lady?” You say thank you, of course. Yet when asked how they felt upon hearing compliments, many participants in one of Herbert’s studies said they they didn’t know what to say. With the exception of women accepting compliments from men, responses along the line of “thank you” only accounted for anywhere from 10 to 29 percent of compliment responses in the study. Why, when saying “thank you” is the known proper response, do we suddenly feel like we don’t know what to say? The answer lies in the true meaning of embarrassment: We feel embarrassed because we care about the relationship we have with the person we feel embarrassed in front of. We may feel embarrassed that we didn’t say something complimentary to them first, or that we’ve done something (or worn something) that separates us from the other person status-wise, or that we’re suddenly acutely aware that the person holds us in some sort of esteem. We know full well that “thank you” would suffice, but i
t can also feel like “thank you” leaves something out.

In fact, sometimes a simple “thank you” does leave something out. When I first shared my experience of floundering in conversation when I tried to start a conversation with a woman by complimenting her shoes and was met with a simple thank you, I was putting the blame for the flatlined conversation on myself. And to be sure, I should work on my opening gambit. But the more I learn about compliments from a sociological standpoint, the more I see that she may have been a little tone-deaf as well. If “comment history”—i.e. conversation—is the most common response in woman-to-woman compliments, it’s clear that most of us understand the offering a compliment symbolizes. We may not be comfortable with it; we may refuse it, or turn it around, or question its sincerity, or permit it to alter how we see ourselves. But we understand its small humility, its request, its vulnerability, its expressed wish to grow closer. Sometimes we might even let the wish come true.

15 comments:

  1. Absolutely fascinating! I've found that I'm not a big complimenter in real life (not counting the world of internet where will women post outfit pictures and want genuine opinions). I'm not sure if it's a cultural thing (while American, I've lived the vast majority of my adult life abroad) or simply that I'm stingy. ;)

    Actually, upon reflecting I get nervous when I feel that I HAVE to compliment someone and it's unwarranted. I only really like to compliment if it's something major that really stands out to me. Because of that, it's rarely on a friend's appearance because my friends tend to look more or less the same from day to day. Rather, it would occur to me compliment more on someone's decorations in their home, how well their kids are behaved on that particular day, their cooking, or if they had a clever idea. I suppose those things do reflect more where I place my values, which is ironic being that I blog about fashion. :)

    Going back to your other post. I rarely say "thank you" after a compliment. Not because I don't accept it but more because I like girl talk and am happy to elaborate where I got something, or talk about that item. I guess I tend to see compliments more as a doorway to further conversation. So if I did compliment a friend about her cooking, I might want be asking for the recipe shortly afterwards!

    In the case of a male, it would be pretty similar with the exception of if they complimented me on my clothes/appearance. Then I normally feel pretty awkward more so because my typical response would be to talk about where I got my clothes and most guys I know wouldn't be interested in that (well, with a few exceptions). Whereas a compliment on my cooking, kid etc could lead to further conversation.

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    1. >Rather, it would occur to me compliment more on someone's decorations in their home, how well their kids are behaved on that particular day, their cooking, or if they had a clever idea.<

      That's interesting—I can't think of any time I've complimented someone's interior decorating, because it's just not something I notice or pay attention to. (I don't have an eye for it myself and don't really have anything decorative in my home.) I suppose the things we *don't* compliment reveal just as much about our values too.

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  2. When feminism reared its lovely head i rethought compliments on several levels because i rarely offered them & over-responded when given one. So i learned to just say, "Thank you", which is all i often wanted to say anyway. The point in learning this was that i didn't have to compliment back, negate the flattery or add effusively to the conversation, as i always did.

    As i aged, it (finally) dawned on me that many use these kudos as conversation openers. Duh. At that point, i decided i wanted to join the game with a focus on attributes, not consumer goods. (I was still feminist, afterall!) So, at last i learned to compliment by commenting upon observed details--how calm they seem, how lively their conversation was, what delightful stories they tell. And when photos of children were offered, the children weren't declared cute or pretty but "look like they are a handful or curious" or attributes such as lively eyes were mentioned, so that the parent could elaborate on the personality of the child.

    And on. Now, in my dotage, i OVER-COMPLIMENT! Yikes. My husband often looks at me in dismay when i compliment someone's fingernail polish because i abhor nail polish & am sure it's the first sign of personal degradation. Ok, not quite, but he's surprised i bother. Why do i?

    So, these observations on compliments have me reevaluating what i want to say. Most of the time, to be honest, i probably just want to acknowledge, "Hey, look at us! We're sharing the same planet today." Maybe i should try opening that salvo & watch the reaction.

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    1. I'm guessing you now "over-compliment" because you're enjoying the reaction? I think for introverts (yes, MOM, I can spot your anonymous comments from miles away) conversational starters like this that we can all turn to and recognize hold a lot of value. Hey, it's better than becoming a smoker because of the automatic social factor!

      And that's great about sort of steering compliments so that you learn more about what you're interested in learning more about—like getting parents to elaborate on their kids' personality. I hadn't thought of it in that way and should try it myself—complimenting what I really want to know more about, not just the clearest thing at hand.

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    2. Curses! I thought my name would fool you! That's what i get for having a wise daughter. (Compliment or Overcompliment or, worse, Roundabout Self Compliment?)

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  3. I suck at receiving compliments. It's like they exploit a blank spot in my programming.

    If a compliment is about something I had no control over--like my accent, my height, how "skinny" I am, etc--I end up saying something like "Oh, yeah. I wish I could take more credit for it, but it just sort of HAPPENED."

    If a compliment is about something that I've put work into--like my manicure, something I've written, my grand plie--then I'll usually come out with "Yeah, I worked really hard at it!" or the dreaded "I know."

    "I know" is considered rude, but...I DO know! It's hard for me to fake modesty, especially when I've put lots of work into something. Like "Oh no, I'm nothing special, YOU ARE SO MUCH BETTER" seems totally disingenuous to me, yet that's kind of the way the conversation is expected to go.

    Girl world is weird.

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    1. Alle, I don't think "I know" is "wrong"—I think there's a difference between saying it with a snotty "why are you even BOTHERING??" tone and an enthusiastic "Hey, I like it too!" tone (and I'm assuming you're approaching it with something closer to the latter). Whatever the case, yes, the "YOU ARE SO MUCH BETTER" thing is indeed disingenuous. I actually specifically try *not* to compliment back at that moment unless it really just flows from me (which it often does) because I don't want it to seem like I"m only saying it because they said something first. That's my intent but I'm certain sometimes it has seemed stingy. Hmmm.

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  4. Wow, this is very compelling. I'm glad that others have noted that people generally don't feel good when someone uses a stereotype to compliment them. It's still very hard to explain to people sometimes how that's wrong because racism/sexism/etc., and it might be easier, in the meantime, to tell them that they're not going the person any favors.

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    1. Yeah, I found that angle of study interesting too. I'm a good baker (was a pastry chef for a while) and for a party I made a delicious cake; one guy came up and made some joke about how we should get married so I could bake cakes for him all day. I know he was kidding, but he was relying on this stupid stereotype and we barely knew one another, and it was just awkward instead of nice-making. Ugh!

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  5. I've been following your compliment week and nodding my head in agreement but this weekend I caught myself IN ACTION! At a party I found myself easily jumping into conversations with male friends I only casually knew but with the women I couldn't do it. I noticed I was complimenting their outfits and appearance as a way to 'break the ice' in hopes of having the small talk develop into a conversation where I could get to know them better. Those attempts were unsuccessful, I should add, so maybe the pressure I was subconsciously putting on myself backfired.

    I probably wouldn't have even realized I was doing it had I not read all of your posts last week so thank you. Perhaps I'll make an effort to be more cognizant of the compliment loop and just jump right on in. Ice breakers, my ass!

    Great week, Autumn!

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    1. Awesome! I've definitely taken notice of myself doing this in the past couple of weeks. Interesting to notice the patterns, isn't it? So from here, the question is: What better ice-breakers can we employ? It can be hard to just jump in even with small talk, like "Where are you from?" I was at an engagement party this weekend and found "So how do you know [the couple]?" useful, but that was a built-in starter. Maybe just having an arsenal of these ready will be helpful to us in the future.

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