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  • Jan Flynn

She Meant it as a Compliment, But . . .

It’s what you’d say to an old lady

Here’s how it went down

I was leaving the store just as she was entering. A dark-haired woman, attractive, probably in her late 30s or early 40s. She swept in through the double doors on a gust of energy and fresh air, her companion, another woman, trailing her. Seeing me in passing, she smiled brightly. “Oh, you look so pretty!” she said.

“Thank you,” I said, a little startled. She swept past me.

The whole exchange took two seconds, tops. But I stepped out of that store into an altered reality. I’d walked in as myself, a woman of a certain age, comfortable in my skin, happy with my silver pixie hair, moving my yoga-toned body through my day with purpose.

I walked out wondering if the rest of the world saw me as a doddering old dear.

Think I’m overreacting?

If so, let’s deconstruct. To be accurate, the woman didn’t just say, “Oh, you look so pretty.” She said, “Oooooh, you look so preeeeetty!!”

The way you would speak to a little girl in a sparkly dress or to someone’s toy poodle. Or to an old lady.

I know that tone of voice. It’s the one I used to hear lobbed at nursing home residents, back when I visited my mother in the years following her stroke. My older sister employed it all the time, bestowing old-lady compliments on random inmates like candy: Oh, don’t you look preeeetty in all your bright colors! Look at you, with your hair all done, don’t you look loooovely!

I would cringe inwardly even while I smiled at the objects of my sister’s regard, these women who were just trying to totter or wheel themselves down the hall. For their part, if they responded at all, it was with polite but weary smiles, apparently all the reinforcement my sister needed.

My sister meant well. But those old ladies weren’t fooled.

Don’t get me wrong; I love compliments

As Mark Twain once said, I can live for two months on a good compliment. One of the advantages of having hung out for a good number of decades here on Earth is that I’ve learned something about compliments, both how to respond to them and how to give them.

As a young ‘un, I did all the wrong things when receiving a compliment. If somebody told me they liked my haircut, I’d make some crack about how this was the only style I’d found that didn’t make my head look like a coconut. Or I’d do the awkward, knee-jerk reciprocal thing: I love YOURS!

Despite my appetite for approval, I found other unconscious and graceless ways to respond when someone commented positively on my work or achievements or, especially, my looks. Being still young and silly, I was hardly alone in this habit.

But it’s a habit everybody needs to get over. Thankfully, I had an older woman in my life who set me straight. She was a respected, rather formidable professor, who, when I’d clumsily demurred after she’d made a nice observation about my work, arched one eyebrow and said:

“When someone gives you a compliment, simply say, ‘thank you.’ And leave it at that. Anything else is a rejection.”

Her remark was equal parts rebuke and permission, and I never forgot it. And here’s the thing: as soon as I stopped my reflexive deflection and simply said thank you, I was also able to simply enjoy whatever compliments I received.

A good compliment is a gift, one given freely, without expectation of any return besides acknowledgment — the gracious and appreciative “thank you” that is all that needs to be said. After all, a compliment’s whole purpose is to make its recipient feel good — assuming the compliment is sincere.

Back-handed, manipulative, or passive-aggressive compliments (“I love the way you just wear anything!”) are a different species, and a topic for another day. Let us return to the compliment bestowed upon me by the younger woman at the store.

I am sure she meant well

She was a perfect stranger, who out of an abundance of goodwill had simply taken the moment to say something nice in passing — to an old lady.


Perhaps she thought she was lifting my spirits, because those of us in our dotage can use all the encouragement we can get. Maybe she hopes to look as intact and mobile when she reaches her later years. Maybe I reminded her of someone.

Who is an old lady.

I’m glad I said “thank you” and left it at that. She was, like my sister on those nursing home visits, just trying to be nice. And maybe it’s time I readjusted my sense of how I look to the outside world — aging, I’ve learned, is a continuing process of readjustment.

Something else I’ve learned: compliments only work as intended when given to people you regard as your equal or a bit above. Unless you really are talking to a child or a pet. Otherwise, you’re either patronizing or fawning.

There’s always a little risk in giving compliments, especially to strangers, because you can’t be certain how they’ll land. I take that risk often myself, because when a compliment works it’s like a superpowered smile, something that has the power to brighten someone’s day. In that spirit, I will continue to appreciate any compliments I receive, and to freely offer my own whenever I can.

But should you come across me tottering about somewhere in the world and you want to brighten my day, don’t tell me I look soo preeeetty.

Tell me I look like a badass.

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