Hello, My Name Is Awkward, And I Cannot Return Your Compliment

I sometimes feel like a ridiculous person for having reached adulthood without mastering seemingly basic conversational skills. Small talk? I suck. Banter? A high-wire act, as far as I'm concerned.

But worst of all is any kind of stereotypically female interaction. The making of nice. The exchange of compliments. The bonding.

I was standing at a bar recently, and a very kind red-headed barkeep was pouring me a drink. She was tall and curvaceous — the epitome of statuesque. I was wearing one of my favorite dresses, this vintage chiffon thing I got for a song at an estate sale in the hinterlands, and had, you know, brushed my hair that day. (Even though I hadn't been working!) This lovely bartender and I were chit-chatting about the depressing sums we each spend on booze, when she handed me the drink. As I was getting out my money, she turned and said, "You look amazing, by the way."

I froze. Like a complete asshole, I shyly thanked her, left her a big tip in hopes of somehow making up for my inability to form an appropriate sentence, grabbed my drink, and turned away.

What was I thinking? I ruled out saying she looked "amazing" back, because returning a compliment exactly as it is given has always struck me as ringing false, even when it's sincerely intended. I set about finding a decent synonym while I considered whether she was wearing anything notable — negative, just a plain black top, not bad-looking, but not worn in a way that would indicate she herself thought of it as anything more than a shirt to wear to work — and by then the response window was irising shut. I was still thinking, Amazing. What word is like "Amazing." Mind. Blank. I feel terrible about it, because there her sweet, honest compliment was, hanging between us like the spurned acte gratuit it was. It was as if she'd offered to shake my hand and I'd turned up my nose.

What is the right thing to say, when another woman tells you she likes something you're wearing? Is thanking her and telling her where you got it enough? Or is that rude? Does a compliment always have to be returned? Does a compliment exchange always have to take place within the same compliment stratum — she advances with a "Like your shoes," you parry with a "Nice dress" — or can one player downgrade or upsize the compliment ante, responding to a "Lovely necklace" with a more potent "You're beautiful"? I have a vague notion that compliments ought to approximately match one another in intensity, that it would be weird to tell a stranger I find her looks striking if she's only told me that I have a cute purse, but then that trap is what stopped me telling that poor bartender she looked nice. Nice. Such is my anxiety at times like these that I couldn't even think of the word "nice." (Oh, why didn't it occur to me to say I liked her hair?)

I feel like, when women strangers are compelled to talk to each other, our two default modes are either the exchange of compliments, which obviously poses me difficulties (though not, I would like to think, because I am an asshole — but rather because I care so much about doing and saying the right thing that I sometimes can't seem to do or say anything at all), or the mutual self-denigration. "Oh, I hate my hair, it's such a mess," one woman will say, with a wry little frown. "Tell me about it," replies another. "Mine is so unmanageable, I can't stand it." "I have special needs hair!" sings out a third. They all laugh, and I stand there, the wide-eyed observer who clearly thinks she is too special to bond over "bad" hair. It's times like these that I feel like I'm missing a gender chip. Why is running ourselves down together supposed to be empowering or affirming?

I suspect that men don't do these things, either the fraught exchange of niceties or the ritualized self-abnegation. I suspect that men do not do these things because they are empowered to see beyond their looks for validation. This strikes me as smart.

In the summer time, my standby is to complain about humidity. Humidity is a nice, external factor to blame for shiny skin or frizzed-out hair. You can make light conversation about humidity without encouraging the conversation to go to the medal round of the self-criticism olympics. But the compliments thing? I struggle with the intricacies of that in every season.

For the record, bartender, if you ever read this: You looked hot and you were very nice to me. I'm sorry I lacked the presence of mind to say so at the time.

Related: The Self-Flagellation Of The First-Person Beauty Piece