Category Archives: Compliments

Ass.u.me.ing Makes an Ass of You and Me

Let me tell you a little bit about one of my very good friends. She and I had many a fights when we were going through that process of becoming actual good friends. You know, those fights where you have to decide if you would prefer a superficial friendship or a deep one. One of our biggest points of contention was our differing understandings of generalizations, assumptions, and stereotypes – particularly ones tied to the jokes she seemed to love telling at the expense of all Nigerians.

Those storms that threatened the bliss of our budding friendship were often borne out of me taking offense at something she had said or laughed at when it came to “Nigerians in general”. I did not take those jokes lightly, and I let her know EVERY single time (Letting her know was a sign, on my part, that I did want us to be real friends – hopefully she’s got that part by now). Was she irritated? Yes! Did she think I was overly sensitive? Definitely! And, did she react positively? Not really. You see, at first it just seemed like she stopped propagating Nigerian stereotypes through her jokes but only when she was around me so that I wouldn’t get offended. She walked on eggshells for a quite a while. But in time, and after many many intense talks between us – with me straining to explain my reasoning and her struggling to grasp it – I think she has come to understand that it was much bigger than that. It was much bigger than just a few harmless jokes, and a seemingly prudish and oversensitive girl.

You see, we can’t always help ourselves when it comes to believing in stereotypes to be true and complete representations of others. It is much less difficult to hear and believe a single story about a community or a people, than to painstakingly get to know a lot of the individuals that make up that community. I must concede that stereotypes are very handy and convenient little things, and they are like the Sparknotes* of inter-cultural relationships. But, they also hamper real (individual) unassuming human connections in ways we cannot always conceive of.

Every individual has a story: a patchwork of labels, events, and identities that, as a whole, is uniquely them. Unfortunately, stereotypes are more concerned with picking specific labels, and passing them off as “all you need to know” facts, thereby disrupting the unique tapestry of identity, and discrediting the complex nature of each idiosyncratic human story.

I remember a time when I did not like telling people I was Nigerian the first time I met them. This was not because I disliked, or was ashamed of my country, at all – Nigeria is great, and she is mine! However, I do realize that there are so many stereotypes about Nigerians, most of which are unfavorable, floating around every part of the world. We are everywhere, and while that has its advantages, it also has its demerits. For instance, when the first thing people find out about me is that I am Nigerian, I very frequently lose the opportunity to make a first impression as an individual. It is so automatic. Suddenly, I’m no longer me: I’m a country, an abstraction, I’m the loud life of the party, the money lover, the crook, the jovial friend with an agenda, the smart go-getter, and so much more.

“I had no idea you were Nigerian, you’re so quiet!” – The astonished words of a girl I had met two or three times before, on the occasion of her discovering my nationality.

Sometimes, our prejudices, and subliminally conceived assumptions are transformed into micro-aggressions, often delivered with well-meaning intentions. It’s like the time I wrote part of literature review for a group project, and my otherwise very friendly and kind team member couldn’t hide her shock when she said “OMG! You’re such a good writer! I had no idea you could write so well!” Never mind that we were all taking a class to become writing tutors, which I’d think is indication enough that we were good writers all.  Never mind that we had all been nominated by professors for having this very skill. I could take the more flattering route and speculate her compliment was borne out of the notion that my writing was particularly exceptional and maybe genius, but I highly doubt that was the case. Literature reviews are not the most stimulating things to write, and I most likely had a “get it done” approach to that assignment.  So, what WAS that about? Was it about her thinking that I couldn’t write well because I was Nigerian (black, African)? Was it about her thinking that since English was not my first language, I couldn’t command it nearly as well as she? Was it about her having lowered expectations of me because of her unvoiced assumptions? Or did she simply perceive my “get it done” writing to be exceptional?

I don’t intend to claim that I never am a perpetrator of assumptions, generalizations, and/or micro-aggressions. A particularly now-cringe-worthy incident comes to mind. I remember incessantly asking this guy, “What are you?” in regard to his ancestry, and I could not, for the life of me, understand why he seemed to be taken-aback. If anything, I was a bit annoyed by all the fuss he was making because, to me then, it was just a simple question. I should probably point out that I’d not had a lot of experience with race, so I was not informed enough to channel my curiosity into a better phrased question. I just came from Nigeria, and you were either black, white, or “half-caste”/mixed race. I’m really not trying to make excuses for myself, the point is that it takes a conscious effort, and awareness to avoid incidents like these.

Maybe the girl from my writing class didn’t mean anything by it. Maybe she was actually appreciative of my writing, and did not understand that her expression of shock might be perceived with different connotations. What this means, is that we all have to put in extra effort to identify, scrutinize, and terminate our prejudices, lest we rob other humans of their chance to be persons.

But until everyone gets to that level of consciousness, I have decided that any assumptions another person makes about me will be their problem, not mine. So, heck yeah! I’m a Nigerian! Do with that what you will.

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When Compliments are Uncomfortable

Have you ever been praised for being humble, after which a response was expected? Have you ever been told you’re the most beautiful, or purest, or kindest, or most inspiring, (or most anything) person the compliment-giver has ever met? What is it about these kinds of praise that make sensible people cringe a bit?

It might be the hint of insincerity that accompanies statements like that. I often sense that people who dole out such hyperbolic compliments at will rarely, if ever, mean it. And it makes me wonder what runs through their heads as they utter the disingenuous words. As for praising someone for being humble, I think maybe the praise-giver doesn’t always realize just how uncomfortable that could be for the receiver – who, if she/he were truly humble, would be immensely embarrassed by such commendation.

But I will start by addressing the hyperboles. This sort of applies to one of the things I’ve noticed, living in America. You see, people claim to “love” more frequently than I had ever seen. How many times have you heard something along the lines of, “Oh! I just LOVE (insert banal object/ mediocre person here)!”? What’s wrong with saying you “like” something? Or saying that something or someone is your current favourite? I am a strong believer and perpetrator of the notion that “Love” is a strong word, which should be reserved only for when you truly and deeply love. We should refrain from throwing it around so willy-nilly. I do realize I may be fighting a lost cause here, so…I’ll just have to keep cringing inwardly whenever I get annoyed about this.

There is something about hyperbolic compliments, or expressing praise in exaggerations that make them seem so much more bogus than the speaker may have intended. Here’s a story to illustrate:

I remember my first time speaking at a Bible study group I belong to on Campus. I was so nervous, I fumbled a lot, I could hardly get the words out, my voice wasn’t loud enough to reach the back of the room at times, and there were a lot of awkward pauses and nervous stares. I led Bible study two weeks in a row, and admittedly, by the second week I had gotten a bit better at it. I was able to laugh at myself a bit more, but I wasn’t an expert by any means! After that second week, I remember a particular girl, who I’ll call Samantha for the sake of this blog, came to me and said, “That was so good! Yo! [she] should lead Bible Study every week, guys!”

A part of me knew that Samantha may have been saying that just to make me feel better about all the fumbles, (and she was not being sarcastic at all, in case you were wondering). However, I did wonder why she would go to such excessive lengths, which just made her compliment come across as insincere (Really? EVERY week?).

Fast-forward a year or two later, Samantha probably already forgot this little encounter. I was asked to lead Bible study again, and this time I was way more comfortable up there, and it was just a smoother, and dare I say, fun delivery of the message I was given (still not an expert though). Along comes Samantha, in the middle of a conversation I was having with someone else about how much of an improvement I had made from last time. Imagine my astonishment, when she chimes in something along the lines of, “oh yeah, that was kinda bad, but you were great up there this time!” My initial suspicions were confirmed at this point. You can imagine what now runs through my head every time Samantha pays me a compliment. -_-

Another uncomfortable kind of praise is when you’re lauded for your humility! As far as I know, there is no right, non-awkward way of getting out of this kind of compliment without offending anyone. Please, correct me if I’m wrong.

If you are going to praise someone for being humble, please do not say it to their faces! One of three things will happen; the person could thank you and generously accept that compliment, at which point they don’t seem that humble anymore; The person could start to explain why they are not humble, at which point you’d just wish they’d shut up and accept a compliment for goodness sake!; Or the person would not know how to react, at which point a massively awkward moment ensues.

If you’ve read up to this point, please let me know how you’d react if someone praised you for being humble, or gave you a hyperbolic compliment contaminated by insincerity.