Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Gracious Goodness

 My mother is a good cook.  Not an innovative chef, but a good old-fashioned Southern casserole kind of cook. My kids would begggggggg to eat over there when they were little. No Meal-In-5-minutes pretend-cooking at Manda’s house. No spaghetti with a jar poured over it. No chicken breasts just floating around in watery mushroom soup. (At least not without at least 5 or 6 other ingredients mixed in.)

She could throw quite an elegant dinner party in her day. Or a bridge club luncheon. Or a little cocktail party with fancy hors d’oeuvres. She was even on the Cookbook committee of the Junior Assembly in 1962 or ‘3… smack in the middle of the ultra-chic Mad Men years. (Jackie Kennedy even sent in a recipe from the White House. I’m sure it was hand-written, too.)

Anyway, my mother has received a fair amount of praise for her cooking over the years.

But I have never heard her accept a compliment without a caveat.

If someone said they liked the green beans, she’d respond, “Oh, I’m afraid they were a little too salty.”  If she heard, “Amanda, that pie was divine,” she would say, “Well, the apples weren’t very tart.”  If someone commented that the casserole was delicious, she’d counter with, “Oh, I hope it was okay. I thought it was kind of dry.”

Or, better yet, she’d head you off at the pass. Before you even sat down at the table, she’d warn you. “This isn’t very good,” she’d say, while removing the dish from the oven. 

Oh, yummy, we’d think. But then it really would be. Absolutely yummy.

Growing up, I thought that this was just how polite women were supposed to respond to compliments. To show that you weren’t proud or conceited… the deadliest of sins.

“I love your dress.”

“This old thing? It looks like a sack on me.”

“You look great.”

“No I don’t. I look like death-warmed-over.”

“Your house is gorgeous.”

“It’s a wreck.”

“You’re so pretty.”

“No, I’m not. You are.”

Self-deprecation was learned along with the Greater Catechism.

This irritates me now. In myself and others.

I wonder if it is some kind of generational bondage, passed down to women through their mother’s milk. Maybe it’s a cultural thing that will die out with my generation. I don’t hear Kate Gosselin putting herself down all the time. Or P. Hilton or LiLo or the Kardashians. Au contraire.

Perhaps it is strictly regional. For instance, you would rarely, if ever, hear a native Southern woman refer to her “absolutely maaarrrrvelous” parsnips, as Martha Stewart inevitably does. Then again, maybe it’s because we don’t eat many parsnips down here. But Martha also compliments herself on her faaabbbbbulous flower arrangements, her hand-knit hats with adorable earflaps, and her precious placecards made from pinecones. So I don’t know.

Maybe it’s okay to brag on yourself if you’re from the Northeast. Social mores do differ from region to region. All I know is I try to avoid Martha whenever possible. Self-aggrandizement gripes me just as much as its converse.

I started this piece a good while back. It was one of the 50 or so unfinished masterpieces lingering around in Documents. Some are just a few sentences or two. Ideas that never hatched.

But a couple of things made me go search for this one.

First was Marianne’s wonderful post, Beautiful Love. (Read it... second one down; won't let me link directly for some reason.) Marianne’s son, who has Downs syndrome, told her that she is beautiful. And she told him that he was wrong.

The second thing was the post I wrote clarifying the previous one. Trying to make sure I wasn’t misunderstood.

Now the two things seem unrelated. But I think that something on a spiritual level connects them, albeit tenuously.

A spirit of self-consciousness.

The issue is a concern about how we appear to ourselves and others.

Whether defending or degrading ourselves. Taking credit and/or blame. Whether it stems from low self-esteem or false modesty. Or even pride.

Marianne’s post made me think about how self-conscious I am. How I can’t accept a compliment (or a criticism) graciously.

How every time someone says, “Kim, you look good today,” I usually respond: “No, I don’t. I’ve got bags under my eyes.” Or, “I'm bloated.” Or, “I’m having a bad hair day.” How I always counter, “It wasn’t very good,” whenever my son-in-law compliments my cooking.

And I thought about how many, many women I know who do the same thing. How a friend will make excuses for the gift as she offers it. How another will tell me “she’s a ‘bad friend’ because she didn’t do xyz.” How some will just completely reject any positive comment about their appearance. Or anything else. How my mother always argues with you about the casserole.

Self-consciousness (unconsciously) disguised as modesty or humility?

It occurs to me that this is a bad thing on many levels. We are taking credit or blame for things that we were given. We make it all about us.

When it isn’t.

“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive?” (I Corinthians 4:7)

What if we were less conscious of ourselves, and more conscious of the gifts we’ve been given?

Because each of us has been given unique gifts. What if we embraced them gratefully and joyfully, instead of disparagingly? What if we truly understood that God made us exactly the way we are for a reason? What if we more consistently recognized the true source of our identity?

I wonder if it hurts His feelings when we disdain and belittle the gifts He’s given us… whether it’s abilities, attributes, or even possessions. Because everything He made is good. He doesn’t give us useless junk.

I’ll make you a promise.

The next time I get a compliment, I am going to make a concerted effort to respond graciously. I am going to try to stifle that self-effacing Southern girl, and recognize that the speaker is acknowledging a gift I’ve received from my Father. Even if I don’t recognize it as such.

I am going to try very hard to simply say

thank you.


Does anyone else struggle with this? Do you think it is a generational/regional phenomenon, or is it more universal? What do you think it stems from? Does the Media Ideal of perfection enter in? What are your thoughts?

(p.s. anyone who mentions this post to my mother is gonna be in some deep doodoo.)


Susan said...

Wow. When I read Marianne's post, I immediately thought, "Me, too!! I do that!" And then I started thinking about all the other women I know who do the exact same thing. I don't think southern women are taught how to graciously accept a compliment. We thank everybody for everything - in writing, no less - but we just can't say "thank you" when someone acknowleges our talents, gifts, contributions, abilities, etc. It is an embarrassment to have someone point out that we do something - anything - well. When I was a child, I began taking the whole thing one step beyond all that. I would not even admit to knowing things and would have to be tricked to give an answer. My favorite response was, "I don't know," when I knew perfectly well! But I couldn't resist when someone would purposely give the wrong answer and I would very helpfully give the right one to them - quietly, of course, so it wouldn't draw attention or hurt their feelings. I have learned that it is all right to be smart, but I still struggle with the whole compliment thing. I, too, am making a conscious effort to just say "thank you" and leave it at that. Very hard to do!! I think you are on to something with that whole regional/southern idea. I know many women from other parts of the country who have no trouble accepting compliments. But, I must say, I am right with you on that Martha Stewart thing - makes me want to scream, but I am too polite. And for me, English peas are English peas, and no matter how you gussy them up and brag about them, they are not marvelous and I will not eat them.

Laurel said...

LOL @ Susan! At our house English peas are "bally peas" and we love them dearly. With lots of butter.

I can't remember precisely when but at some time during my Southern childhood someone advised me to always accept a compliment graciously. The explanation given was that if someone says something nice to or about you and you contradict them, you have invalidated their opinion. Looking at it that way makes it easier to simply say "Thanks. That's nice to hear."

And just yesterday I had this conversation with my six year old son, who is sporting a new haircut. His teacher said she liked it and he, embarrassed, didn't say anything. We practiced saying nice things to each other and thank you back for about five minutes. I told him the more he practices, the easier it gets to say "thank you" instead of be embarrassed.

Rebecca said...

I guess being the baby of my family I suffered more from thinking everything I did or everyone thought I was wonderful. For a long time I thought my name was "Darling" because that's what I was called. I know Marianne from way back and I've always thought she's beautiful. Her joy in life, her humor, everything about her made people want to be around her -that is beauty to me. Kim was always gorgeous and smart. She was funny and quick and kind (even in those transition friendship years in high school). That is beauty to me. I also believe accepting an accolade with a simple "Thank you" is the most gracious way to acknowledge another's comment.(OH! and I guess I've NEVER had a problem showing how much I know!! I am my mother's daughter, after all :)

The letter writer said...

Oh my gosh--a daily struggle of mine! I catch myself prefacing things I say, too. "I may be wrong, but..." "This may be a dumb question, but..."

I'm also working on the simple thank you, but it can be surprisingly hard. I do it the worst with my husband who, of all people, I should trust in his compliments. This is definitely one Southern-ism I wouldn't mind losing!

Kim said...

So good to know I'm not alone! Dysfunction loves company.

Rebecca, I got one thing to say to you:


Wow, that was really hard. I wanted to contradict you on every point, but I DIDN'T. See, I'm growing!! (btw, send me your email! (

Now, I'd also love to hear from folks from other parts of the country (world) so we can figure out if it truly is just a regional curse.

The Retarded Mother said...

Well, darn. Once again I'm learning something from Kim.
Thank you, Rebecca.
Thank you, Kim.
(That wasn't so hard, now was it?) Yikes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Love love love this community! I bet we're so different and yet so alike. Look what a fellowship you've allowed, Kim.
You beautiful person, you.

Ginny said...

This Alabama baby boomer has learned to reply to a compliment with, "why, thank you", like it comes as a complete surprise. Now if I know the compliment is totally unwarrented I'll say, "I don't know about that". I don't want to hurt someone's feelings by completely rejecting their effort to be polite.

Anonymous said...

I used to do this very same thing and after some pretty extensive work on myself, I just started doing the simplest thing: saying "thank you" whenever anyone complimented me. (I still do the thing about the food, working on that one, but in regards to my appearance, etc.). It was hard at first--to just stop after the simple "thank you", but like anything else, it became a habit. I smile, say thank you and try to remember that I never get this day back, good, bad or otherwise. Try it!! I bet it will work for you too!!!

Anonymous said...

I do believe it to be a Southern thing. I am from Alabama and I know I certainly do just like your mom.

Kim said...

What a great post! I remember as a little girl when my Dad would compliment me and I got embarrassed, he taught me to say "thank you". Period. I still remember his words when I feel embarrassed if someone compliments my looks.

But the best comment I ever heard anyone say when they were complimented on their talent was, "thank you, that is very kind of you". I hear this man's words echo in my ears when I am complimented. It really turns the attention off of me, and is always received well.

Donna said...

Wow Ladies, I am so glad to hear that I am not alone. I have such a hard time accepting compliments. I am from California and not only does my mother do this, I do too! So I don't think it is just a Southern thing. But I have learned something new, that I was questioning the person's opinion that was giving me the compliment. I have never thought of it that way and the next time I am given a compliment my reply will be, "why thank you, that was very kind of you to say so"!

Peggy Dabbs said...

This Alabama Belle, now transplanted in Houston cannot
graciously accept a compliment
either. It really embarrasses me
to have anyone praise me in any way. I am "trying" to learn to do
better in this regard. Maybe there
is hope for all of our "sistas"
that have posted here! Love you

Emily Adams Hester said...

I've lived all my life in the South and I know every female in my family responds negatively to a compliment. Thank you for shining a light on this bad habit.

Anonymous said...

I have learned that when you don't accept a compliment graciously it draws more attention to yourself. For example, if someone comes for dinner and tells you how delicious your lasagna is, the first tendency is to say, "Well, actually, I don't know why, but this time it's really dry and somehow the sauce evaporated or something" and on and on. The guest then needs to compliment you more to convince you you're a good cook and they enjoyed your meal. It's a hard thing but I'm learning to bite my lip and say, "why thank you"!!

Great post again, Kim -- thank you!

Susan H

Julie said...

I have been following Katherine's story from day one and now your blog and just anonymously lurking but I have to tell you how much I love this post! And it made me laugh as I remembered an encounter years ago when I worked at a historic performing arts center and had to deal with an irate patron who (totally using the term out of context and inappropriately) told me that she was "sorry and didn't meant to sound self-defecating but..." ... and the rest of the sentence was lost on me because she had me at self-defecatin'!

Regardless...self-defecating,'s a Southern thing! We don't know how to just say thank you and move on. None of us do.

Love the seeing the miracles taking and Katherine inspire me.

Kim said...

What a hoot!

I need to write that one down. It says it all!!

Thanks for sharing.


Suz.Q said...

I read recently that the inability to graciously accept a compliment can be annoying, disrespectful and is a form of self-deprecation. Not accepting a compliment both undermines yourself and insults the giver because you infer they don't know what they're talking about. The simple "Thank you" works.