Learn to Take a Compliment, Brits in America

(Photo: Fotolia)

(Photo: Fotolia)

A recent Buzzfeed post (“How to Annoy Brits”) has “Praise Them Publicly” as No. 16.  I’ll go one further and say that we Brits don’t do well with public praise in general, so coming to the U.S. is a steep learning curve and a cultural about-face.

Americans are typically generous with praise, and whether you find it endearing or disingenuous, it’s part of life. A Brit’s reaction to any sort of praise or compliment is usually self-deprecating and bashful. “I love your shirt” elicits “Oh this old thing? I’ve had it for years.” In the U.S., a smile and a “Thank you” will suffice; deflecting or ignoring a compliment can come across as weird or rude rather than perhaps just the “modest” you were aiming for.

Self-praise is known as “blowing your own trumpet” in the U.K. and is tantamount to treason. Listen to any sportsman or woman after a win, and they can just about admit that they played well, while Americans have no problem enjoying the win and pointing to their best shots, goals or whatever. On a slightly serious note (heaven forbid) in researching my last book, many British teachers admitted that they and their students found it very hard to fill in applications for American colleges because they were asked for “accomplishments and strengths” as well as academic achievements. As one contributor put it, U.K. teachers “are not very good at waxing lyrical about [their] students other than in academic terms.” I advised both teachers and students to blow those trumpets as hard as they could without, of course, telling porky pies.

When job-hunting, Americans are not shy about listing their talents alongside their experience so it’s a must for Brits to do this too. Similarly, once you land a job, don’t sit back on your laurels; Americans aren’t backward in coming forward, and you could find yourself overlooked for projects and promotions if you don’t keep that spotlight firmly shining on you. According to a 1996 article in the Independent, British women in particular are bad at this. “When a British woman goes to the United States they may be tempted to hover on the fringes of a social gathering expecting to be noticed by someone important. She will find, however, that American colleagues will be in there presenting themselves.” Hopefully female Brits have improved in this area; if not, get out there!

As for praising our own children? A subtle display of trophies around the house is one thing, but it’s quite another for us Brits to actually mention our child’s prowess in gymnastics/football/art/dance. A Facebook status update might say something like, “Jonny managed not to disgrace himself at tennis today,” when the child, in fact, won the tournament; what you won’t see are adjectives like “amazing,” “talented” or “wonderful.” (Don’t worry, Brits, in this area, we are vindicated: recent research suggests that adults who lavish extravagant praise on children may often be doing more harm than good.) When someone else praises our children (“Your kids are so polite”), we’re more likely to say “Can’t be mine then” than “Oh thanks. I’m glad to hear that.” Again, this can come across as weird in the more kid-centric U.S.

So, in summary, when someone praises you, your spouse, your children, your dog or your house, a simple “Thank you” will both suffice and move the conversation swiftly along without too much excruciation on your part.

Oh, and remembering to throw out the odd compliment here and there doesn’t go amiss either.

Do you struggle with accepting compliments or no? Tell us below:

See more:
Go On, Introduce Yourself: What Brits in America Must Learn to Do
8 Reasons to Raise British Children in America
10 Ways To Find Other British Expats Near You

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • Travelfreak74

    Brit bashing/ stereotyping …. some ex pats come to the USA and love to have a go at their ex country men/women…. some people find it hard when given compliments and some don’t. but to generalize that Brits can’t take a compliment is wrong… it’s like me saying all Americans are loud and obnoxious…. while we will find many not all are….. or that all Americans in the southern states are Redneck hillbillies … again not all are.
    As for Facebook comments… not one i have ever seen would say something like .. Johnny managed not to disgrace himself… when talking about our kids all seem very positive.. now maybe your Johnny comment may have been said in the 50/60′s but not in the 21st century.
    Yes the UK might be a little more reserved when it comes to blowing ones trumpet.. but that’s not a bad thing either… but on a whole all my fellow Brits, that i know do say thank you and also give out compliments as well.

    • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

      Lighten up.

      • http://www.smittenbybritain.com/ SmittenbyBritain

        Toni, I appreciated the tone of this article and thought it was a fair analysis of both sides. Yes there are exceptions but in general your description was spot on. I especially connected with this statement:

        “[in the U.S.] deflecting or ignoring a compliment can come across as weird or rude rather than perhaps just the “modest” you were aiming for.”

        Again, you hit the nail on the head. And while some expats may find our praise uncomfortable or disingenuous, you can be assured that more often than not, it’s real and well intended. (If anything feels disingenuous to me it’s the “Have a nice day!” coming from the store clerk who’s just rung me out at the till without a “Hello” or even a glance. Grrr!)

        As this article reflects, there’s no right or wrong here, just different. I hope more expats will take the advice here in the spirit in which it was given.

        Well done!

  • dw

    On a slightly serious note (heaven forbid) in researching my last book, many British teachers admitted that they and their students found it very hard to fill in applications for American colleges because they were asked for “accomplishments and strengths” as well as academic achievements. As one contributor put it, U.K. teachers “are not very good at waxing lyrical about [their] students other than in academic terms.” I advised both teachers and students to blow those trumpets as hard as they could without, of course, telling porky pies.

    I have to do something similar to this at work as part of a “self-review” process. It’s the only part of my job I actively hate.

  • fr

    I’ve read 5 of these Brits surviving America excerpts and there’s a difference from trying to prepare or give tips and bashing. I would say you’re being biased but that’s because you are but geez dude light up

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