Take it like a lady: hard work and compliments

What do you say when somebody tells you something nice about yourself?

“Thank you,” can work nicely, except in the case of compliments women give each other on their outfits. Most women I know have the miraculous ability to remember where they bought each garment they own and how much it cost:

“I love your sweater!”

“Thanks! I got it on sale at Bloomingdale’s for $29.”

I recently watched my friend Neil in an improv show. I knew he was a performer but I hadn’t seen him onstage. After a sharp and funny set with a Philadelphia crew called American Express, I told him how good he’d been onstage and his answer wasn’t what I expected.

“Well, I’ve been training for a long time,” he said.

Neil’s improv troupe is Bad Kitten.  Image by Dan Reed and Lindsay Docherty Photography.

As he waved goodbye, I mulled the feeling that I had said something I intended as a personal compliment, and he had apparently heard a possibly superfluous statement of fact that had nothing to do with my opinion. To be honest, in the moment, that was oddly deflating, because it wasn’t how I would have responded. Which gets me wondering about the nitty-gritty of compliments: what if they’re as much about the personal boost of receiving someone’s thanks as they are about being nice to others? When you compliment someone, is there an unconscious or tacit satisfaction in being an arbiter of their looks, taste, or talent? Do men and women tend to respond to compliments in different ways? Thinking about this is making me a tad uncomfortable.

But you know what? Own it, Neil.

Hard work is “weird”

What he said reminds me of a recent essay by Mindy Kaling, “Mindy Kaling’s Guide to Killer Confidence,” excerpted from her latest book, Why Not Me?

“Hard work is such a weird thing,” she writes. “As children and teenagers you are told it’s a really good thing, but for adults it suddenly becomes the worst thing in the world.”

Kaling reflects on the phenomenon of demonizing “entitlement” itself, when entitlement is simply “confidence” — the notion that you deserve something. And people who have worked hard to accomplish their goals should feel entitled to the benefits of their success.

So Neil has every right to say, in effect, yeah, of course I’m good. I’ve worked hard at it. In his case, that means making the audience howl by crying onstage because he’s too short to ride an imaginary roller coaster. Even something that looks as fun and spontaneous as improv comedy takes hours and hours of dedicated practice for the building blocks of the art form.

Two compliments

It makes me think of how I answer when other people give me compliments. In general, I get two types.

Most are about my hair. Because there’s no other way to say this: I have great hair (at least by a certain standard of beauty that is, unfortunately, dominant in too many parts of the world): naturally thick, shiny, wavy, and golden. Literally all I do is get a haircut every year or two, and shampoo and condition about twice a week and brush it before I leave the house.

So when people tell me that my hair looks beautiful, I feel odd about it. If I had gone to a salon and chosen the color, or spent time styling it, maybe I’d enjoy the affirmation of my good taste. But I find myself lamely saying things like, “Thanks, but I didn’t do anything to it. It’s just my hair.”

I can’t take credit for my hair.

The other compliments are about things I’ve written. (Not that everyone loves the things I write; clearly, some people hate my stuff or at least are indifferent to it, which is fine.) But here, too, despite the fact that I’ve published what probably, at this point, amounts to over 2,000 articles since I started in this biz, I have the urge to downplay how hard I’ve worked.

“Thanks for reading. I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” I often say.

What if I handled this Neil-style?

“I loved your article!”

“Well, I’ve been writing for a long time.”

Because dammit, I have.

“A little bit brave”

Neil oozed matter-of-fact confidence in the skills he’s earned. I often verbalize an eye-of-the-beholder response that shifts the focus away from my skills. So glad you thought my article was good!

I was talking to one of my doctors recently a couple months after surgeries I had earlier this year. She was praising my physical condition, given the extent of my injury and the procedures.

“My physical therapists are really good,” I said.

“But you have done the work,” my doctor persisted.

She’s right — while many of my friends have been training for 10k’s and half-marathons and improv shows and childbirth and grad school, I’ve been reclaiming the ability to climb stairs and tie my own shoes, one leg-lift at a time.

Why did I automatically resist taking credit for that, even to my doctor? Is it ok for me to own the fact that I am a total badass who’s been sweating her way through PT for five months and who can now ride the subway without a hip brace?

“The scary thing I have noticed is that some people really feel uncomfortable around women who don’t hate themselves. So that’s why you need to be a little bit brave,” Kaling says.

The great paradox about messages of “confidence” for women, she continues, is that constantly reminding girls to have confidence is to assume “that women, particularly young women, will have very little of it, and girls will have zero of it.”

Boys don’t get the same messages, because we assume their confidence is innate. “I get worried that telling girls how difficult it is to be confident implies a tacit expectation that girls won’t be able to do it.”

Kaling alludes to the marketing fads that co-opt messages of empowerment to girls in the effort to sell them fragrant bath goop. I’m interested in the way an explosion of confidence messaging to girls and women still coincides with a cultural distrust of ladies who, as Kaling puts it, “don’t hate themselves.”

Hands off

As a woman, I find I often have to reach pretty deep in unexpected and perhaps even unconscious ways to combat confidence-busting actions and messages every day. Like the editor who hired me and then constantly told me my work was boring and amateurish, and touched me so often in the office that I learned to keep a desk between us at all times.

The show Neil recently performed in, with the Philly Improv Theater, had a diversity theme, showcasing often-marginalized folks like LGBTQ individuals and people of color. The entire room was a raucously supportive crew. But when the emcee announced an impromptu all-female “lady jam” improv set, a man in the audience hollered, “Can we film it?”

“Come on, guys. Tonight?” the host asked, momentarily exasperated that someone had reverted to sexually objectifying the women performers when the point was to celebrate everyone on equal footing. A small moment, gracefully handled. But when similar comments ring out around you over and over again, for life, it can be a scary thing to build your own self up in the eyes of others.

Is that why, unless I feel very comfortable with the other person, I often respond to compliments about my work not as if I’m entitled to them, in the Mindy Kaling sense, but as if it was a pleasant surprise that the other person liked my work?

Overthinking again, honey?

There has to be a healthy medium between blurting out the truth, which is that I’ve published too many articles to know which one you’re referring to, and downplaying my own hard-won skills in favor of acting like a reader’s positive response was a happy accident.

Because if something that looks as loose and fun as improv takes years of training, we’d better be able to own that effort when someone takes notice — especially when, as in my case, my ability to write is my livelihood. Why should I let anyone believe my skills were easily acquired, or that their value lies purely in others’ perceptions?

Maybe you want to tell me I’m overthinking this or getting a little too vehement (other charges women perennially face, as if we have fewer rights than men do to ponder something at length, and have strong feelings about it). Maybe you’re right. But I want to stand up to the world in light of my own hard work.

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6 Comments

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  1. Well…. you are a great writer.

  2. Awesome post. And nice hair. And extra nice hips. I get happy when I see another A.M. blog post in my inbox.

  3. What a terrific piece. And you CAN take credit for your hair. Which is, in fact, gorgeous. Why the hell not? It’s yours, isn’t it? I usually say “Thanks” when somebody hands me a compliment, which, unfortunately, makes some people think I’m smug and arrogant. Because females aren’t supposed to do that. We’re supposed to deflect the compliment and get all self-deprecating. However, fuck that.

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