I don’t know how to accept compliments graciously

by Ask a Manager on July 30, 2012

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A reader writes:

I recently (less than a year ago) began a new job, working as an in-house graphic designer for a wonderful company, and everything so far has been going really well. A bit too well, considering the problem I am asking you about.

I am horrible at receiving compliments. I stammer, I blush, I deprecate my own work, anything you can think of to avoid actually accepting the compliment of me or my work. Now, I realize this seems like I have awful self-esteem, but I don’t. I know my work is awesome. I am a great designer and my work so far has reflected that. But the second someone mentions that to me, it is back to the blushing. I know I should just say “thank you” and move on, I just never seem to be able to manage it.

But that isn’t the real problem. See, I know what I should be doing is someone compliments me in person; see above re: “thank you,” even if I am rarely able to accomplish it. What I don’t know is what to do when someone compliments me via email. Do I acknowledge the compliments? Do I say thank-you? Do I need to compliment them in return? (This is difficult as often I am getting compliments from people on other teams whose work I know very little about.) I am especially stymied when the compliment comes at the end of an email conversation, when I have nothing left to say to them that isn’t about the compliment.

I realize I am probably over-thinking this, but I want to know how to to handle email compliments graciously.

I suspect your problem is less that you don’t know what to say, and more that you don’t really believe it’s that simple.

In email or in person, the answer is the same: You just say “thank you,” and leave it at that.

You don’t need to compliment the person in return, although you can if it’s sincere (but don’t try to come up with something just for the sake of coming up with something).

Here’s an example of how this might go down in an email:

Them: I’m about to send this file to the printer. By the way, great job on the cover — I love your final version.

You: Thanks!

That’s it. You can mix it up with “thanks so much,” “that’s great to hear,” etc. — but basically, “thanks” or some version of it.

And it might help you to think about how other people react when you compliment their work — if you think back on it, they probably just say “thanks,” the conversation moves on or ends, and you don’t feel at all weird about it. It’s normal!

But most importantly, stop with the self-deprecating!  People are complimenting you because they sincerely mean it, and you will make them uncomfortable if you appear to feel weird about what they said. In fact, if nothing else works, think of a simple “thanks” as the only polite response, and think of that whole self-deprecatory “I’m not that great” routine as being kind of rude to them. After all, they are offering you something kind, and you shouldn’t throw it back at them unaccepted.

{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

EngineerGirl July 30, 2012 at 1:18 am

I started smiling when I read this one – I have had the same problem. In fact, I remember making a pact with a room mate. We each had to say “thank you” and ONLY “thank you” when the other offered a compliment.

One problem people have is that thy think that they owe the other person a compliment when they receive one. Please don’t do this. If you aren’t willing to give a compliment unless someone is giving you one, then it isn’t much of a compliment, is it? A true compliment is a gift, freely given, with no strings attached. It is something you believe in, or you woudn’t be saying it.

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Kelly O July 30, 2012 at 10:15 am

Definitely this – it’s something I have to remind myself to do too.

I always feel like I could have done something better, and want to explain too much. So I make myself just say “thank you” and move on.

(I also have issues with saying “I’m sorry” all the time. My husband gets irritated with me because it just comes out of my mouth before I realize it. I have to be very conscious of not apologizing too much, for much the same reason. Not sure if the OP has that problem too but I just wanted to let him/her know they’re not alone if that’s the case too. Seems to go together, but it’s something I have to be really hyper-conscious of.)

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K. July 30, 2012 at 11:19 am

My old department was FULL of chronic apologizers. I’d sit in meetings and be agog that nearly every statement was prefaced with “Sorry.” I’ve noticed this more with women – this particular department was mostly women, and the men in it very rarely prefaced their statements with an apology. If they apologized, it was for something that warranted an apology, like moving up a deadline by two weeks.

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Jamie July 30, 2012 at 11:26 am

I would have the tendency to apologize when I was sorry for the inconvenience, even when the cause of that had nothing to do with me.

My first boss took me aside early on and told me to stop it. He said if I screw up and it’s my fault, apologize once and no more. If it’s not my fault never utter the words “I’m sorry.”

I have also seen this as an issue for women more than men, and as a woman in a traditionally male position in an industry where less than 5% of management is female he knew I was shooting myself in the foot with every off-hand ‘sorry.’

For all the ways that man helped shape my career, this may have been the most important. I still have to bite my tongue sometimes, but I did stop and it did change the way people responded to me.

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Laura L July 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm

I also tend to say I’m sorry as an expression of sympathy towards someone.

However, enough people have responded with “it’s not your fault, why are you apologizing?” that I just say “that sucks” rather than saying, “I know it’s not my fault, I’m expressing sympathy, don’t you understand how sympathy works???”

(Yes, it annoys me when people tell me something isn’t my fault when I’m just expressing sympathy.)

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Jamie July 30, 2012 at 5:33 pm

“(Yes, it annoys me when people tell me something isn’t my fault when I’m just expressing sympathy.)”

THIS! I’m sorry you had to work Saturday and missed your kid’s game. I’m sorry you have a migraine and have to go to this meeting. I’m really sorry your mom is sick.

Totally different than: I’m sorry I screwed up and now we have to work Saturday. I’m sorry I backed into your car and dented the fender. I’m sorry I’ve been such a b*tch lately.

‘I’m sorry you…’ is totally different than ‘I’m sorry I…’ The first is as Laura said, an expression of sympathy. The second is mea culpea.

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Kelly O July 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Good lord I’m so glad I have you people here in comments, because I feel exactly the same way about this.

When I say “I’m so sorry about your Dad” that does not mean I am taking personal responsibility for his illness. It just means I understand where you are and my heart goes out to you. It feels more sincere to me than saying “You have my sympathies regarding your Dad’s illness.”

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Laura L July 30, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Sometimes when people tell me something isn’t my fault when I’m expressing sympathy, I’ll say something like “well, I’m not sorry then” or “well, I’m glad that happened, then.” Or something. Just to be snarky. And because I’m annoyed.

John Quincy Adding Machine July 30, 2012 at 6:01 pm

I don’t if we’re allowed to post links here, but this xkcd comic seems appropriate:

http://xkcd.com/945/

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Laura L July 30, 2012 at 10:51 pm

Ha! John Q. Adding Machine (I like your handle). That literally made me lol. I’m going to start doing that.

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fposte July 30, 2012 at 11:30 am

And then there’s what we used to call “prefacing behavior” (but Google doesn’t know that term so it must have been named something else)–the habit of an opening deflection like “I don’t know, maybe this is a stupid idea, but we could . . . .” That’s terrifically self-undermining, and it’s particularly common in women. While not every statement has to be a chest-thumping declaration, it’s important to be able to suggest something without trying to cloak it in the camouflage of uncertainty.

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Jamie July 30, 2012 at 11:54 am

I know exactly to what you are referring – and it’s infuriating to see people diminish themselves like this.

I don’t state things as fact unless I 100% believe them to be so – my opinion is not fact, no matter how strongly held. However, I state things confidently with the qualifiers of “I believe” and “with the data currently available my advise is to…” It avoids drawing lines in the sand when you are open to a change of course should additional facts warrant that, but it’s not apologizing for an idea at the outset.

If I thought something was a stupid idea I wouldn’t suggest it in the first place, I am not just pulling things out of thin air and waiting for someone knowledgeable to tell me if I accidentally struck oil.

The upside is that if I do state something as fact people rarely question it, as they’ve learned I don’t do that unless I can back it up with empirical data.

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K. July 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Exactly. Again, if you don’t sound like you believe in your work, why should anyone else? “This might be a stupid idea, but …” is a terrible way to propose something – why are you bringing up something you think might be stupid? If you think it’s stupid, why on earth would anyone bother listening to it?

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Andy Lester July 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm

I think that “This may be dumb, but…” is an attempt at softening the impact if the listener thinks that the idea is dumb. Thing is, it doesn’t have that effect. If anything, it makes it worse.

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Jamie July 30, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Because isn’t the initial internal response of the listener, “yeah, probably” before they’ve even heard the idea.

Like K said, if you don’t think it’s a good idea and it’s your brainchild, why on earth should I have any faith in it?

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A Bug! July 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm

I used to be pretty bad for this. I eventually realized that it was harming the ideas I was sharing because I didn’t appear to have confidence in them, and what I really meant to express was “I’m open to the idea that there may be a factor I haven’t considered that would make this idea impractical.”

So I shifted things around! I share the idea, then I invite input on it so that it can be discussed constructively.

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Natalie July 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm

This is exactly what I was trying to do when I first started doing the “might be a stupid idea, but…”. In short, I was the least experienced, most junior person in a group and had suggestions, but didn’t know if those suggestions were architecturally possible

For that particular context, I started phrasing things in the form of a question – “Is XYZ an option?” “Is it physically possible to XYZ?” And so forth.

Ask a Manager July 30, 2012 at 10:04 pm

I will sometimes start with “Tell me if this isn’t feasible, but…” in that situation.

Nichole July 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I’m a female who tends to have a more traditionally masculine interaction style. I have to watch “sorry,” because when I say it, it often has a passive aggressive tinge- kind of a slightly more professional version of “just sayin’” where I tack it on directly before or after I say why I think that idea is stupid and will not work. I really hate passive aggressive, so I know I need to slow down and choose my words carefully if I feel the urge to start with “Sorry, but…”

My cousin, on the other hand, exemplifies the chronic apologizing female. She’s gotten better now that her aggressively supportive mother and I (also aggressively supportive) brought it to her attention, but I thought the differences in how this word was used was interesting in light of our overall communication styles since you brought up the male-female skew.

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Laura L July 30, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Yeah, I’ve seen it more with women as well. Although I learned it from my dad. :-)

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Emily July 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I have a young female coworker who does the unnecessary apologizing thing constantly whenever we work together. I told her that whenever she feels the urge to say she’s sorry to me, I want her to say “f*** you” instead. Naturally I wouldn’t want anyone who ISN’T a chronic unnecessary apologizer to do this, but for her I think it’s a good exercise.

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Sophie July 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm

That’s a fun exercise…”F*** you, but you could take a look at this report for me? F*** you to spring it on you at the last minute.” Lol.

Working in tech support has cured me of the chronic apologizing. So many things beyond our control are blamed on us (“my internet is weird! fix it!”), and unless I myself screwed it up, you ain’t getting an apology out of me.

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Anon2 July 30, 2012 at 7:08 pm

I listened to a conference once where the guest speaker had a great fix for people who say “sorry” all the time.

Replace “I”m sorry” with “I apologize” – if the latter doesnt’ fit then don’t say “I’m sorry”. This really helped me to identify when I was over-using sorry. For me, it was partially that I was a chronic apologizer, but also I was verbally imprecise and lazy (ex: “Sorry” instead of “excuse me, please let me through”).

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JoAnna July 30, 2012 at 1:57 am

I always say something along the lines of, “Thank you; I appreciate the feedback.”

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Andy Lester July 30, 2012 at 2:19 am

Usually when I get a compliment, it’s for something that I did that helped someone else rather than just a “good job!” from the boss. So what I try to add something about the person, as in: “Thanks! I’m glad you found it useful.”

Agreed on not downplaying the compliment. If someone says you did something good, and you say “It was nothing”, you’re telling the complimenter that he is wrong and you invalidate his feelings.

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Clobbered July 30, 2012 at 2:36 am

“I’m happy that you liked it”. It acknowledge’s the other person’s sentiment AND conveys the feeling that their opinion matters to you. Mission accomplished. Also, for those perfectionists among us, sidesteps what you really think about your own work .

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M-C July 30, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Yes, that’s a really nice addition to the standard “thank you”.
I’d add something to the email dimension – when someone bothers to compliment you in writing, you’re meant to set aside that message/download/back it up, so that you can pull it out if necessary at your next performance review. I make sure my most sincere compliments go by email with appropriate supervisory ccs, it’s a shame if those get wasted while you’re busy deprecating yourself.

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Anonymous July 30, 2012 at 2:57 am

I think self-deprecating when receiving a compliment is borderline rude, as if to say “Wow, you must have terrible taste/poor judgement in XYZ if you think mine is great.”

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K. July 30, 2012 at 11:14 am

I agree; it’s actually a pet peeve of mine when people do this, although I know it’s something people legitimately struggle with.

I complimented a former colleague on something she was wearing and she went off into “Oh, this? It’s my fat dress, I wear it when I feel fat,” and I was annoyed at being put in the position of having to reassure her that she’s not fat (she wasn’t). I just wanted to pay her the compliment, maybe find out where she bought the dress, and move on. My ex-boyfriend was bad at accepting compliments too (which he knew); when he’d blow one of mine off, I’d just reply “You’re welcome.”

Professionally, not accepting compliments on work well done will start making you look like you don’t stand by your work, and if you don’t believe in your work, no one else will.

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Sophie July 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I think it’s more annoying when people fish for compliments. Your example of the “fat dress” lady above may or may not be a fisher, but it sounds like it.

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Laura L July 30, 2012 at 4:20 pm

The not standing by your work thing is a good point.

I tend to assume that the if someone brushes off a compliment that they don’t have a very realistic sense of their abilities. Which makes me think slightly less well of them, even if their work is good.

On the other hand, I’m often afraid to think I’m good at something before I’ve been complimented on it because I’m worried that I’m not as good as I think I am. Which has it’s own downside.

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Eva July 30, 2012 at 4:08 am

I know someone who had this problem where it came up during the course of her therapy. She too was a great performer, but modest to an awkward extreme. (No, she wasn’t in therapy for this problem; she was in therapy because her parents wanted her to get help because she couldn’t seem to leave her abusive boyfriend.) Long story short, apparently the issue with not being able to accept compliments was that she got anxious when her competence was acknowledged, because it implied she was someone who was strong and could take care of herself, and she wasn’t ready to take that kind of responsibility for herself. She preferred to come across as someone vulnerable and even slightly helpless so others would feel protective of her. (I guess I don’t have to get into how this relational attitude tied into not being able to leave the boyfriend – or stand up to her parents!)

I’m not saying you must have the same scope and depth of issues, OP, but maybe it’s worth doing some soul-searching nevertheless? We all could use a dose of that regularly, in my opinion, and grappling with a problem like this is as good occasion as any.

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Theguvnah July 30, 2012 at 4:19 pm

that is really fascinating and actually makes a lot of sense. thanks for sharing!

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Eva July 30, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Haha, I just caught myself spending way too long pondering how to acknowledge your ‘thanks for sharing’ without making too big a deal out of it! (AAM, I am going to start mentally subtitling your blog ‘Overthinkers Anonymous.’)

Glad you liked it!

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Dan July 30, 2012 at 4:42 am

I go with “I’m happy I could help.” And I mean it. There’s nothing worse than getting your help/advice/suggestions kicked to the curb. There’s nothing better than your work getting used is someone else’s document, particularly when you’re not even on their team.

The other thing I’ll do (and this is shameless, I admit) is say “Tell my boss, will ya?” My rationale for the shameless plug is that people aren’t above ratting you out for the tiniest things, so that if my work, when not officially assigned to your project actually does help, I’m not above asking for said shameless plug in return.

Even if I’m always fabulous and everybody knows it, I’d much prefer the boss have a list of said compliments so that when review time comes around, there ain’t much to think about.

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Katie July 30, 2012 at 7:31 am

And the flip side is that when someone does really great work for you, let them and their boss know about it. Someone did this for me early on in my career in an email CC’ed to my supervisor. I really appreciated it and try to do the same when someone really goes above and beyond.

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khilde July 30, 2012 at 10:38 am

I do this on a consistent basis – send an email to a supervisors of someone who’s given me great customer service (internal or external). It gets easier the more you do it and I get such a thrill out of sending along a kudos. I always hope it reaches the person and/or their employee file. But I think the key to making that even more meaningful is telling the employee who helped me that I’m going to send a note to their supervisor. The looks on their face is priceless.

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Jamie July 30, 2012 at 11:04 am

I also do this consistently – both with vendors and internally.

I manage projects and systems, not people…so if someone performs exceptionally well or I discover what I think are valuable talents I make sure to make this known to their regular supervisors and upper management.

It’s important because often I am working with people in a capacity completely different than their regular supervisor and have a different point of view, which I think is valuable to contribute. And if that means talented and competent people get promoted to positions of leadership which will make my job easier…or stay where they are of their own volition but with a raise or bonus then those are just happy collateral benefits.

I think a lot of people are myopic when it comes to who they think will help their career. They will turn it up to 10 when their supervisor is watching, not aware that other people can also have significant, albeit unofficial, input into their opportunities.

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khilde July 30, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Your last paragraph reminds me of something I experienced in college when I was running for a position in a student organization. We had to go through hours of interviews over a several day period. There were about 30 of us in the running. To make the rounds flow easier we had a runner that would bring each candidate back to the interview room. Often, we’d arrive before the last interview was over so it was just me and the “mom” as we affectionately came to call her. Of course what else do you do but chat with her a bit. I didn’t think anything of that until years later I was part of the nominating committee and found out that at the end of the interivews we pulled in the “mom” and asked her for her observations of all the candidates–and we gave real weight to what she says she observed in the candidates “down” moments. I was pretty young and just starting in the workforce and didn’t really realize that it’s ALL of the people around you that can make a difference to you. (BTW, I ended up getting a position and it was one of my proudest achievements.)

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fposte July 30, 2012 at 7:10 am

It’s also a nice moment to give credit to anybody who helped–not as a way of being self-deprecating, but as a way of making sure people who do work behind the scenes get noticed. (“Thanks; Lisa actually did a lot of the setup, so I’ll pass that on to her as well.”)

But either way, keep it short. One problem with the long self-deprecating demurral is that by spinning out the exchange it actually inflates the compliment and can make it seem like a big deal whether it was intended that way or not. Sometimes people do need a bit more than “Thank you” to gather themselves, and that’s where the quick pleasantries people are providing can be really helpful–they give you another beat but also a clear exit.

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Danni July 30, 2012 at 7:35 am

This depends on what’s being complimented, but I tend to like “Thanks so much – I really enjoyed this project” or “Thanks, I worked hard on this and I’m so glad you like it/find it helpful/whatever” or “Thanks – I’m thrilled with the final product”.

I think by acknowledging that you worked hard or that you enjoyed it allows you to be *sincere* in accepting the compliment (assuming, of course, those things are true). People want their employees to WANT to be there and to enjoy the work. You don’t have to love everything, but if someone compliments you on something that you are proud of, say that!

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Amanda July 30, 2012 at 8:09 am

I have this problem too – I think it started from not knowing how to accept the compliments, but I eventually became stuck in a spiral of self-deprecation. I could not accept whenever someone complimented me, because I honestly did not believe my work was worth the praise. It’s been difficult at work, since there is one manager (he’s tough on everyone) who voices my own inner negative thoughts. Despite validation from everyone else at work, the negativity is all I hear.

This post is very interesting though; I had never considered that by self-deprecating, I was actually being more rude than just accepting the compliment. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable due to my own insecurities. The solutions presented here look great, and I will certainly try them.

I will say that having a support network really helps – if you are close with a co-worker or two, let them know that you have this problem. My co-workers and shift leaders have all been extremely supportive in helping me rewire my brain so the negative isn’t automatically the default.
“Nice job reorganizing the drinks tub, the manager said it looks perfect!” “Thanks, I’m glad you guys liked it!”

Simple compliments like that are easier to accept, and I’m hoping that the combination of this and therapy will help improve my ability to accept bigger compliments down the line.

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Anonymous July 30, 2012 at 8:28 am

Like everyone else…just say thanks. Whether you think they are being sincere or it’s deserved. It doesn’t hurt you to graciously accept it. Being able to accept compliments is just as important a skill as any other.

I often see this problem in my job at my church. When someone sings a song, many have a very hard time accepting a compliment for a good performance. In an effort to be humble they make it awkward to the point of annoying. Like I tell my singers, just say thank you and let it go.

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Kelly O July 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Mark Lowry do his comedy bit – he sings with the Gaither Vocal Band and has some fairly seriously funny jokes.

One of the things he talks about in his book “Out of Control” is when someone sings at church and you compliment them and they say “oh it was just Jesus singing through me.” His point is, isn’t that a bit presumptuous? Andrea Bocelli hits sour notes from time to time. Just say “thank you” and go on. You’re not that good.

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Michelle July 30, 2012 at 10:01 am

Try this in an email:

“Thanks, Sally! That means a lot coming from you. Always nice to get positive feedback.

Have a great weekend,
Michelle”

It adds just a little cushioning that makes you feel more comfortable than simply “thank you” and pays respect back to the other person without creating phony compliments.

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The Other Dawn July 30, 2012 at 10:05 am

I’ve had to work on this issue also. For some reason I love hearing others praise me indirectly; however, when someone turns to me directly and tells me I did a great job or something similar, I clam up. I usually mumble “thank you” and then hope for a change of subject. Not sure why.

On the flip side, when I give a compliment to someone and they say it’s nothing or they didn’t really do anything great, it annoys me. It’s awkward and it makes me feel like I have to convince them that they are great and worthy of the praise. Just a “thank you” would be nice.

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LM July 30, 2012 at 10:25 am

My grandmother once told me that the best way to accept a compliment (if you’re uncomfortable just saying “thank you”) is to provide a detail. It gives you something to say in return that isn’t self-deprecating or a phony return compliment.

For example, if someone tells you they liked your work on Project X, you can say “Thank you! Task Y was particularly challenging, so I’m glad it turned out so well.”

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Laura L July 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm

I do that a lot. I’ll say something like “I’m excited it turned out well,” “I love it too,” “I got it at H&M” or something similar, depending on context.

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ChristineH July 30, 2012 at 11:04 am

This thread and the comments are enlightening. I too never realized how poorly self-deprecation can appear. I’m not the best at accepting compliments myself, especially when people tell me I’m well-spoken or that I’d be great at working with people. Eva’s post above in particular got me thinking about my insecurities.

On the flip-side – Self-deprecation isn’t helpful, but you also want to be sure you don’t sound overly-confident either. Just be genuinely appreciative, and smile!

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ChristineH July 30, 2012 at 11:06 am

Argh I need to learn to re-read the question before commenting! My comment was from the perspective of an in-person conversation. That said, the same principles apply in email too, if not moreso since you don’t have the added benefit of vocal tone and body language.

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Sophie July 30, 2012 at 11:11 am

That is precisely why I like to keep email as simple and direct as possible. The fewer words, the better. No need for any language that might be misconstrued.

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Jamie July 30, 2012 at 11:08 am

Yes. Self deprecation is the flip side of the cocky response of “of course I was awesome, what did you expect?” Both have the same result of causing the person issuing the compliment to think twice before they say anything nice to you again.

I used to have this problem as a kid, but my mom told me that the surest way to make sure you never receive a compliment is to prolong the discussion. ‘A compliment is not a conversation’ is the some of the best advice she ever gave me.

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Jamie July 30, 2012 at 11:45 am

Insecurities can be crippling – whether they are based on being truly insecure about one’s abilities or wanting to avoid the fear of other people not seeing what we can truly do.

When I left a job several years ago, I (unadvisedly) was applying only to jobs several levels below where I had been working. I had moved up so fast in my last position, I thought it would be safest to repeat that and get in at entry level and move up. Truth is I was very afraid that due to my sparse job history people would be dubious about my previous promotions because it was too quick and the tenure too brief.

And truth – even though I have always had a fair amount of confidence in my innate abilities, part of me wondered if I had done as well as I did because I had the mentor I did. I wasn’t 100% sure I would be able to swim on my own without having a high ranking advocate in my corner.

I sent out 100+ resumes and got zero responses – which is not hyperbole – exactly no one contacted me for anything.

So sitting at a crappy temp job I decided to start applying for jobs my old mentor would hire me for. You know, things someone who knew me and whose professional opinion I respected above anyone else, would think I was qualified for. Sent out I think five resumes knowing I had maybe 60 – 70% of what they were asking for in requirements. Within the week got three call backs and two interviews. By the time I was offered the third interview I declined because I was already two interviews into the job I ended up taking.

My point is, once I stopped acting based on how I saw my own accomplishments (which SO wasn’t working) and forced myself to act on how someone I admired saw me everything changed. Sometimes we need to allow for the fact that we’re not seeing ourselves as clearly as others see us.

Now, for me this wouldn’t have worked if I had tried seeing myself as my family or friends see me, of course they think I’m awesome but what do they know, they all think you have to be a genius to map a network drive. I needed to use the eyes of someone I was less close to personally, but whose professional opinion I respected.

I really feel for people who are looking now, because for me it was back before the economy pooped the bed and I was struggling even then. But sometimes you have to get out of your own head and into someone else’s to see yourself more clearly.

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Job Seeker July 30, 2012 at 5:11 pm

I understand feeling insecure. Lately, I have had to really work hard on not feeling so discouraged. I have always been everyone else’s cheerleader in my family. My husband is awesome and my son is now a professional. My other children are hearing me praise them and encourage them all the time. I got a wake-up call today, I had to call and make a medical appointment for a family member. I have tried so hard and so long to get on with this company. I went back to school for a year with this company in mind. I was beginning to think what is wrong with me? I did everything by the book, went back to school (my teachers told me I had a lot of offer, made good grades etc.) volunteered with this company, praised this company to HR and others. I still have not gotten a job there. I was beginning to think maybe I just wasn’t good enough. Well, today I called and the girl that answered the phone there couldn’t keep anything straight on the phone. She asked me the patients name over and over. I know this sounds terrible but it made me realize not everything is about me not being good enough. I really felt a little good that I don’t think they are hiring such perfect people. Thanks, I just needed to vent. Alison has always uplifted people and I appreciate the chance to say I believe sometimes being uncomfortable receiving a compliment is because you really don’t feel good enough.

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Sophie July 30, 2012 at 11:07 am

I know how you feel – sometimes I am at a loss as to how to respond to certain emails. I tend to be quite direct, especially in writing, and I don’t like to clutter up my, or anyone else’s, inbox. I don’t even like to use opening addresses or signatures (like Hello Sally…waste of space! lol). But the many suggestions provided in the comments are good, from a simple “Thanks!” to “Thanks, glad for your feedback.” I do like to acknowledge my appreciation of compliments so I usually just stick to “Thanks!”

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fposte July 30, 2012 at 11:35 am

Heh. I usually write the thing I need to say and then go back and put in the politeness flourishes on a second round. Otherwise it sounds like a telegram.

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Juni July 30, 2012 at 11:11 am

My favorite is “That’s so nice of you to say!”

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Jamie July 30, 2012 at 11:13 am

“I don’t even like to use opening addresses or signatures (like Hello Sally…waste of space! lol). ”

You are a person after my own heart. I’m not a fan of greetings or signatures (aside from autosigs which contain additional contact info – those can be helpful.)

However, I tend to use the same form as the person writing me – even in informal correspondence. For those who do use greetings and sigs I respond in kind, because I’d rather waste a couple of lines of space than seem abrupt.

It’s just a convention, though. Nothing quite as pointless and ending an email with ‘Jamie’ when the From field already gave you that information.

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Sophie July 30, 2012 at 11:18 am

That is how I manage my curmudgeonly-ness. I work at a university with lots of professors, so responding in the same manner of address helps me avoid offending the big-wigs…

‘‘A compliment is not a conversation’ is the some of the best advice she ever gave me.” – I think that’s brilliant. I’m going to share.

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Anonymous July 30, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Signatures on email are nice if you are corresponding with someone who is not likely to have you in their address book. I’m sure it’s fine to leave them off for intra-office communications in most places now, but they do still have an important purpose.

Salutations (and signatures, to a much lesser extend) also help the rest of us differentiate your email from spam. It’s certainly possible to write spam with good odds of getting the correct salutation, but it’s more work than many spammers put into their work. It’s nice to have some reassurance that you’re corresponding with a human instead of getting an automated email.

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Anonymous July 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm

this is awesome. the first time i met the director of the organization i was just hired to, he complimented me on finishing up a project so quickly and i said, “yeah, well it was just a [small project].” and he said “never say it’s ‘just’ anything. this is part of what we do for our customers and it means a lot to them. I assure you it wasn’t “just a [small project] to them.”

Put me in my place. Never realized that depreciating my own work is also depreciating the work we do as an organization, but it’s definitely something I think about now!

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Anon July 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm

I have the same problem! I’m getting better, but I still struggle with it. Usually, if someone compliments me directly (i.e. “You’re awesome,” etc) I respond with “I try” (because it’s true) and a smile. If they compliment my work, I just say “Thanks” or “I’m glad you like it” and leave it at that. I have a harder time with the personal compliments, because I know my work is awesome, so “I try” and a smile has worked well for me.

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The Retail Raptor July 30, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Oh my goodness, OP, go watch Wayne’s World, the movie. It’s totally a sidenote to the major plot, but the way they dealt with this issue is perhaps the most effective social story I’ve ever seen.

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Anon2 July 30, 2012 at 8:25 pm

I don’t want to advocate being insincere, but if you struggle with this you might consider keeping a draft with several thank you options already typed out. That way you can agonize over the wording once, then just choose appropriate phrases in the moment – tailored when needed to the email. I have to agree though, I think you may be overthinking it a bit. It’s polite to acknowledge the compliment, but you don’t have to gush and you definitely don’t have to search for a reciprocal compliment. I love Jamie’s Mom’s lesson: ‘A compliment is not a conversation’. Absolutely right on.

In person, have you tried practicing graciously accepting compliments? You can’t help the blushing, and many will find it charming anyway, but you can become more comfortable verbally. Even if you stick with some stock phrases, it’s better than self-deprecation. It may feel silly, but praise yourself and thank yourself in the mirror, or in bed at night while you’re relaxing before you fall asleep (assuming you don’t just zonk out). Think of an actual compliment you received and pretend to thank that person. Try out different ways of doing it. Shoot, get silly with it by getting ridiculously elaborate/formal/polite or try it with different accents – I love busting out Julia Child when I’m alone. Basically – just try to take the fear out of it. You’ve built it up in your head how horrible you are at accepting compliments, so if you want to change how you act you also need to change the paradigm in your head.

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AS July 30, 2012 at 9:03 pm

Does this also apply during performance review conversations? When my manager compliments me on some of the work I do, she says a few sentences and then pauses for my response. I’m uteerly clueless what to say at that point except smile and nod, but I don’t want to feel conceited and agreeable. I usually say “thanks” back and the fact that she’s one of the best managers to work with, but for some reason that doesn’t sound right.

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Ask a Manager July 30, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Yes! You can also say things like “thanks, I was really proud of that,” or “I appreciate you raising that — that was tough to pull off” or so forth.

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AS July 31, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Thanks for the advice, AAM!

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Cassie July 31, 2012 at 12:19 am

I have to admit, most times I don’t respond to compliments in emails. I mean, every now and then, I get an email that says “you’re awesome!” or something along that vein, and I just don’t reply back. (If I email someone something like that, I don’t expect a reply back either). If the compliment is something longer, I might reply back with a “I’m glad I could help!” or something that fits the context.

Back to the office workplace – if I get a compliment in person, I mostly just smile. I don’t say thank you. Bad habit, I know.

When I was still in ballet, I used to go the self-deprecating route when I’d get compliments from peers (if it’s a teacher complimenting, I would just smile). Until one day, a fellow student told me to stop doing that. I asked “what am I supposed to say, thank you?” and she said “yes!”.

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Jennifer July 31, 2012 at 8:09 am

I struggle with this as well. If left to my own devices, I will slip quickly into the realm of self-deprecating humor. I have found that responding with, “Thank you, that is kind of you to say.” Works for me. Perhaps because I am sort of commenting on their behavior in response and thus deflecting the attention from me?

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Lisa P August 2, 2012 at 8:19 pm

I’ve always been bad at accepting compliments, and also receiving things from people. I know that sometimes, with friends or at work, I try to give a compliment back, but I also know I tend to sound even to myself like I’m being a little sarcastic or weird about it. I don’t know why it happens.
I left a job a few years ago (3rd shift server) and the cook and several late night regulars brought me cupcakes and a singing Rocky card. One of the regulars got upset at me, and I later explained to my coworker how uncomfortable it made me feel for people to give me that much attention. I didn’t like being the center of attention. He thought it was strange for me to feel that way, but seemed to understand. I also got upset when a friend tried to turn a hang-out-with-friends day into a birthday party just because my birthday had been a couple of days before. It makes me feel awkward.
I have a new job in shipping and receiving (still in training) and my supervisor tells me at least once a day that I’m doing a really great job. I kept responding with something like, ” That’s a relief. Glad I’m not screwing this up as badly as I thought.” That’s no good.
It’s definitely something I know I need to work on.

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Ask a Manager August 2, 2012 at 9:13 pm

Stop saying that to your supervisor! You don’t intend to, but you’re undermining his impression of your competence by using a response like that. Practice saying this: “Thank you, that’s great to hear.”

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