Don’t Insult Me With Your Englishness!
An important life lesson from a tiny Colombian PR genius
One of my first jobs after leaving school was working as a receptionist for a well-known musician in London in the late 80s. It was a fantastic experience spending time in the world of celebrities, concerts and premieres, even if I was practically paying them to work there, but I did learn one very important lesson.
Like most people, one of the things I learnt as a child was how to say thank you. It’s polite and the right thing to do.
However, saying thank you isn’t as easy as it sounds for everyone.
For example, if we are given a birthday present, we say thank you. No problem. Everybody gets that. But have you noticed what many people — especially stereotypically more reserved English ones — say when they’re given a direct compliment and are told that they look good or are very good at something?
- My colleague did all the work
- Oh no, I look terrible
- It’s nothing
- Oh, yes, well, um… (whimpering sounds)
They not only make light of their ‘achievement’, but also unintentionally insult the person giving the compliment by saying that it isn’t true.
I was a young and impressionable 18-year old and my then boss was a strong, opinionated and tiny woman from Colombia called Connie who complimented me on a project I had worked on and so I responded as my upbringing had taught me by playing it down. However Connie was quite direct and took no prisoners, so she took me to task and said:
Don’t insult me with your Englishness!
She thought I’d done well, wanted to say so and added that she didn’t have to do that, so had found it offensive for me not to even acknowledge her compliment.
I’d never thought of it in that way before and of course, apologised profusely — which comes much more naturally to English people— possibly making things even worse.
In England as in many cultures, we are generally brought up this way so as not to be seen as too big-headed, but my conversation with Connie has stuck with me and still influences me in my daily life, especially in my work, helping people to be more confident speaking foreign languages.
However, it can be equally difficult for some people to compliment others. For example, does your boss always say you’ve done a good job? Do your parents compliment you on your life choices? Do you compliment your partner for cooking a nice meal in the evening?
Giving compliments doesn’t come easy to some people, so how do you think you would feel if after going to all the trouble of saying something complimentary to someone, they then just ignored it?
I know we are generally taught not to be ‘too big for our boots’ especially in England perhaps, but sometimes it’s not about you.
Someone’s taken the trouble to say something nice to you, so the least you can do is say ‘thank you’ as opposed to essentially dismissing what they’ve said.
So, this post is for Connie wherever she may be in the world. I’d like to say ‘thank you’ for teaching me something that day which helps me and others to this day.
I’d also like to tell her ‘You’re fabulous!’ as that was her favourite expression when we worked together. If she were here, I think her response would be something like — ‘Darling, I know. But thank you for saying so…’
As an Englishman, not sure I could get away with that, but don’t tell Connie I told you.