When was the last time you paid a woman a compliment and she thanked you? When was the last time she thanked you without then excusing it away?
"You're adorable!" (to the gorgeous and thin pregnant woman)
"Oh gosh...thanks...but no, I'm HUGE! Look at these ankles!" (to me)
"Your son is so sweet to the other kids on the playground. Kudos to you." (to mom of a 5 year old boy who, I can guess based on society's expectations of little boys, is not used to his behavior being complimented)
"Oh, thank you. Really, he's usually a total terror." (to me)
"I love those shoes!" (another mom at preschool to me)
"Thanks. I got them at Target on clearance for a steal. They are so worn out!" (me, to her)
What's the deal with this phenomenon? And why is it disproportionately women who do this? When's the last time you complimented a man and he responded by deflecting the compliment or excusing it away?
"You look hot." (me, to husband)
"I kind of do, don't I?" (husband, to me, as he checks himself out in the mirror)
Experience tells me that if I compliment another woman, she's going to find a way out of the compliment. It's the clothes that make her look fantastic (nevermind her 5 miles a day, 4 days a week running ritual and healthy eating). She looks good in that purple scarf, but only when she uses a lot of undereye concealor so the scarf doesn't play up the bags under her eyes (nevermind there are no bags and if there are, I wasn't looking for them anyhow). Her kids are only well behaved right now because they're going to Santa later (nevermind the fact that her 5 year old son stopped to make sure my 2 year old was ok when he ran by and accidently knocked my kid down). Cute shoes (but SO uncomfortable!). Love the new haircut (but it only looks like this because her stylist did it for her). She did great on the presentation (it's just too bad that she stuttered and forgot the figures on that one part no one else noticed).
Look, we're all guilty of this to some degree. I can't remember the last time someone said something nice to me and I didn't deflect it or excuse it away. I can't remember the last time someone told me I'm awesome at something and I replied, "Thanks, I really work hard on it." I can't remember the last time I said something nice to another woman and she accepted it graciously with a "Thank you" and then shut the fuck up.
It must stem from somewhere, and if I had to guess I would point my finger at social norms girls face growing up. I know it's not born in most of us, this desire to never ever accept a compliment graciously and freely. I know because I listen to my daughter when someone compliments her. Even at 4.5 years old, she sometimes has to be reminded to thank a person for a kind word, but that's not because she's too busy coming up with ways to pish-posh their kindness. It's because she is too busy agreeing with them.
"Your hair is so pretty." (woman at the store to my daughter)
"Yeah." (my daughter to her)
"Luca, you've been so nice to your brother today." (me, to her)
"Thank you, mommy." (her, to me)
"I just LOVE your artwork. It's so creative!" (grandma, to Lu)
"Thank you. I drew the best apple in class." (her, to grandma)
How do we get back there? How do we return to a time when society and our own insecurities don't hamper our ability to say thanks and just accept the damn compliment? How do we stop ourselves from making excuses for our achievements when what we really should say is, "Yeah, I kicked some ass, huh? Thanks!"
I remember a long time ago, when Darrick and I first got serious together, he chastised me (lovingly) for this very thing. "You say 'sorry' too much," he said. "You shouldn't say sorry all the time. You say it when you mess up, but you also say it when someone else messes up and inconveniences you." And it's true. When I went into a health food store 3 days after Luca was born in search of fenugreek and the woman asked me when I was due, I didn't laugh it off. I didn't give her the evil eye for asking. I didn't even ignore it and ask her to show me the way. What I DID do is look her in the eye and apologize to her for her fuck up. "Oh, I had the baby 3 days ago. Don't worry! I hear it's normal to look pregnant for a while after giving birth!" I said. "Oh, well...yeah..." she stumbled over her words. "Sorry," I replied, "I should have told you she was a newborn and I needed fenugreek to up my milk supply."
Sorry? I should have told you? It's my fault you lack basic social graces and don't know better than to ask a woman when she is due unless she says to you, "I am currently pregnant."?!?!
And the thing is, my daughter hears and remembers everything. I know she is watching me. I know she needs me to model for her what a woman is, and I know that I don't want her to be 'sorry' girl when she gets older. I don't want her to minimize her achievements to make other people feel more comfortable. To talk badly about herself because she thinks she should. Because when you do it for long enough, you start to believe it's true yourself. I look down the line, toward her future, and it crushes me a little. She is a bright light in the world, a wonderful and funny and kind and smart-as-hell girl, and the idea of her one day excusing those parts of herself away until...well...until they GO away? It scares me. I owe her better, and I am unapologetically capable of giving it to her.
So, false modesty? I'm sending you on vacation for a month. I'm going to try something new*: not allowing myself to apologize for someone else's faux pas, not excusing away genuine compliments, and not underselling myself for the sake of modesty.
This next month is Mission: No More False Modesty for me. I invite you to join me. I'll post more as the month goes on.
*No assholery will be accepted during this time. I'm not on a mission to become an egotistical asshole.