Amy Schumer can really nail it. This comedian did a bit about compliments that went viral a couple of weeks ago. Sure, it was super funny—but spread because it hit a nerve bigger than the funny bone. The truth nerve.
It goes like this: A bunch of women meet on the street and dole out lovely compliments to one another. Rather than accept with a polite thank you — while flashing a beatific smile — those on the receiving end deflect the kind remarks by denigrating whatever was praised with a kind of “this old thing?”—but to the 100th power. They launch hyperbolic bombshells.
Yes, women do this, all the time. But why? No one can better answer this question than linguist Deborah Tannen, author of best-seller “You Don’t Understand.” VITAMIN W asked the country’s leading specialist who has written many books about the way we talk. “First of all, it’s a ritual,” she says. Young girls are more likely to trash compliments, and they do so because that’s how other girls talk. Same with overusing “like”, or using a rising intonation (upspeak). We might outgrow most of that.
Quick to note that she herself hasn’t studied the subject—which is not compliment deflection or false modesty, but academic rigor — Tannen explains it might be seen as self-aggrandizing or even boastful to accept compliments. Deflecting them is a way of ritualizing the value systems of the group. Girls are supposed to be self-effacing. They do it to fit in with the group and be liked. Research has shown other girls will not like a girl who thinks she’s better than others. Tannen says, “If boys talk as if they’re better, they can be a leader, but for girls it’s socially frowned upon.”
Other cultures also have this tradition. Tannen cites a scene in Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club”: a new boyfriend doesn’t know this ritualized way a hostess disses her own dish and assures his hostess that her food isn’t that bad and then proceeds to drown it in soy sauce. That’s a crime!
Keep in mind, this inter-girl communication won’t play well at the office. Tannen cites a key finding in her research: “If you talk in ways expected for women you’re seen as less competent, if you talk in ways expected for men, you’re seen as too aggressive.”
So the next time a friend says she likes your very old dress, just smile (not smugly) and say, “Why, thank you.”
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