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Why are women so bad at accepting compliments?

Why are women so bad at accepting compliments?

OPINION: Her nails were long and tapered, the kind of nails that regularly see the inside of a salon.

As someone who’s never been able to stop nibbling the tips of my fingers, my admiration cup overflowed.

But when I complimented the saleswoman on her elegant talons, she immediately deflected.  

“They’re actually looking terrible,” she said, pointing out non-existent chips.

“I really need to get them done again.” 

Cue uncomfortable silence for the rest of the transaction.

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Round two happened a few days later when I commented on a friend’s dress. “Oh, this old thing? I was going to give it to the Sallies,” she said, blushing 50 shades of crimson.

“Do you want it?”

Why are we – especially women – so bad at accepting compliments? Why didn’t these two women smile and say thanks for the heartfelt compliment instead of going into denial mode? And possibly thinking I was only saying it to be nice or curry favour. Or, worse, that I have low standards.

Theories as to why women are so rubbish at accepting compliments abound: experts think it could be low-self esteem, or that we don’t want to seem arrogant or like we’re bragging. 

Dr Kristin Neff from the University of Texas reckons it could also be a throwback to ancient times when only those who were alert and cautious were likely to survive.

“Our brains are naturally wired to look for problems,” says Neff. “And that means we tend to focus on failures rather than on compliments.

And then there’s that other (very) old chestnut: that women should be mild, meek, and humble.  

“It might be 2019 but many women are still consciously or subconsciously programmed to be humble and to avoid displays of pride of arrogance,” says Wellington life coach Sarah Brown.

There’s still this unspoken rule that women are should be demure and rebuff compliments, rather than be seen as cocky or too confident.” 

In fact, studies show that only 22 per cent of compliments from women to other women are accepted.

And that we’re twice as likely to rebuff a compliment from another woman than from a man.

Although figures aren’t kept in New Zealand, in the US it’s estimated two-thirds of Americans respond to a compliment with something other than “thank you”, either shifting credit (“My husband bought me this dress”), making an historical comment (“I bought it on sale”), rejecting it (“No way, I look terrible today“), questioning the complimenter (“You think so?”), thinking there’s an ulterior motive (‘What’s she after?”) or even lobbing it back (“I like your dress too”).


But here’s the thing: while we’re busy sucking the positivity out of compliments, we’re missing out on some sizeable benefits. Japanese research shows meaningful praise stimulates a part of the brain that makes learning easier which, in turn, can improve confidence, emotional health, motivation and performance.

The same researchers also believe compliments light up the same reward system of our brain as sex or receiving cash.

The key, says Brown, is to keep our response short and sweet.

“Say something like, ‘Thank you, I’m glad you said that’ or ‘I appreciate you noticing’ or even ‘Thanks for letting me know’. That way you acknowledge their kindness without going over the top or being awkward.

So ladies, fly your compliment flag high. Give and receive praise with confidence, knowing you could be lifting a heavy heart, squashing an insecurity or simply reminding a sister that there are still some kind people in this world.