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Why do we deal with compliments as though they're hot potatoes?

Wednesday, 12th March, 2014 1:48pm

Why do we deal with compliments as though they're hot potatoes?

OPINION: Kevin O'Neill


WHY is it that, as a nation, we Irish seem programmed to be incapable of accepting compliments?
Instead of graciously taking kind words at face value, we tend to turn into fumbling and mumbling buffoons, as we bid to fend off the possibility that one might actually look great.
They say 'it doesn’t take long to polish a diamond’, but if the Irish psyche is to be believed, it sometimes takes an absolute eternity for people on this island to come even close to being half-polished and presentable in public.
Aside from the very few exceptions, Irish people appear so consumed by not appearing arrogant, or with having the words 'Jesus, doesn’t he/she love themselves’ uttered behind their backs, that they tend to react to compliments with a mixture of ridiculous embarrassment and insane explanations about how they (accidentally) came to look so good.
Why on earth, for example, would anyone find the need to tell someone how long they have an item of clothing - and which discount store they bought it from - when told that their top, jeans or jacket looks great?
I’m sure Athlone people have often heard conversations along the following lines.
Compliment: 'Oh, you’re top is beautiful, you look great tonight’.
Reply: 'Ah, sure it’s just something I got in Penneys. Have it ages, four or five years. Ten euro’.
What on earth is that all about?
Another example is this.
Compliment: 'Oh, your hair is gorgeous tonight, I love it’.
Reply: 'Ah, stop will you. Only had ten minutes. Sure it’s a state’.
This type of bundling riposte could be taken a couple of ways.
That they are actually telling the truth (a rarity, one would suggest, when it comes to Irish people and compliments) and genuinely didn’t have much time to 'do their hair’, and that it only looks so well by accident, or else, that they are accidentally portraying themselves as some sort of highly gifted hair technician that only needs a matter of minutes to look so damn good. Whatever it is, it seems a highly preposterous response to a well-intended compliment, but this type of dishonest humility appears deeply rooted in the Irish DNA.
Again, one wonders what characteristic is so driven into us, albeit sometimes inadvertently, that we react to a compliment, within a matter of milliseconds, by quickly deflecting the conversation away from how good one might look and, instead, onto how little time we had to get dressed for a night-out, or how one is capable of finding clothes on a limited budget in a discount store.
God forbid any of us might actually put some real effort into looking good, and, sin upon sins, do our clothes shopping at the higher end of the clothes market.
This trend of being utterly useless at accepting compliments also veers into sporting activities/accomplishments.
'Hey, you were outstanding today. Great goals’.
This type of compliment is usually followed by: 'Ah no, no, no, I wasn’t great now. Should have scored that other one in the second half’.
The majority of Irish people cannot accept compliments with appreciation and class, and the irony of the whole thing is that most people are keen to receive them in the first place. Handling them, however, is another matter altogether for Irish people. This article is not aimed at women either. Men are worse, in my experience.
Indeed, according to the website, 'Sociolinguists place compliment responses into three main categories: Accept, Deflect, and Reject. These categories represent a spectrum, and most people aren’t uncomfortable at either extreme; outright denial seems rude but full acceptance feels conceited. Thus, most people seek what seems like a safe middle ground, choosing a deflecting response that dilutes and mitigates the compliment. They see compliments as hot potatoes that need to be tossed on as soon as they land in their hands’.
It’s almost as if the Irish revel in people thinking their lives are far too busy with work/children to actually put time and effort into their appearance. Why should we not appreciate how good one looks? Do Irish people just boast a gene that restricts them from exuding confidence and self-assuredness, and if so, when did this develop and how come to continues to shine through in this day and age?
As bizarre as this might seem to some people, would it be stretching it to actually say 'Thank You’ to a compliment instead of taking the conversation down a most pointless route, and trying to remain perceived as hopelessly modest, or even likeable, for not assuming that you look well.
Many of us blatantly have an inability to portray assertiveness and confidence, and instead prefer to be perceived as unassuming and lacking in self-belief/confidence, or even to be seen as of low self-esteem. What’s wrong with trying to look one’s best? Don’t most people do it? So why pretend to look like a cow’s backside when, in some cases, you know the opposite to be truer.
Now, dishing-out compliments to one that does look like a cow’s backside, well, that’s another day’s work altogether.

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