Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sincere Compliments?

I've noticed lately that there's a somewhat acceptable way to "compliment" people that truly is not a compliment at all. After having a long discussion about it with some other mothers, I need to put it out there.

"Oh, I can't do what you are doing. I could never do it. I don't have your skills." 

On the surface, this doesn't look like a bad thing to say. But let's look at it closer. Illustration:

I play the piano. I have played the piano for a long time. I started lessons at age 7 and didn't stop until I was a sophomore in college. I have practiced for thousands upon thousands of hours. I accepted difficult assignments (accompanying choirs and congregations) at young ages in order to get better. I went to piano camp, for crying out loud! Sure, I have some natural talent, and I like it, but I have put in some hard work to be as accomplished as I am (and frankly, I'm still not nearly as good as I could have been). 

So, when someone says to me: "I could never play like you. You're so talented" I think, "Yes, you could. Just work hard like I did. Don't assume the only reason I can do this is because I have some kind of never-have-to-practice skill or talent." 

The same thing happens with motherhood. Women, in an attempt to justify their choices (which, really, should NEVER need justification) say things like:

"If my pregnancies were as easy as yours, I'd have more."
"I wish I had naturally good kids like you! Then we could go to Sacrament Meeting."
"I could never do a home birth, I'm not brave like you."
"I could never have more than x-amount of kids, because I'm not patient like you." 

Ummm, thanks?

Beside the fact that they are dismissing my experiences and struggles --that no, my pregnancies are not "easy" (maybe relatively easy compared to some, but no pregnancy is "easy"), I have absolutely no patience, I'm wallowing in self-despair because of mental demons, we've worked HARD to get our kids to behave in Sacrament Meeting (making the hallway miserable compared to the chapel), we have only "chosen" to have more kids because God has asked us to, home birth education is greatly lacking in this country and my baby swallowed meconium and was on oxygen and, and, and --they are putting themselves down and trying to justify their choices. 

Why? Why do they feel the need to justify? Am I being judgemental towards them? Do I tell them they are wrong for their choices? Have I offended them by looking at them funny? I promise, I don't go around judging women for having a few kids. If I was brutually honest, I would say I envy them. I don't care if women give birth in hospitals or cars or tubs or the garden. But why do people have to tell me that the only reason I can give birth at home is because I'm somehow a magical superwoman? The only thing I have different is education about my choice, and sometimes not even that. 

It happens all the time. Back-handed compliments that dismiss a person's struggles, choices, and experiences. These discussions have made me stop and think about it deeply, including this experience:

And older, very kind woman in our ward constantly approaches me and says, "If I had your gospel knowledge, I would get to the Celestial Kingdom, easy! I wish my testimony was as good as yours." 

First of all, this means that she is putting herself down. Not cool. 
Second, my testimony should only be compared to my testimony. Not hers. They are not the same, nor should they EVER be.
Third, just because I have a talent for publicly speaking doesn't mean I got it overnight (like my piano playing), nor that my gospel knowledge is better than anyone else's. I work HARD to teach my lessons. I read a lot. I think about them for weeks. Anyone else could do the same. 

So, what should we be saying? Personally, if someone wants to compliment me, I want to hear sincerity:

"I'm impressed you and your husband have chosen to have many kids. I know how difficult it can/must be mothering many! Pregnancies aren't easy, either. Good for you!"


"I love to hear you play the piano. Thank you for sharing your talents."


"I'm impressed you give birth at home" or "Even though it's not for me, I think it's great you give birth at home."


"Thank you for your lessons! I really enjoy your testimony."

I know it will probably keep happening, and I promise I won't be rude or assume the worst, (even if I cringe inside). I also promise I'm gonna be listening hard to myself to know if I'm doing similar back-handed compliments, justification, and putting myself down. I mean, life is hard enough, right? Why should we make it harder on each other? On ourselves?

And that is all.


Courtney said...

Great! Wonderful! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Really, really good thoughts. I wonder if we've just forgotten how to give a compliment these days? I feel similarly about the "put me down to lift you up" style.

And often, I do respond with what I hope is gentle correction.

"I wish I could sew like that"--"Thanks, I'm glad you like it. It's just a skill set; any person who chooses to can learn to do it."

But when I get an actual compliment of "Hey, cool!", I love being able to respond with a sincere "Thanks, I'm so glad you enjoyed it!" Learning to give and receive kind words is a very keen skill.

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WoozleMom said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I know I've been guilty about this at times, and will make a more concerted effort to avoid making back-handed compliments. :)

MamaMia said...

I think this is a women-in-the-church problem. For some reason, women often feel like they have to put themselves down in order to lift someone else up. To me true love for self comes by accepting and loving the gifts you have been given while still being able to view others talents as a blessing in your life.

flip flop mama said...

Totally. People say this all the time about my knitting and crocheting. "Oh I could never do that. You must be so patient." Uh, no. I just really enjoy it and like to do it. And yes you could, if you just tried.

MamaMia, I think this is just a "women" problem. We are all WAY too hard on ourselves or we're afraid of trying something for fear of failing or not being "as good" as someone else.

The Pugmire's said...

Sincere Feedback. . .
Your post helped me to ponder my own words and how they affect others. I do agree with you about the way people sometimes put themselves down in an effort to compliment someone else (i.e. "you are a great artist! I can't even draw stick figures!"), and I'm no fan of obvious back-handed compliments, but I do want to add a somewhat different point of view.
In a world that is becoming easier and easier to criticize others, to judge, and to take offense, I welcome a positive thought, no matter how it is phrased. I think it is a good rule of thumb to assume the best of somebody's intentions, especially when they are trying to point out something noteworthy about us. I'm sure most people have flippantly thrown out a compliment like the ones you've mentioned (I know I have). I can't tell you how many times someone has given me the "I can't even draw stick figures" compliment and I have sincerely appreciated their efforts to convey a positive note.

Lizzie said...

To play devil's advocate here, and I say all this completely lovingly... I think these thoughts are mostly coming from your own personal insecurity. There are such things as backhanded compliments, but that's when someone says something like "Wow, that dress looks really good on you. It does a great job of disguising your horrible figure." THAT's a backhanded compliment. And that's awful, I can't imagine any real person saying that kind of thing outside of a televised soap opera or, I don't know, highschool. But when someone is giving you a compliment, it's a compliment. Most people don't take twenty minutes before talking to think about the wording to make sure nothing they say could possbily be misconstrude by someone who is expecting an insult. If someone compliments your patience with your children, perhaps you are more patient than you realize you are, and they are nicely pointing it out. And you WERE brave for choosing a home birth. You decided to try something new. That's always brave, no matter the situation. You trusted your own judgement and education instead of just going with the popular choice. That's always brave, no matter the situation. Give yourself some more credit, and take it like the complmient it's meant to be. (Unless someone says something like 'You're brave to do a home birth, when it's so obviously a horrible and stupid decision. THAT's a backhanded compliment;)

If someone compliments your piano playing talents, and they're an educated adult, it's probably safe to say that they're not assuming you just one day sat down at a piano and could instantly play as you did after years of work and training. That part is a given.

And I personally have used "I could never..." compliments several times, and every time I genuinely meant it. Recently I had a friend who made her childrens' costumes. I've always struggled with sewing, and told her "Wow, I love that you could do that. I could never sew something like that." And guess what? She corrected me! Told me how easy it was, let me know that she wasn't just naturally talented, as I had thought, and gave me the courage to try it myself... successfully!Sometimes people geniunely think something is harder than it is, and could use someone whose been there to say "You know, I felt that way too when I was just beginning, but it was easier than I thought it would be, and with some practice, I picked up the skill. You can do it too, and I can help!" When my kids were even younger than they are now, I did the "I wish my kids were as naturally well behaved as yours" and was thankfully corrected! I learned that I didn't just have unnaturally horrible kids, they were normal, and that mine could be as well behaved with time and work, and that it wasn't a hopeless endeaver.

I think the problem with women in general is not in how we give compliments but how we take them. We're all so critical of ourselves, we assume it's coming from outside sources too. I mean, when you're complimenting others, are you secretly meaning something underhanded? Of course not! That's horrible. Most people don't do that. But we assume it, because we all have these insecurities about ourselves. Give yourself more credit! Take the compliments as compliments! :)

Cheryl said...

Lizzie, this isn't about me not being able to take a compliment. Just consider it as a broad way to correct many people at once, instead of one-on-one like in your experiences. Because frankly, I don't see the difference between the two.

How To Be Superwoman said...

I understand exactly what you are saying. I have felt the same way at times. But it also depends on who says it. I have had some "compliments" that are very patronizing. Like the underlying message is "Good for you! You actually did something worthwhile for a change!" A different person could say the exact same thing and it would come off as very sincere.

To be completely honest, sometimes when I get that "I could never do that" kind of comment I think "What's wrong with you that you can't do it?"

The less snarky side of me also recognizes that this kind of comment is often a reflection of a longing or regret in the other person. Maybe they have tried to do something and feel they failed. Maybe they didn't have the same opportunity. Maybe that opportunity has been taken from them. It does sometimes make me feel uncomfortable, especially when someone starts telling me how they wished they could have had more children. Those are the moments taht cause me to step back and realize how blessed I am for the talents and opportunities I have been blessed with.

Cheryl said...

Lizzie, my comment was harsh. I'm sorry.

danette said...

Sometimes it is harder for others to do things. I have a really good friend you just can not speech in public. She will faint. Her personality who she is.

I am 33 and have just started taking piano lessons. It is hard. I look at people who play and am in awe. I struggle. I can play the top line of the top hand fine, but you add the other stuff and I struggle. It is almost to hard for me that I don't really want to keep trying. I know, I know if I just practice I will learn. Sometimes you don't like it enough to keep trying. So yea I look and someone who plays the piano and thinks wow and could never be this good. Really even if I kept really trying I couldn't. Natural talent adds.

Yet when someone says oh you are good at making hair bows or tell me I am good at taking pictures, even if they just say you are good at that. I think it isn't that hard it is easy. I just learned how. Those are things that have been things I really wanted to do.

Some of us are left brains others are right brains so somethings are just easier for others. Yes we can all work hard to accomplish things.

Some people play basketball, some like music. Some want to talk in public others simply don't or there fear there what ever it is makes it harder.

Yes I can play basketball and that came pretty easy. Practice yes but it fit I didn't struggle. Where as singing and playing the piano I struggle I practice yet I struggle. Maybe you did too and you achieved greatness at it. If I say to someone you are great at that and I am not to me is not back handed. To me it is seeing how awesome you are. How far you have come in that.

Just for your information some times you can practice and practice at something and still not be good enough. I am okay at basketball. I practiced and practiced I even got a VIP for how much I practiced. Yet I still wasn't good enough to make the JR Varsity team in high school. I played freshman and sophomore. Yet not good enough to play Jr Varsity. So some times people are just better at things, and are jealous when other are better at it.

Sorry this was long. I will shut up now.

danette said...

Sorry one more. I was just thinking. I know you suffer from depression just like I do. In my mind if I am good at it everyone should be good at because if I am good at it it must not be that hard. Because I feel I have no real good quality. So for someone to say they are not good at it makes me think wow they just must not be trying hard enough.

But that isn't the case. I try at things like the piano and it is HARD. So maybe you get those feeling too. Just saying.

Honestly you talking about it this way makes me feel like I am a loser that I do not know the correct way to tell people they are good at something. I usually say those comment to people that do a great job and something that I wish I was great at. If I have no desire to be that way I just usually say great job.

And sometimes people do give complements that are mean. I feel that a lot when it comes to how we mother and how we choose to give birth. I think we could be good friends we have a lot in common. Yet you wanting a home birth and me liking my hospital births as much as you like your home births won't make us friends. I have looked into it and read much stuff and agree differently than you do on it. Sorry I have just seen on line how these two things just fight back and forth. It is kind of like two different religions. I believed in home birth but I no longer believe in it. Yet I do believe people should be allowed to do what they choose. What they feel is best for them. I even agree with that with true religion.

Sorry and can talk for hours. I went visiting teaching this week and I was gone for 4 1/2 hours and we only saw 2 sisters.

I do get what you are saying. I think sometimes people say those things because they think low of them selves and sometimes people say those things because they are glad they are not doing that. So it feels like they are trying to say something nice and yet call you crazy too. I get that way with having many children and wanting a hospital birth with an epidural.

Again sorry.

We get jealous too. You have a big family and at time make it seem like you are jealous of those who have smaller families. I am jealous of your big family because i am trying hard to have more kids and it just isn't working out right now. My jealousy and effect my comments.

Sorry this thought just came to me. You should not feel like when someone says you are good and the piano and they are not as a back handed comment. You do not know why they are not good. Maybe they can't afford it. Maybe there brain just doesn't work that way. You do not know why they said it that way. So don't think of it as a back comment because you don't know what is going on in there lives. Can it be a back comment sure, but don't think it is because you don't know why it was said that way.

Cheryl said...

Elder Marvin J Ashton said true charity is giving people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe these backhanded compliments are the only way they know how to compliment? These days I will take a compliment any way I can get it :)

The Wright Family said...

I have a large family and get lots of "compliments" too. Sometimes the best way to see the absurdity is to see if anyone would ever say that to someone with a different skill/situation.

For example no one would ever say "I wish that I could run marathons, it's just a lot harder for me to run than it is for you to run." But people say essentially the same thing to moms all the time, as you pointed out.

Could you imagine someone saying as a compliment "I would love to be as good at dancing as you are but my parents never had the money for lessons"? Wouldn't that be weird and uncomfortable? But all the time women tell me that they would love to have as many kids as I do, if only they had more patient husbands, or more money, or didn't have to work. While it might be true it is a terribly uncomfortable way to compliment someone as it ultimately focuses on their disadvantage.

Probably the best thing is to understand that these "compliments" usually come from the pain or insecurity of others. Being frustrated at them for complimenting backwardsly is counterproductive. We owe each other patience, especially when the other person is hurting.

Thanks for writing about this. Even though I just said that we need to be patient with these people it is really hard to not feel like they are minimizing the effort and work of others, especially (in my experience)mothers.