What are compliments?
When somebody praises you, it's probably just a nice gesture. A good compliment can brighten your day. And if the person really hits the nail on the head, you can be flying sky high for weeks on one good compliment!
But what can you do at the moment you receive it? How do you respond? Compliments can come from strangers or, worse, people you aren't very fond of. What if they are complimenting something that you don't like about yourself or a trait that you think isn't appropriate for compliments? How can you react in different ways based on who is praising and what they are praising?
If it's a great compliment
No problems! Great. Somebody said something nice and you feel fantastic. Now what should you do? There's nothing wrong with blushing a little (or a lot!) but don't be too sheepish. This is a great opportunity to reciprocate. You can let that person know something that you really like about them. It's best to stay in the same school of compliments because you don't want to say something inappropriate and jynx the whole experience. But if you speak honestly about how much you like some trait the person has, you should be fine. Don't get stressed or TOO bashful. This is a moment to be enjoyed.
Think about what the person likes about themselves and promote that! If they like smiling a lot, let them know that they have a wonderful smile and it makes you happy. If they are stoic and solid, let them know that you love how reliable they are. You can really share the glowing feeling you have if you find a way to compliment back.
It's not always possible to have a compliment on hand (after all, if you already had one, you would have delivered it already!) but try. At the very least, let them know how great the comment made you feel. Let the person know that they said just the right thing and that is enough to make both of you feel great!
Don't fret. If somebody compliments you in a way you find demeaning like a wolf whistle as you walk down the street (some people don't like this), then you can choose to ignore it or confront it. If the person is somebody you run into on a daily basis, ignoring it might be hard. Sometimes you really need to let the person know that it creeps you out or makes you feel worse.
There's no problem with open honesty. Even if (especially if) it's a superior at work or school. You have to just gently let them know (don't mince words once you decide to confront the problem) that these compliments, while they are intended to make you feel good, actually make you feel a little bit worse. Keep your cool and make it clear that you don't want to hear compliments of a certain nature (e.g. sexual, undeserved, embarassing).
If the person tries to argue, it can get hard to keep talking. Don't be afraid to tell them that you're having trouble even talking about it. This will show exactly how troubling the topic is for you. Repeat that you aren't comfortable with this particular form of flattery. You might remind the person that if they really want to flatter you, they will not bring it up again.
If there's something you like about the person, this may be an appropriate time to say something like "I really appreciate (insert trait here), but it makes it hard for me to be around you because I am uncomfortable with how you show your appreciation of me" or something less robotic/cheesy.
Compliments from people you dislike
Be brave. If the person knows you dislike them, then there is nothing else to do but to say thank you or ignore them. If they do not know, you might think about confronting them. Eventually, being visibly disconcerted by receiving compliments from them will lead to the realization on their part that you do not want their praise.
Try to avoid attacking the person in retaliation after a compliment. Even if they are trying to provoke you with passive aggresiveness, this is not the right time to approach the subject. Wait for a neutral time when they are not praising you and then share your mind.
Compliments assert dominance
In many ways a compliment is a gift in that it can be a one-way exchange of praise. So why do people give gifts. Marcel Mauss' seminal anthropological study on gift-giving makes the claim that "The gift not yet repaid debases the man who accepts it" (Mauss 69). This principle that gifts may be used to assert dominance over another individual has been investigated by many anthropologists and there's some creedence to the study. After all, we're all familiar with the image of a youth who resists or refuses to accept a gift or head start from a relative or an elder.
In some ways, compliments that only go one way can put you at a disadvantage. In a strange turn of events, an anthropologist studying your exchange with another individual who compliments you highly might say that the individual is actually debasing you by putting you in their debt.
This is a very abstract, academic way of looking at things. You shouldn't get too bogged down in the game theory behind somebody saying you look pretty or that they like your sense of humor.
But it's an interesting note that anthropological studies have sometimes corroborated the view that if you let a one-way compliment slide, you are (at least in some ways) letting that person have power over you.
According to many anthropologists, some of the most successful gift economies involve mutual aid in which individuals eventually give back the gift whenever they have something to give. If these theories are true, maybe the best lesson to take away from this intensely academic body of work is that ANY time you have a compliment to give, there's no reason to hold it back. If you have the power to make somebody feel better than they did a few moments ago at no cost to yourself, go ahead and make them feel better. Somebody else will do the same for you one day!
Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Originally published as Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques. 1925, modern English edition: ISBN 0-393-32043-X.