Log on to Facebook and you’ll see a stream of life events from your friends and acquaintances, and a bevy of likes and supportive comments. “How cute!!!” someone posts in response to a photo of my friend’s baby. “Looks amazing!” says someone else about another friend’s garden. “You’re an amazing educator and mentor,” a woman comments on a shot of my old high school teacher with his students. Social media has made keeping in touch with friends and acquaintances easier than ever, and now that the average American spends 5.5 hours on social media every week, more of our social interactions are now happening online. We post, in part, to inform our networks about our life, but also because each like or flattering comment is a little hit of affirmation (pdf).
Before the internet, those compliments would have been given face-to-face, prompting you to give an immediate response. When getting a compliment in person, receivers are faced with a dilemma: should you accept the compliment and risk seeming arrogant, or reject it and risk seeming ungrateful? Research on compliments has uncovered the many ways people navigate the careful balance (pdf) between graciousness and humility. Say a friend writes glowingly of your new haircut; you can accept the compliment with a simple “thanks,” reject it by calling the complimenter’s bluff (“you don’t have to lie to me!”), deflect credit to someone else (“all credit should go to my hairdresser”), or reciprocate by saying something nice back to your complimenter (“means a lot coming from the most stylish person I know!”).
But social media provides a different set of options. Because you’re not having a face-to-face conversation in real time, the lag between the initial compliment and your response changes how compelled you might feel to respond. You might respond with a personalized message responding to each compliment, or post a blanket “thanks for the birthday wishes!” Social media also adds new ways of responding, such as “liking” a comment or responding with an emoticon, or—most notably—the option to not respond at all.
That’s a big change from an in-person interaction. If you saw a friend at a cookout and congratulated them on their new job, only to be met with a blank stare, you might be concerned your friend is experiencing a break from reality. But the new norms of online interactions allow the receiver of a compliment to ignore the message, and that’s often what people do. In one study of over 1,000 compliments posted to Facebook pages of American women, only 19% of compliments received a response. Of the roughly 200 responses that received a response, 26% were just a “like.”
The researchers interviewed the women about what determines whether they craft a response. First off, where the message appears matters. For instance, women reported that a compliment posted directly to your Facebook wall merits a response more than a comment on a friend-of-a-friend’s photo. They also report that the quality of a message matters: specific compliments, rather than a short, generic message like “nice,” were more likely to garner a response, or comments that encouraged further interaction, like asking where the photo was taken. Research on Facebook birthday wishes also supports that sentiment—while canned “Happy birthday!” messages don’t mean a lot to recipients, a personalized message makes people feel cared for (pdf), and in particular, personalized wishes that included an inside joke were most likely to drive the birthday person to respond.
Cultural norms, too, may play a role in how people respond to compliments. Researchers report that during face-to-face interactions, people living in eastern cultures are more likely to reject compliments than to accept them, and from recent research, it seems they may also be more likely to respond to friends’ well wishes: a 2015 study of Iranian Facebook users found that 84% of compliments received a response (though the majority of responses were “likes” or emoticons), while a 2018 study found that English-Mandarin bilinguals responded to about two-thirds of the compliments they received on Facebook and Chinese social networking site Renren. (The researchers also found that on Facebook, these bilinguals were more likely to adopt Western values by “accepting” compliments, but were more modest on Renren.)
It’s unclear exactly how these online interactions bleed into our IRL relationships. Facebook researchers report that Facebook interactions strengthen social relationships, so I asked María Elena Placencia, a researcher at the University of Birkbeck in London and a co-author of the American Facebook compliment study, whether giving or receiving a compliment online might strengthen social bonds. She said she wasn’t aware of any research on the topic, but what we do know is that existing social bonds affect how people interact online.
In interviews with the Facebook users in the 2016 study, participants said they were more likely to respond to compliments from people they’re close to—a comment from a middle school acquaintance might not get a response, but a former roommate might. When they’re crafting a post, they say it’s fine if they don’t get responses; they concede that their friends may have just missed their posts while offline, or were too lazy to type out a response on their phones.
But Placencia says that might vary by age. Young women she’s interviewed have said it’s important for them to get compliments on social media, and in a soon-to-be-published study of Ecuadorian teenage girls, one girl said she expects her close friends and family to like and comment on their Instagram posts as a sign of their allegiance. “If she doesn’t receive ‘likes,’ she feels bad, as it suggests that the picture that she had uploaded was not very good,” says Placencia. Meanwhile, older participants haven’t copped to their expectation for likes; whether that’s an actual generational difference or just that older adults might be less likely to admit to their need for validation is yet to be determined.
Either way, says Placencia, “there is likely to be some disagreement about what constitutes (in)appropriate or polite/impolite behavior.” And as platforms roll out new features that allow one-click interactions, like Facebook’s “reactions” or Gmail’s canned email replies, it will become harder for the recipient of a message to know how much thought the sender put into it—and how to reply appropriately.