Have you ever made a man angry by accepting a compliment with confidence instead of demure, shy embarrassment or shock?
Yeah, this really is a thing. You can read about it in this fascinating BuzzFeed article, which goes into plenty of examples of various men getting pissed off when a woman says “thanks” or “I agree” instead of “oh my god, you’ve changed my life” after a simple compliment. You can probably come up with examples of your own.
For me personally, when people say I’m really smart, I say, “Yes I am,” because I’ve known that since I was 5. It’s not the most interesting thing about me, and it’s certainly not the number one thing I care about. People’s reactions when I say “Yes I am” tend to fall in one of two camps:
(1) They’re cool with it because they don’t take it personally that I’m smart, perhaps smarter than them. They see the real me and like me.
(2) They get hostile or have a need to prove their own intelligence, which means they both resent my intelligence and don’t actually know me, because I’m not a person who holds my IQ over anyone’s head. No one has to prove they can match wits with me. I wouldn’t even mention intelligence except that it fits this blog post.
But the real point is… you can learn a whole lot about how other people see themselves and the world by how they react when you respond to something they say.
It’s All About Power
We live in a culture where so much is about power, in so many ways. It’s an insidious problem not just because it’s so entrenched in everything we do, but because it can’t be eradicated until we learn to see power differently than the entrenched cultural norms teach us to do.
You see, there are essentially two ways to seek out power for yourself:
- You can seek it outside of yourself.
- You can find it within yourself.
Let me tell you from experience as a person who used to care a lot about what other people thought about me, and had to learn to let go of defining my self-worth in terms of what others think: It is an exhausting and futile way to be in this world if all you do is let other people determine how much agency and self-respect you have.
Your sense of being grounded and unmovable by the fickleness of day-to-day living has to come from a sense of having your own roots growing into the ground. Just like a tree, seriously. The tree’s roots come from itself so it can ground itself and create stability for itself. It doesn’t get roots from other trees, though some trees can gather together and strengthen each other, like palms do. Their roots grow together and create new trees. But the fact remains, each palm tree has its own roots too. You’ve got to build your own roots. Otherwise, you’ll be pushed around by every wind that blows up around you, and you’ll constantly feel unsettled and miserable.
How Power Struggles Screw Up Our Interactions
Where you seek power (from outside or from within) is a key issue in so many power abuses and wrong-headed social interactions that plague our society. Imagine this:
You don’t feel powerful. You believe — because it’s how you have been taught, it’s what you learned on the playground — that your power, prestige, self-respect, confidence all depend on whether others approve of you and interact with you in ways that confirm your power. In this scenario, literally everyone else has some say in how much power you have. People more powerful than you can make or break you by accepting you or rejecting you. People less powerful can bow to your power, confirming your power. Or they can resist, shaming you and forcing you to shame them worse to restore your power.
This explains bullying, mean girls, narcissistic personality disorder, abusive behavior, road rage and so much more, doesn’t it? Even at a young age, kids are doing this to each other on the playground. The boy who is considered the leader can bring another boy into the crowd, giving him social acceptance, or he can declare the other boy the subject of ridicule, and suddenly the other boy is a reject. Other kids follow suit because they don’t want to be outcast too. Girls do this too. Boys do it to boys, and they do it to girls. Girls do it to girls, and they do it to boys. It infuses everything we do as we grow up unless we break the cycle.
What an exhausting way to live. But so many people live that way, because they haven’t learned another way.
So Break the Cycle, for Crying Out Loud
The other option for finding your sense of power is to realize that you exist in this world with a degree of self-agency or strength that comes from within, regardless of what happens outside you. At the least, you get to choose how you will react to what happens. And that means a lot, much more than many people realize.
Consider the a**hole who flips you off as he drives past you, shouting at you even though you haven’t done anything except to not meet his expectations, whatever they are. That guy can ruin your day if you choose to let it. Or you can choose to recognize that his problem is his problem…that he was angry long before he passed you on the road and he’ll be angry long afterwards, and you were simply a convenient target for him to justify continuing to be angry instead of dealing with his anger like a grownup.
In fact, this is essentially what is happening when a women gets a compliment, says thank you (which is polite, yes?), and is then judged or attacked for saying thank you. It’s like a drive-by road rage incident, and had nothing to do with her. Some women understand this, and they just keep trucking along happily, which is the right response. (Though it is definitely tiring to have it happen to you day in and day out.)
When a Compliment Is Not Actually a Compliment
When you see a man giving a woman a compliment and then taking it back because she agrees with what is being said, it was never actually a compliment to begin with, was it? It was never meant as a genuine expression of admiration and appreciation and respect. Instead, the comment was born out of anger, resentment, jealousy… It was born out of a feeling of powerlessness that the guy is trying to resolve by asking someone to feel more powerless in his presence and to acknowledge that he has more power, even if only a little bit. When that script doesn’t get followed, the rage comes to the surface instead of bubbling below it, because he feels it is being confirmed that he doesn’t have power.
And because the rage comes to the surface and gets expressed, it feels like what it is — a form of abusiveness. Because when you give a compliment to someone only to get a specific reaction from them that meets your needs, not theirs, you’re acting in a way that is clouded by your own distortions of life. You’re thinking about you, not the other person. You want to receive something, and you feel like you have to manipulate someone else to get it. That’s abusive. It’s passive aggressive. People don’t like this, for obvious reasons.
The solution is pretty simple, really. And it applies to both men and women, and to more scenarios than just this issue of accepting and giving compliments:
Learn how to find your sense of power, confidence, strength and respect from within yourself, and how you see yourself, not in how other people see you, speak to you or react to you. You don’t have to wait on anyone else to confirm or deny you are worth something. You you don’t have to agree with them when they tell you that you aren’t worth anything. And you can learn to deal with frustrations without hurting other people.
Oh, I know, I know… I could go on about toxic masculinity, or the patriarchy. I could explain that it’s #notallmen, though it’s certainly a #lotofmen, more than it should be. I could talk about how this problem hurts men as well as women. I could talk about all kinds of things. But ultimately, changes like this have to happen inside each person as they make the decision to stop giving their power over to the reactions and responses of others.
Now imagine this: You say to someone, “Hey I like this thing about you.” And they say, “Yeah, so do I.” And so you say, “Awesome! We have something in common. Let’s keep talking.”
Not a bad alternative, to say the least.
PS. If you like talking or thinking about stuff like this, go listen to Collective Snark’s podcast episode on How to Talk to Girls, and Guys, and Anyone in Between. It’s good stuff.