Can you take a compliment?
Why are Irish women so bad at accepting praise, asks Deirdre Reynolds
Published 01/08/2013 | 05:00
As outgoing Miss Ireland, you'd think that Rebecca Maguire is used to being showered with all manner of compliments.
But the Belfast beauty queen admits they're not always of the good type.
"I've definitely had some weird experiences," says Rebecca (21), "including being followed on the street.
"Groups of men have stopped to howl at me and say things I wouldn't repeat. It's actually quite scary."
Bestselling author Barbara Taylor Bradford has just claimed that modern women can't take a compliment.
Speaking to the Radio Times, Taylor Bradford (80), a former typist whose debut novel A Woman of Substance has sold more than 30 million copies, said: "I was born ambitious, determined, driven, so nothing was going to stop me following my dream.
"I didn't see myself as a feminist. I never had any harassment, or [experienced] feeling up.
"It's strange today that the slightest compliment can be seen as harassment. It's this generation.I don't know why."
Taylor Bradford's comments certainly haven't been taken too well by women here.
"I don't agree that women take the slightest compliment as harassment," says Radio Nova presenter Dee Woods.
"Sometimes you just don't want a running commentary – good or bad – on your appearance.
"I suppose it depends what form the 'compliment' comes in.
"One of the worst compliments I ever received was being told that I could make cheap clothes look expensive – I'm still trying to figure out how to take it!"
"I think any woman can accept a compliment if it's genuine," adds Rebecca.
"It's not just what you say, it's how you say it, too.
"Another time, I remember telling someone about my degree [in pharmacy], only for them to say, 'Oh really? You're so pretty I wouldn't have expected that.'"
Such backhanded compliments could be part of the reason that women today seem to struggle with the real thing, according to experts.
"Telling someone they're too pretty to have a degree isn't a compliment at all," says psychotherapist Trish Murphy (trishmurphy-psychotherapy.com).
"It's criticism served up as a compliment, and you don't have to accept it.
"However, it's a very interesting argument that young girls have such difficulty taking compliments.
"I think that the instinct is to take in criticisms, and hold on to them, but not take in compliments at all.
"We've been trained to do that in case we get a big head.
"Women give each other compliments that aren't genuine all the time, so we suspect the compliments given by other women," she adds.
"Even though the words sound lovely, you can tell instantly whether something is a compliment or a criticism.
"The secret to a real compliment is that it's genuine."
Although he undoubtedly meant to be flattering, US President Barrack Obama landed himself in hot water recently when he described Attorney General of California Kamala Harris as "brilliant, dedicated... [and] by far, the best-looking attorney general".
"Giving compliments is a real minefield for men," explains Trish. "What if you say something and it's taken the wrong way?
"If a woman asks 'How do I look?' and her husband says 'Fabulous', her response is 'You're just saying that so we can leave earlier'.
"If a man gives a compliment freely, women often suspect that he's after something else, and the difficulty is that some of the time that's true.
"I think when you know a man, and it's not part of the whole 'plámás', then you really do appreciate it," she says. "For example, if your teenage son says you look well, you know you look well, because they wouldn't say it otherwise."
TG4 presenter Mairéad Ní Chuaig can relate: "Irish women seen to find it very hard to take a compliment.
"Most compliments on our outfits are rebuffed with, 'Oh this old thing? Sure I picked it up in Penneys for a euro!'"
"I definitely fall into the 'Irish girls can't take a compliment' category," concedes Dee Woods.
"When someone does pass a nice remark, I usually get that real deer-in-headlights expression, before trying to offset the compliment.
"Maybe it's because we don't want to be seen as putting too much effort in.
"Working in the male-dominated world of radio, most of the compliments I get are based on my looks or voice.
"It only makes you realise that your appearance is being appraised at all times.
"But, hey, it's better than hearing insults, I suppose!"
Scooping a Razzie for Worst Actress in 2005, Oscar winner Halle Berry revealed how she learned to take the rough with the smooth.
"When I was a kid, my mother told me that if you can't be a good loser, you can't be a good winner. If you can't take criticism then you don't deserve praise."
Trish Murphy says: "We all need praise, and if it's genuinely given, it's a good thing to take it and not rubbish it.
"I think it's massively important for women to learn to say 'Thanks', as opposed to saying, 'What, this old thing?' You need to have grace to receive a compliment given honestly.
"We know the more you practise something – thoughts or actions – the more your brain becomes hardwired to it," she adds.
"So not accepting compliments from the age of 12-30 means there's an awful lot to undo.
"Parents shouldn't give children false compliments. They should give them when they are true and deserved.
"If we get a lot of false compliments, then we don't know which ones are true or not.
"By the same token, you should never hold back on saying something good to someone. When you think something positive, you should definitely say it."