As professional women of color, my girlfriends and I are constantly dishing about work over booze and greasy food. In my mind, it's the cheaper, browner, better version of Sex and the City (aka Girlfriends, duh). I cherish these moments because it's such a luxury to have this space for communion. We laugh about absurd microaggressions in the workplace, compare wounds and horror stories, and share survival strategies for navigating spaces that weren't meant for us. Inevitably, the problem of impostor syndrome and compliments comes up.
Even in the most affirming spaces, compliments give us trouble. We don't quite devolve into the absurdist tennis match of flattery that Inside Amy Schumer depicted, but we're definitely not that good at accepting praise. Compliments are sticky and intimate in a way that's revealing. Compliments force you to engage with the uncomfortable idea of how others see you — and even more uncomfortable — how you see yourself. So even though compliments are part of the minutiae of work and personal relationships, their power and weight should not be underestimated.
After all, "humility" and "gratefulness" can be coded for marginalized peoples — symptomatic of a larger erasure. When you enter a space in which you have historically not existed (like many of my friends' schools and workplaces), you are supposed to be humble and grateful just to be there. Which, you are. But you are also often angry and hurt and have questions, the kind of criticism that gets undermined when you deny or downplay your value out of politeness.
It has been a journey, but I have reached a point where I am not stumbling over my existence whenever someone compliments me. As with most things in life, I ask myself, "What would Oprah do?" There are a million Oprah interviews I like to share with my girlfriends, but there's one in particular that I like to share with them when we are talking about being better at taking compliments. In the corpus of glorious interviews Oprah has bequeathed the world, it might seem underwhelming. But there's a brief, subtle, and informative moment in there that was, for me, life-changing. It comes at the very end of an hourlong Hollywood Reporter roundtable featuring some of the biggest actresses of the 2013 Oscar movie season. (Because that year included the release of 12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, and The Butler, this roundtable included an unprecedented *THREE* women of color: Lupita N'yongo, Octavia Spencer, and Oprah Winfrey. That's right, The Hollywood Reporter actually passed the Racial Bechdel Test!)
At the 50:15 mark, Julia Roberts praises Oprah and her impact on American culture, as one does in Oprah's presence. Do you know what Oprah does when she hears the billionth compliment of her life? She smiles, looks her complimenter in the eye, and waits patiently for her to get out the compliment. Then she says, "Thank you, that was my goal." Simple, direct, kind, and intentional, Oprah's line proudly confirms Bullock's assessment, while — yes — humbly hinting that it was no accident. She worked for it.
I shared Oprah's strategy with my girlfriends because, to paraphrase Lilo from Lilo & Stitch, "squad means family, and family means no one get's left behind." And because every girl squad has its own lines and mantras that get passed around, I asked my colleagues and writers I admire about their relationship to compliments.
Here's what they had to say:
"I'm the first person to encourage other women to accept compliments."
I'm the first person to encourage other women to accept compliments when I give them out but it doesn't make me any better at accepting compliments when they're directed my way. It's an unfortunate paradox but also a realistic one; sometimes it's easier for women to try and lift one another up when failing to acknowledge our own greatness individually. It always feels simpler and more natural to give someone else advice without taking it myself, but when it comes to embracing and accepting compliments I'd like to one day be able to walk the walk instead of just talk the talk, so to speak.
Contact Heben Nigatu at email@example.com.
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