Reader Request Week 2011 #5: Taking Compliments

Blake asks:

Can you ever just accept a compliment when you get one? Just a curious thought that passed through my mind when reading your answer to the poll that OMW was number one on.

In fact, my standard operating procedure when someone compliments me or my work is to say “thank you,” without too much else in elaboration. I went ahead and overthought the poll and what it meant because, hey, it’s Reader Request Week and I don’t think Gareth wanted a one-answer response to his question. But in a general sense I think it’s bad grace, or simply just awkward, to get defensive or overly modest when it comes to being complimented by someone. It’s also not a good idea to go the other direction (“I enjoyed your book.” “Well, of course you did, how could you do otherwise?”). So I find a simple “Thank you” will suffice on nearly every occasion.

That said, there is a certain type of compliment that I go out of my way to respond to in a qualified manner, and that are those compliments I get that come wrapped in a dismissal of someone else or their work, i.e., “I love your books, they’re so much better than the crap [insert author name here] is putting out these days.” Well, thanks, but now I feel that if I accept your compliment, I’m implicit in your trashing of [insert author name here]. If I’m going to trash [insert author name here], I’d prefer to do it under my own steam and not get backed into it. Also sometimes [insert author name here] is a friend of mine; I mean, I know a lot of authors at this point.

I’ll also usually say something additional if I’m complimented for something that I didn’t do. I’m occasionally complimented on my book covers, for example; in which case I’ll say “Thank you. John Harris (or Vincent Chong, or Shelley Eshkar, etc) did a great job” or something along that line, because there’s nothing wrong with crediting work and sharing the love.

I do think people and particularly authors aren’t always comfortable accepting compliments, partly because of standard-issue neuroticism, and partly because no one wants to look like a smug prick. But just as being an author means learning to accept negative reviews, it also means getting used to the idea that people really do like your work and genuinely want to thank you for giving them something they value in their life. You don’t want to make a big deal of it, but I don’t think you should dismiss it, either, because when you do that you in a small way and quite unintentionally devalue their experience of the thing. Don’t do that. The best and simplest thing to do is to say “thank you.”

Conversely, how to give a compliment: Whenever possible, keep it simple. For authors, “I really enjoyed your book,” is always a good short one, as an example. I think there’s a temptation to try to overelaborate compliments because you want them to be different, but speaking as someone who gets compliments from time to time, sincerity and simplicity almost always work, and almost never get old. I think there’s nothing wrong with saying more, if for example there’s something specific about a work that speaks to you; additionally if your attachment to a work is really profound, it’s okay to say so (“What a fantastic book. It was my favorite this year”). I also think there’s nothing wrong with being silly or elaborate with a compliment, if you’re complimenting someone you know well and who can tolerate your silliness. But when in doubt, as with so many things, sincerity and simplicity are always good strategies.

It’s not too late to ask questions for Reader Request Week — post your questions at this link.

21 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2011 #5: Taking Compliments”

  1. I wrote you a private email a few years ago and I stand by it: Thank you for rekindling my love of reading. The OWM trilogy was the first fiction I had read in years and it has springboarded me into reading for enjoyment again. Thank you.

  2. I don’t remember where I read/heard it first (it could easily have been here), but I try very very hard to just say “thank you” when someone compliments my work. It seems to me that, for whatever reason, this is something that is very difficult for creative types; I know it is for me. However, I’ve found that it’s easier if it’s something I spent a lot of time and effort producing. But if it’s something I feel like I just whacked together I have a tendency to kind of deflect the compliment.

    I wonder why it’s such a difficult thing for a lot of people?

  3. I really enjoyed this post… it’s very much like The Whatever of before OMW. Just you, a topic, and some thoughts. I know life is different now, so your energies are directed elsewhere, but I do like it when you’ve got the time to meditate on stuff. And things. Mustn’t forget the things.

  4. Best advice I ever received about taking a compliment:

    1. Shut up.
    2. Smile.
    3. Say, “Thank you.”

    It’s worked for me for twenty years.

  5. One of my friends was playing Dragon Age 2, and decided you must be writing for BioWare now, as one quest made him laugh like a loon, and the next made him blubber like a baby. It’s our best compliment to say something Scalzi’d us :)

  6. I wonder why it’s such a difficult thing for a lot of people?

    I can’t speak for John or anyone else who creates on a deadline, but for me I usually feel that something I’ve made could have been better if I’d had more time, budget, or talent. So when somebody tells me that a gadget I designed works really well for them, I don’t want to believe it.

    I have learned (finally) to not disagree with them though. A simple “thank you” is really the best answer.

  7. #4 by Pat:

    Yes, that. But sometimes it can be hard to stop at #3 and not be dismissive of the compliment. (Which as John points out is devaluing. Not to mention a but rude, when you think about it.)

    Another common reaction to compliments is for the recipient is to go into full-on apologizing for failing to be better, which seems to be something some folks (more often women, I think) seem to have been socialized to do. Ugh.

  8. John,

    Thank you! That thoroughly answered my question.

    And, just to top this Q&A session with a nice, neat, little bow, I really enjoyed Old Man’s War. I’m looking forward to reading “The Ghost Brigades.”

    Thanks again,


  9. #6, Dave H: Remember, though, the person you’re talking to doesn’t know what was in your head. They are responding to what you actually DID. If they like it, that’s good.

  10. I was reading blog entries by Lilith Saintcrow and she referenced your blog policies and procedures. I had to look them up after that, of course, and I got totally sucked in to your world! Nice work on your part. It’s always great to find that books I enjoy come from authors I can enjoy.

    And saying thank you in response to compliments is the best way to go, even if you do feel you’ve said it dozens of times already. It’s still true, right?

    Your wit and humor will draw me back soon. I have to go now and buy all of your books to read and re-read!

  11. I think Stephen Fry explained once that for years he modestly tried to disclaim praise – “Oh, stop it, no, I was terrible.” At some point he decided that this a) looked like fishing for more compliments and b) basically said to the person who was praising you that they were wrong to like his performance, which is rude.

  12. I wonder why it’s such a difficult thing for a lot of people?

    The first times someone complimented on something (not writing), I didn’t know what to do because it hadn’t happened to me before. I wasn’t used to the idea that a stranger might notice me in a nice way, rather than the sort of way where I needed to start running. My instincts were that if I’d been noticed, it was about to get bad, and I needed to get away.

    It took a few years before I learnt to say “thank you” and not try to escape.

    So life experience does play a part. In order to be good at receiving compliments, you need to have some experience of dealing with them. That’s not an experience everyone has.

  13. Last time I was unexpectedly introduced to an author whose work I admire (I didn’t know him by sight, and I didn’t know who it was until the introducer said his name), I had the wit to say, “Oh! I’ve enjoyed your fiction. Thank you for writing it.”

    And he thanked me in return, and passed on his way, as I’d expected the flow of the situation to do. That’s what I call a brief, pleasant exchange.

  14. One of my best experiences was a few years ago. I walked up to the guitarist for a band I had just seen play and said, “thanks, that was awesome”. He looked up, smiled, and said “thanks, man”. And then to my surprise continued by asking if I had heard the band before plus a few other related questions that were actually inquisitive and not just pro forma. I was stunned that he actually cared what I thought. Conversation then led to a couple hours at the bar just talking music, influences, like, dislikes, etc. That band went from one I listened to occasionally to one of my favorites of all time and whose new releases are now always at the top of my purchase list.

  15. I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ll avoid taking compliments when possible. When necessary, I’ll accept compliments graciously and, to add sincerity, will add some short, related statement of secondary thanks. If it is a credit that should be shared, I do so, gladly. If the compliment follows somebody else being trashed (which definitely happens), I stay away from the negative side entirely and and am merely gracious that they liked whatever they liked.

    On the other side, with name brand writers I am polite, cordial, respectful, and all that good stuff, but try to avoid being a fan (even if I am). Who the f… am I and who cares?

    Yet, oddly I suppose, I do sometimes write personal letters to new or unknown writers that impress me. Don’t know that it means anything; my name is ‘modest’ at best. I have received a couple of touching responses, so maybe it’s okay to pick your spots.

  16. Well, in the spirit of this post, I wanted to thank you for your awesome writing! The poem in Zoe’s Tale by her boyfriend is one of my favorite poems of all times. It never fails to move me to tears. Thanks!

  17. It’s hard for me to just say “Thank you”, I don’t know why (too many non-compliments addressed my way in my youth, perhaps.) Just last night I was being complimented for something I do, and one of the ladies snapped “Stop demurring, Tom, and say ‘Thank you’.” Yes, ma’am.

  18. Thank you for writing “Old Man’s War”. What I liked about Heinlein + something new. A great read, wish there was more (& I’ve read the others but I read far too quickly… useful for contracted research, eh?)

  19. Oh, & would suggest the usage of ones’s “cuppa tea” as in “the exploding avacado is not my cuppa tea” instead of stating it’s one’s “cup of tea” as I suspect the former more accurately conveys the thought over the latter…

  20. Darms @19: “Cup of tea” is perfectly cromulent. “Cuppa” is a noun that by itself implies a cup of tea, so you wouldn’t normally write “cuppa tea” as it would seem redundant. “It’s not my cuppa” would work, though.