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Why Can't We Take a Compliment?

06/06/2014 11:26 BST | Updated 05/08/2014 10:59 BST

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We Brits have a reputation for being the politest people on earth. We're useless at complaining, masters of awkward small-talk, tend to avoid confrontation like the plague and are drilled militantly, pretty much from birth, to say please, thank you and sorry at every opportunity. Hell - I'm so conditioned by my own politeness I frequently apologise to inanimate objects for bumping into them (walls, mannequins, lamp posts, sometimes my own handbag) and not a few of my conversations begin with 'I'm really sorry but..'. Why is it then, that when it comes to receiving compliments, the last two words in the world we seem to be able to utter are... thank you?

Until about a week ago I wasn't aware of my complete inability to accept compliments. They just don't seem to...sit well with me. Instead of inducing a warm glow of pride they turn me into some kind of painfully awkward, spluttering wreck. Last Saturday night a good friend turned to me at the bar and said 'You know, you look really gorgeous tonight'. My response? To start sweating and launch into an apologetic, paranoid diatribe worthy of a Woody Allen script about the good lighting, the fact that my hair needed trimming and that the particular hue of beige around the neck line of my dress made me look too pale. When I started pointing out chin spots he cracked. 'Why can't you just own the compliment?' Just say THANK YOU and move on!'

Once I'd recovered from the shock I began to consider what he'd said: own the compliment. This was something that had never crossed my mind. But the more I think about it the more I realise that actually, not saying thank you to a compliment is incredibly rude. What my friend had given me, in earnest, I had shoved back in his face like a spoilt child would an unwanted present: 'No. Sorry, that's not what I asked for. Take it back.'

Receiving compliments should be a wonderful, positive thing; an all too rare affirmation of self. So why do we feel the need to shoot a person down when they are merely attempting to tell us something good about ourselves?

When it comes to being self-critical, most women are, unfortunately, seasoned experts. Have you ever noticed the utterly bizarre exchange of self-deprecation we girls will engage in when meeting each other? It's almost like an unspoken agreement between females that the more vehemently we reject the compliment of the other, the humbler or more 'normal' we supposedly appear.

Picture this all-too-familiar scene:

Woman A: Oh my God, I absolutely love your dress - where did you get it?

Woman B: What this thing?! It's about ten seasons old! I got it from Zara for a tenner ... yeah I know! It looked a lot better when I actually had a tan. I love your fringe at the moment though. I've always wanted to get mine to do that sweeping seventies look.

A: Hm... They didn't really cut it the way I wanted. I was going for beach waves but it ended up looking more like Kylie in the 80s.

B: NO! You're so lucky you can actually have a fringe. I'd look like a five year old with one of those bowl-cuts.

You see where I'm going here. Why do we do it to ourselves? Is it fear of looking arrogant? As if agreeing with the compliment, consenting to it, would automatically make us look smug or somehow superior? A male friend once observed that this is something that just wouldn't happen among guys. 'I dunno. You're just wired differently. It's just unnecessary hassle. Girls are weird like that.' Yes - I thought this was a tad reductive too, but it actually made a lot of sense. It's a sort of bizarre double standard we have. I know for a fact that I'd be hurt if a friend hadn't noticed a new haircut or a weight loss (not to mention how instinctively insulted I'd be to not be complimented in some way on a date), and there's nothing I love more than telling my friends they look great. Besides which it's really quite exhausting having to swat away every kind word that comes your way like some kind of unwanted advance.

That's why a recent exchange with a girlfriend provided a refreshing antidote to the customary self-deprecatory routine. We were sitting in the park on a sunny day when I mentioned how great her legs looked. 'Thanks!' She beamed, 'I went spinning three times last week. My bum's looking good too!' My initial reaction to this would normally be to recoil in disbelief. 'Sorry? We aren't going to engage in a game of compliment bashing ping-pong for the next 5 minutes? Oh...right. Then we can just move on? That's it??' And that really was...it. She had owned the compliment. It was hers and she took it. And I respected her for it. Because she did, in fact, look great, and she had a reason to feel good about it. We all do.

So next time someone says something nice to you, do yourself a favour? Smile and say thank you. Woody Allen-style neurosis is so last century.