I was recently in a social environment with a girl who is both stunningly beautiful and really enjoyable to be around. We have mutual friends in common so we actually find ourselves together quite a lot, and while I enjoy my time spent around this girl, I always leave each interaction feeling so fake. I was never sure why, because I genuinely do like this girl and we get along really well, but after a couple of months of light social interactions, it finally dawned on me what was going on.
Flattery tennis. She liked to play rounds of flattery tennis, and I had unknowingly been signing up, and showing up, for her matches for months.
Flattery tennis, to better clarify, is when two humans (mostly female, let’s be honest) get together and hit the ball back and forth with compliments, often times depreciating their own value on the return hit.
Girl 1: “Wow you look SO SKINNY today!”
Girl 2: “Haha, oh please, I’ve gained weight, but I do love your dress! Where is it from?”
Girl 1: “Oh this? I got it from Nordstrom online a couple of weeks ago, isn’t it cute?”
Girl 2: “Yah so cute! I would look awful in it, but it fits you so well!”
Girl 1: “No, I had to squeeze myself in it, your butt is so much smaller than mine, it would probably fit you better. I’ll send you the link, you have to buy it.”
Game. Set. Match. Winner goes to the person who serves the ball last, compliments the other person and cuts down their own self in the process and leaves on the upswing.
Only after this realization that I had unknowingly been engaging in the Wimbledon of depreciating compliments with this girl, did I begin to realize how many times in my life this happens; how often I hit back a compliment with a dig at myself and a flattering compliment their way. There are three things to point out from this:
The first being that after your initial, and hopefully sincere compliment, each hit back turns to flattery by its purest definition. They are insincere, excessive and given only to further one’s own interests, which in this case one’s own interests are to hear nice things said back to them. Being generous with your words and gracious with your speech is not flattery, but engaging in a round of flattery tennis is nothing short of fake.
Second, we don’t just do this with strangers or acquaintances in social settings. In fact, it’s often done most with the people that we know will hit back that ball in the most rapid manner because they know us the best. You play this game with them the most because they’ll be the first to emphatically tell you how wrong you are about not feeling great and how insanely perfect you look in comparison to them. And while the intentions might be good and honest, it’s all flattery, and when played with your best friends, it’s damaging. When you take a step back, do you want them to feel as poorly about themselves as they say they do when they’re complimenting you? Just two days ago I accidentally started a match with one of my best friends, who cut herself down in horrible ways just to make sure I knew that my lululemon pants didn’t make me look fat. I hate that I made her text me those things, but because I hit the ball in her court she hit it right back. Why is self comparison our only way to tell someone that we love something about them? Why not just tell them we love it without feeling the need to carve the compliment out of ourselves so we can pass it on to them?
Third, this happens a disgusting amount on social media. Instead of saying “thank you” when someone compliments something we’ve done, we publicly launch into all the reasons why we aren’t fit to deserve their compliment. What this is, is an open invitation to play a singles round with Maria Sharapova in the US Open of Flattery, where now the original complimentor is responding, depreciating their own value as they defend why they complimented you in the first place.
Sometimes you have really nice things to say to someone, and in no way am I trying to discredit the genuine nature of those moments; I believe strongly in being generous with your compliments. But other times we go round for round, day in and day out, often with complete and total strangers and mostly with our friends and family, just to hear a nice thing said back to us. And is there a real winner in this scenario? This doesn’t foster healthy relationships, it fosters an atmosphere of deep insecurity and fake commendation because it’s hard to know when someone is genuine with their praise. (By the way, this is in large part why Lady Gaga’s song “Applause” is a horrifyingly accurate depiction of our generation, but that’s for another time.) All this does is decrease the value of your words and your ability to see yourself, and others, in an honest and real light.
Let’s create relationships based off sincerely kind words, genuinely paying someone a compliment because you sincerely mean what you’re saying, and not because you have your own interests in mind. And when someone has something nice to say to you or wants to applaud you for a job well done, just say thank you. Don’t engage in flattery and at all costs, don’t keep chipping away at your own self-worth in the process just to hit the ball back in their court.
Game over. Tournament won.