There are few things lovelier than being given the unexpected gift of vast sums of cash. Second to this is the joy of being given the unexpected gift of a compliment. Being told by another person that your cookery skill, legs or life saving techniques are admirable and appreciated is an absolute delight and warms the cockles of even the most frosted hearts. So why is it then that the English can’t seem to master the graceful art of accepting a compliment? It seems there’s more of an art to graciously and deftly accepting a word of kind admiration than there is to dishing the things out, due to our morbid fear that people will consider us arrogant and conceited.
Recently I wore an outfit to the office which apparently didn’t have ketchup or vomit stains on it and my buttocks weren’t hanging beneath the hem for a change. Several colleagues commented on how I looked relatively pleasing to the eye. Did I smile, thank them and move on? No. Lightning-quick I fired off exactly what was wrong with my outfit, just how crooked one of my left eyelashes is and that I actually looked like I had been dragged from the depths of a Russian landfill site. After the 24th time of doing this (apparently I really did look quite pleasing to the eye that day), I pondered this knee-jerk self-damnation and the fact I’m very far from alone in doing so.
Imagine, someone has pointed out that you have a most attractive beard (not me personally, mine’s rather the disappointment among my hirsute female relatives), your response should be to say thank you, but in your mind, that’s the same as declaring “yes, it is, isn’t it.” Someone feels compelled to inform you that you have the most charming singing voice, you should respond with “that’s nice of you to say”, but your stiff-upper-lip-upbringing tells you that would translate as “I know, the world is lucky to have me. Don’t look directly at me, you dreary voiced heathen!”. Instead, we bluster and fluster with the most intricate system of self-deprecating tongue-bumbling ever to be.
If you’re invited round to an English person’s home for a delicious home cooked meal, you can insist that it is the best meal ever to have graced your gullet, and fawn over the chef’s exquisite palate. What you will receive in return is a metaphorical slap in the face for your clearly inferior standards. Instead of accepting the compliment, the host will regale you in minute detail as to how the dish is a complete failure; tasting of camel dung, dishonour and mis-timed whisking. The night will be declared a near disaster as they self-flagellate with the tale of how the sauce should really have turned out and of how they may as well be shot in the face for the meat being 3.2 seconds over-done.
Tell a radiant beauty how her warm smile and glimmering eyes have captivated you and you will be left berated and brow beaten with an exact genetic breakdown on why you’re wrong, that she is a vile werepig with the complexion of an STD clinic table and the eyes of a sleep-deprived ferret. With almost incredulous anger she will point out just where on her body the cellulite has pooled like vomit outside a nightclub, and exactly how many excess pounds of weight currently reside around her midriff. If you’re lucky, you might just escape without a full frontal display of why she needs a trip to the bikini waxer, too.
If an English person were to save an entire hospital from burning to the ground during an earthquake, those patients might express sincere gratitude and highlight to their saviour just how heroic this mighty deed was. The hero, having scaled 4 storeys to reach the Special Care Baby Unit, using just the one arm of theirs that hadn’t been crushed under the weight of the MRI machine that fell on them as they saved 3 nurses from being trapped beneath it, will blush and mumble that it was nothing, nothing at all.
There is one phenomenon almost exclusively the preserve of the females of England, something that baffles and entertains in equal measure. It is a well known fact that you cannot compliment an English woman on her outfit without her informing you exactly where she bought it (prefixed with “oh, it’s only from…” and, triumphantly, how cheap it was. No-one has ever actually asked a woman where she got her clothing, the compliment was merely a courtesy, but still, quick as a dead goldfish round a greased u-bend, unsolicited defensive shopping tips are bestowed in full.
So, what is the solution? Do we all learn to pipe down and mug up? Do we grit our teeth and learn to graciously accept the proffered compliment with a stoic smile, and not bumble our gums? This would be the kind thing to do to the person paying lip service, who has gone out of their way to attempt to inject a little spring in your step, a sprinkle of joy in your day, who in return deserves the warm glow of gratitude and not a verbal smackdown. Do we learn to accept these bon mots with grace and a succinct thank you? Don’t be daft, we’re English.