A 2012 study by Japanese researchers suggested that compliments help people to learn and perform new skills. The same researchers equated receiving compliments with receiving cash; both light up the reward system of our brain, the striatum. A 2017 study conducted in Switzerland equated receiving compliments with sex; both excited our brain’s reward system and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which heads up social decision making.
Pop psychologists and bloggers on the topic have been eager to offer advice — often, specifically to women. — A 2004 Psychology Today article was adamant that the only proper way to accept a compliment was “graciously and with a smile” and warned the heedless female reader about the social perils of discounting a compliment in any manner typical of women. “Such answers suck the positivity out of the air and deflate the donor,” it read. In 2015, a Bustle writer offered “7 Tips for Accepting Compliments,” based on the view that “the idea of the human female as meek, humble, shy, and retiring is all very well if you’re a 13th century nun, but it’s hamstringing us radically in the 21st century — and running away from compliments is a symptom.”
But even longer ago, in the ’70s and ’80s, the compliment was poked and prodded by sociolinguistic experts. This robust body of research is still being used today at the University of Minnesota to teach adult English as a Second Language students the American way of accepting compliments.
According to experts at the university’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, two thirds of the time, Americans respond to compliments with something other than, or in addition to, “Thank you.” We shift credit (“My mom picked this dress out for me.”), make a historical comment (“I bought it on sale.”), question the complimenter (“Hmm, you think so?”) or lob back a compliment (“I like your outfit, too.”). Other times we downgrade the compliment (“This thing is so old I was about to give it to Goodwill.”), reject it outright (“I feel like I look like a hobo.”) or treat the compliment as a request (“You want to borrow it?”).
In other words, in the United States, the compliment is a coded invitation to chitchat, and simply saying, “Thank you” linguistically slams the door in the complimenter’s face.
“It’s a platitude that language opens doors,” said Andrew Cohen, a professor emeritus of second language studies at University of