January 7, 2007

The other day someone introduced me as "world class". I don't know what that means. I suppose someone somewhere along the way decided "first class" wasn't good enough. But unless "strange-odour detector" follows "world class", the description doesn't apply to me. My response was: "No, I'm not." Suddenly, everyone's expression changed. I could tell they were revising their decision to talk to me. That's because in New York the inability to take a compliment is a sign of weakness. People believe that if you put yourself down, there must be a good reason. And they take it personally if you don't accept their compliment.

A friend says her failure to take a compliment is something she's working on in therapy. So whereas in Britain dismissing a compliment is modesty, or charming self-deprecation, in America it's a syndrome.

Compliments are tricky. The first time someone in London told me I wwas "brilliant", I was flattered. Until I heard her use the same word to describe a roast chicken.
Then there are the back-handed compliments. For instance: "That's an interesting dress. Did you make it?"

There are also the compliments that leave you wondering how to respond. Women experience this when someone says: "You look thin." I'm never sure whether to say thank you. Thinner than what? Than the last time you saw me, when I looked fat? Telling a woman she looks thin can be annoying. Like telling a crack whore she looks tired.

She knows. My friend Liz, who is heavy, hates it when she's trying something on in a store and the saleswoman tells her: "That looks flattering on you." She knows what she's really saying is: "That's our last size 14: grab it."

I used to be sensitive to criticism about my work, but working in the UK I've had to adapt to a low-level praise threshold. In the beginning I'd fish, but that didn't come across well. The more I asked, "Do you think it's good?" the more "constructive" criticism I got. Now if someone says "well done" I'm doing cartwheels. So maybe that's the trick. The fewer compliments you give, the more they matter.

That doesn't necessarily apply in relationships, though. I dated someone who was very affirming and generous but then I discovered it wasn't just with me. I told him it didn't mean anything when he called me "cutie" if everyone else was cutie as well. Complimenting a woman is never easy, but here's one for men to avoid: "You have a great vocabulary." Another one that doesn't work is when a man tells me I'm the smartest woman he's ever met. If I'm the smartest, the others must be pretty dumb.

Luckily, it doesn't happen often. In the same category would be when someone says to a single woman: "You're such a catch, how is it that you're not taken?" It never makes us feel better about ourselves. All it does is remind us the world is filled with people who think we're special. Who we're not with. From now on, if someone asks how it is that I'm not married, I'm going to reply: "I don't know. Maybe because I'm unlovable."

But the worst compliment of all has to be: "You're not as neurotic as I thought you would be." I get that one a lot. It's one compliment that I can accept.