First Say Thank You, Then Close Your Mouth

Usually, I like to think, I’m pretty good at handling compliments. I try to be modest and self-effacing at such times, even if they involve dubious assertions such as, “You look just like my cousin June.” Brief pause. “I hate my cousin June.”

Why, thank you!

But, sometimes I get a flattering remark that unhinges me a little. That happened when my friend Nancy came up to me at a party last year and announced that, from the back, I looked like I was in my twenties. I thanked her effusively, but then had to spend the rest of the evening wondering whether I should just try to avoid facing people so they could see my best side all the time.

I mentioned this to Nancy recently at another party and she claimed she didn’t quite remember saying it. (“What? I said that? Are you sure?”) But she did, I swear. I never forget a compliment. I would have turned my back on her so she could see how great I still looked from behind, but it wasn’t that kind of party.

Anyway, as a self-diagnosed praise slut, I was completely overwhelmed last month when not one but two friends told me I was stylish. It was pretty early in the day and neither of them had been drinking, as far as I could tell. So, I thanked them as nicely as I could, all the time thinking that our society must be on the verge of a massive crack-up if people like me are considered stylish.

Admittedly, from time to time, I do manage to pull myself together for an occasion. I usually choose clothes based on my own, personal fashion litmus test — i.e., if I wear that, will I have to hold my stomach in? If so, forget it and go for the baggy.

Similarly, I do have some dim awareness that I have a certain way of dressing that is tried and true. I know this mainly because my husband has mentioned that any new clothes I buy look exactly like my old clothes.

Oh, sure, I could take this utterance as an insult that indicates I’m in a total wardrobe rut. But I choose to take it as a compliment that focuses on my unerring sense of what doesn’t look hideous on me. (This interpretation probably comes from page 397 of the Book of the Long Married: “When your spouse makes an ambiguous comment about you, try to interpret it as favorably as possible.”)

But stylish? Much as I’d like to think I am, I’m too aware of my own shortcomings, as I stumble through life with split ends and neck tags flailing, with scarves that get tangled up in my purse straps and threaten to strangle me. You think I exaggerate? You should see me in my new belt, which looks pretty good when it’s on — but has an alarming tendency to pop loose and plummet to the floor; it is difficult to look chic when your accessories are flying off you.

Oh, but what the hell. On page 601 of the Book of the Long Lived, it tells you to accept any compliment that comes your way, cut out the protests, just say thank you and then shut up. So I try to do that, even if I’m usually forced to keep my best side to the wall.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read a related post about the permanent absence of a fashion icon ever since Jackie O died

5 comments… add one
  • Seems like a conundrum. Compliment – yes, of course. And I totally get the wait-a-minute response that went on in your brain. But after careful consideration, I say just go with the truth, which is the compliment.

  • “… it is difficult to look chic when your accessories are flying off you.”

    Oh, Ruth! I dearly love that statement! All fashion tips should be so succinct.

    As for me, I dread hearing a compliment of any variety. It causes me to start mistrusting the judgment of my friends, and more so of strangers. I start thinking, “are they just using a form of sarcasm that is over my head?” Or, “I thought they had better taste.” Or, “are they laying the groundwork for plans to touch me up for a loan later?”
    I could never, knowingly, attract attention. And, think, when I was very young, I wanted to become a child superstar! I was jealous of Spanky McFarland, Jane Withers, Jackie Cooper– of everybody under four feet who had ever graced the silver screen! Hindsight tells me my career would have started precariously and rapidly run downhill.

    As for you, Ruth, just continue being a true fashion plate– or, at least, a saucer.

  • I have a great belt that looks very stylish. It hooks rather than buckles and you are supposed to keep it loose so it rests on you hips for an attractive V in the front. Problem is the damn thing falls in the toilet when I need to go.

  • At least you wear accessories. They mostly stump me, so I avoid them.

  • Hilarious — looking 20 from the back. You’re gorgeous from the front too Ruth (and on the inside, where it really matters). As for accepting compliments, I can totally relate. Culturally, we Aussies don’t like reveling in praise (we used to call it “having tickets on yourself” meaning you think you’re all that.) But I too have learned the hard way — and repeatedly — to just say thank you and close my trap.

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