After weeks of working out schedules, my friend Diane (who told me about code switching) and I caught up last week over Skype.  (As an aside, I’m not sure we sufficiently appreciate the magic of Skype, which 20 years ago was the realm of science fiction.)  We chatted about a wide range of issues, because she is a true-hearted smartie who elevates our conversations, but something happened that got me to thinking.  I complimented her on how great her arms look, and she responded with an extended explanation of how I saw them at their best possible angle and that normally, they don’t look that good.  Because we were on magical Skype, all I had to do was give her a look and say, “Di-aaaane.  Your arms look really goo-oood,” and she responded with a bashful, “Thank you.”

Since that conversation I’ve been thinking about compliments.  Despite the ribbing, I receive compliments the way that Diane did, which is to say that I respond to compliments with deflection.  I was all ready to write today about the need to be less suspicious about compliments, and then I made the mistake of checking my OK Cupid account.  Here’s half of what was in my inbox (the other half were all variations of “Hi, how are you?” which clears the minimum benchmark of acceptability if we’re meeting in person but represents the height of lazy fishing via e-mail):

  • “You are an Incredibly lovely lady, and have a beautiful smile. :-)”
  • “send me an note back, I think its great that you explain your answers to the questions, not many do.”
  • “Hello.. You are very attractive. While I understand that you might not be interested in guys my age, I should tell you that I find you HOT. While, the word is often taken to be rude when said, I am hoping you would take this as a compliment.”

Y’all, one of my personal goals is to become less judgmental, to shed some of the jadedness and cynicism I’ve developed over the years, and to open my heart more.  These e-mails remind me why achieving any headway on these goals is taking so long.

I’ve written before that in Charlotte-land, compliments come in three categories:  genuine compliments, flattery, and condescension.  I’ve decided that the reason that compliments are so fraught and trigger such weird reactions in so many of my women friends and me is that compliments actually come in two categories:  “an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration” (which I took from the dictionary), and statements that people make in order to butter you up to get something that they want and suspect that you don’t want to give.  From now on, the former will be referred to as compliments, and the latter will be referred to as “compliments,” because “the bullshit spewed at us by the manipulators” is just too long.

This is not a self-esteem issue for me.  I am attractive and smart, and part of the reason I am still single is because I think I deserve more than the options I’ve been presented with so far.  The guy who rung up my breakfast at the airport last week blurted out, “You have an amazing smile,” and after I laughed and thanked him, I floated on that compliment for three solid days, taking it out and looking at it like found treasure.

You know why we deflect both “compliments” and compliments?  It’s because we are trained from the time we can talk to be nice and polite.  Gavin deBecker writes in his masterpiece, The Gift of Fear, that our training to be nice and polite can get us killed because it subverts our survival instincts.  But the very nature of survival instincts means that you can slow them down, but you can’t overcome them.  We know the difference between compliments and “compliments.”  We recognize when someone is trying to manipulate us into disadvantage, but then all those years of training kick in, and  the only weapon we have left is to try to neutralize the “compliment” by talking about why it’s not true.  And because we receive so many more “compliments” than compliments, deflection transforms into reflex, regardless of the motive of the positive comment.

I can’t control the behavior of other people, but I can control my reaction to that behavior, and I can control my own behavior.  I will continue to force myself to respond to compliments and “compliments” with a simple, “Thank you.”  But I’m also going to increase the compliments that I give to people because I’m never going to be able to turn the tide on the “compliments” they receive.  Maybe if I contribute to evening up the numbers, we can make a start on figuring out the nice and polite way to kick the asses of the manipulators.

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