steven ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*At an event the other evening, I introduced a longtime friend to someone he’d never met.

During the introduction, I proudly mentioned that my friend was one of the more skilled and talented in his chosen profession, to which my friend promptly bristled. “This guy doesn’t know anything about that!” he said, in the middle of shaking the stranger’s  hand, “nor would he be interested….”

“Oh, but I am,” said the guy, smiling.

“No, you aren’t,” countered my friend, offering an uneasy, half-hearted chuckle. This awkward display of self-devaluation was his idea of humility.

“Well, if you say so,” the guy shrugged. What followed was a brief conversation, clumsy and stilted.


What my buddy did brought to mind an evening  several years ago when three friends and myself were on our way to dinner. Someone in the back seat casually mentioned that they liked my sweater. From the passenger seat up front, I launched into a disco version of “This ol thing?”

This sweater, I offered sheepishly, was something I found at a vintage  store.  When we get out of the car and you look closely, I insisted, you’ll see that it needs some  reweaving.   The buttons on here—they need to be replaced, really.   And the collar is frayed in spots….”

The car began to slow, weighted by the self-depreciation I spewed nervously.

By the time I finished ragging on my sweater, all that was left for me to do was have my friend pull over, take off the garment and set fire to it on the side of the road. Finally, the person who’d issued the compliment,  sighed, “Well, I thought it was a nice sweater.”

Some people can’t take a compliment.

If we’re told we look great, or that something we did was good, some of us hem and haw and get all self-conscious as if suddenly fingered as an accessory to an embarrassing, petty  crime.

To those eager to take a bow at the drop of an accolade,   what I’m talking about sounds ridiculous. However, there are humans for whom a bouquet of kind and flattering words can create unease.

There are reasons for this–one being that despite our ever narcissistic society, plenty people still believe that sticking out your chest over something  good  goes against the rite of conventional modesty.

Moreover, frankly, some of us  deem ourselves downright unworthy. I can only speak for myself—but I’m sure others can relate—when I say my feelings about me haven’t always accommodated personal praise or kudos. I can give it, but I sure had a problem receiving it.  Still do, on occasion. But I’m far better about it today and for that  I thank the good Dr. Modisette.

Modisette was a straight-laced, white-haired German man who taught Speech, a required course in the Radio Broadcasting classes I took at Los Angeles City College in the early ‘70s.

Students dreamed of an on-air job spinning records, rapping, between hits,  the kind of jive many of them spoke on their demo tapes–hip, grammatically atrocious lingo that Dr. Modisette respectfully loathed. “Save for friends and family  your remarkable flair for obliterating diction and phonetics,” he’d tersely admonish the class. “If you desire a career in radio, you WILL use proper English.”

Thanks to the take-no-prisoners guidance  of Modisette, that’s exactly what I displayed when my recording  of a paragraph the Dr. had us all read was played.

After class,  two students I didn’t  know  gave me enthusiastic props that I beat back with a stick. We were making our way out of the classroom when Modisette asked me to hang back for a minute.   He closed the door.

“You get an F on your taped reading,” he said.  “Why?” I asked, shocked.  “It was good.”

“That’s not what I heard you tell your friends,” he said. “Every time one of them praised what you did, you said something about how it could have been better.”

“Well, I do think that I…”

“Young man,” the Dr. interrupted, “none of us is perfect. We all make mistakes in life. When we do,   there are enough people around to criticize.   So, when you get something right and are praised for it, the best thing to do is to receive it with gratitude and grace. Anything less seems rather mendacious.

“What does ‘mendacious’ mean?”

“Look it up. But leave. I ate something for lunch that did not agree with me and I need to go relieve myself before my next class arrives.”   The Dr. always kept it real.

While I appreciated Modisette’s advice, it took me decades to learn enough about myself to apply it. Why I didn’t think I deserved the goodness of praise is another story for another time.

In any case, I have learned how to accept good words coming my way. Instead of deflecting the polite regard, I now listen in earnest and, without guilt or bashfulness, reply with what you should say when someone is kind enough to acknowledge the part of you that has so moved them: Thank you.

When somebody gives you a compliment, take it.

Don’t make a big deal of it. Don’t try to diminish the moment or, for that matter, make it more than it is. Just accept it.

If you like, tell them you appreciate what they’ve said and why you appreciate it. Be sincere but don’t write a song. The moment is about their honeyed words to you; they’re extending themselves in your honor. Don’t rob them of their generosity.

There’s nothing wrong with returning a compliment with one of your own, but only when truly applicable.  And don’t go over the top with it. Otherwise, you run the risk of appearing, as Dr. Modisette said, rather mendacious. Look it up.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]