Economics can explain why compliments make us feel weird

“I like your hat.”
“I like your hat.”
Image: Reuters/Marcelo del Pozo
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Despite the current strident culture of positive reinforcement—compliment often!—people can have a natural skepticism towards those who offer praise too freely. They might be searching for some linguistic way to oil the wheels of social interaction, but remain wary of those who overdo it.

It’s easy to see why. Streams of compliments can betray either insincerity or ulterior motives. Reactions to praise can be telling, too. Mark Twain, in a chapter epigraph from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar (1894) observes that ‘a dozen direct censures are easier to bear than one morganatic compliment’. The use of ‘morganatic’, or lopsided, here is interesting—while usually used to talk about marriages between a member of a high-born family and someone of an inferior rank, Twain draws attention to a sense of social inequality and anxiety that seems wrapped up in accepting a compliment.

Those who find themselves on the receiving end of compliments can be particularly bad at accepting them. There are a few well-practiced strategies for deflecting positive feedback. Perhaps the most odious is the counter-compliment: when ‘Nice jacket!’ immediately gives rise to ‘I like your dress!’ This can then be closely followed by the ever-modest: ‘This old thing? It looks like I picked it out of a trash can!’

But why do people struggle so much when receiving compliments?

One simple explanation might be that they are left at an impasse: to take a compliment is to violate the norm of modesty, yet to deflect or disagree with the compliment is to undermine its social function.

All this is perhaps partially true but it doesn’t explain why the person complimented chooses not to respond with a neutral “thank you.” In fact, to say thank you and thus, to accept the compliment, is essentially to go into debt. As any student of market exchange can explain, you can’t simply take a compliment without offering something in return.

Most of the time, people are well aware of the circumstances of exchange: they swap this for that. But in the rare circumstances when they’re not prepared with a counter-gift, they can be beset with feelings of guilt. Receiving a gift, Jacques Derrida thought, could make one feel like a debtor trapped in a cycle of economic exchange. People don’t like the feeling of being under obligation, and try to discharge the perceived inequality as quickly as possible.

Private gift-giving, as the Frankfurt school theorist Theodor Adorno worried, has become an empty ritual. There’s no denying that in at least some cases, people give gifts reluctantly. This has less to do with gift-giving itself, and more to do with the choosing of gifts. Gift-giving looks like an obligation, and a fairly widespread one at that. Sure, there is giving gifts to lovers, friends and family. But then there is also the world of white-elephant exchanges and Secret Santas, practices that keep gift-giving routines going well beyond the circles of people we know well enough to make choosing presents enjoyable.

For these forced occasions, for, say, the coworker we’ve never spoken to, there are pre-printed cards and commercial guides. Even when the receiver is well-known, people want to minimize the effort needed for gifting. A relative once sent me a gift basket of dried fruit, nuts and cured meats; both the offending party and I are vegetarians.

If gift-giving has become more transactional, with the give-and-take an end unto itself, so has complimenting.

This forced choice—fulfill your obligation to return the praise or resign yourself to guilt—comes from belonging to a society structured around commodities and their exchange. The trouble is, if compliments are transactions, feeling that we’re beholden is a natural state of affairs. To imagine that we could completely overcome our ways of thinking about compliments, however, requires rethinking our social and economic forms of life. While a tall order, this could be the true gift Adorno and Derrida were hoping for.