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I'm the most senior developer on my current team, and I often get asked for help by my teammates. Sometimes when they ask for help, it's with something that I think is fairly obvious or easy to do. When I help them, I get some sort of compliment, but I don't know how to properly respond to it.

Here's a recent example of a conversation I had over slack with one of my teammates.

Teammate: I need to make this api call with the user id to get data for the modal, but the call is happening before the ID is set

Me: You could wait to make the api call until you open the modal instead of when the page is loaded. You could also use an observable so that your api call won't happen until the ID is set

Teammate: I never would have thought of that. You're so smart

The solution to the teammate's problem seemed really obvious to me because I've been writing code for several years. I realize that the solutions aren't obvious to others (or else they wouldn't need to ask me), but I don't feel that a compliment such as "You're so smart" is really necessary.

I want to acknowledge the compliment, but I don't want to accidentally insult the other person when I do so. For compliments like this I usually thank the person. Then I always feel the need to offer an alternative reason for my knowledge. In this particular case I said that I just have a lot of experience. I fear that my response could be seen as dismissive and/or rude.

How can I tactfully acknowledge these kinds of compliments without being rude to the other person?

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I have good news for you, according to research done at the University of Minnesota, it's not the American way to accept a compliment. In fact,

Americans rarely accept compliments. Deflecting or rejecting compliments negates the implication that the addressee is superior to the speaker in any way. In American English, the preference of response strategies other than acceptance may be related to the notion of democracy and equality of all human beings

In addition, they give 5 common "Response Strategies" (you can find percentages for how often each was found to be used here):

  1. Accept

    • Appreciation Token (Thanks/Thank you)*
    • Comment Acceptance (Yeah, it’s my favorite, too)*
    • Praise Upgrade (Really brings out the blue in my eyes, doesn’t it?)**
  2. Mitigate

    • Comment History (I bought it for the trip to Arizona)**
    • Shift credit (My brother gave it to me/It really knitted itself)**
    • Questioning or Request Reassurance/Repetition (Do you really like them?)*
    • Return (So’s yours)**
    • Scale Down/Downgrade (It’s really quite old)**
  3. Reject

    • Disagreeing Utterance (A: You look good and healthy. B: I feel fat)*
  4. No Response**

  5. Request Interpretation**

    • Addressee interprets the compliment as a request: (You wanna borrow this one too?)

Above passages adapted from *Nelson, Al-Batal, & Echols (1996), p.419 and **Herbert, 1990, p. 208 [©].

In your case, Requesting Interpretation doesn't really make sense and No Response would be incredibly rude. This leaves us with three main categories. You've said you don't feel you deserve the compliment, so I think we can safely cross off Accept. That just leave Mitigation and Rejection.

Personally, I'm not a fan of Rejection except with close friends. From the way it's described in the article, it feels a little too strong for me. But for the different Mitigation techniques, your response may look like:

  1. Mitigate
    • Comment History
      • "I had to learn that one the hard way when I was struggling to XYZ."
    • Shift credit
      • "It just looks that way now. Once you've had a few more years as a developer, you'll be the one helping me!"
    • Questioning or Request Reassurance/Repetition
      • "Really? I think you would've gotten it with a little more tinkering."
    • Return
      • "Not as smart as you when you solved that issue with ABC last week. Me and Gina from accounting are still talking about how awesome that was."
    • Scale Down/Downgrade
      • I would not suggest this as downgrading the feat will indirectly be putting them down (they'll be thinking if it was so easy, then why couldn't they do it?)

However, while this may handle the body of your response, in my experience it's always good form to lead with a "thank you" or at least a "thanks." The person is going out of their way to say something nice for you--common courtesy dictates that you should acknowledge that. So I'd add a "thanks" to the beginning of any of the examples above.

  • 1
    One minor point: etiquette (even the American English one) recommends you do accept/acknowledge a compliment: When you receive a compliment, always say "Thank you," and don't discount or dispute what the person said (source: etiquette for dummies). So while I agree with Mitigate being the way to go forward, I'd recommend editing each proposed sentence to include a form of 'thank you' first. Like OP already said in their question, they already do this, and I feel it might be good to have it pointed out here explicitly too, so people don't get in trouble for improper manners. – Tinkeringbell Apr 10 at 8:10
  • The OP implies he does not deserve smart, but that she deserves "experienced". In the US, and especially in IT circles, being SMART is so highly valued, (see "The war on stupid people" in the Atlantic) that, had the Teammate said "You are so experienced", it may have been construed as an insult (you are not smart, only experienced). So, it's quite possible that the Teammate meant experienced and the compliment was deserved after all. – yo9cyb May 4 at 17:24
  • This answer really really has me puzzled. I cannot reconcile it with the stream of "undeserved" compliments that a person receives in everyday life. Think how automatic "great job!!" has become. Also I rarely see people not accepting the "great job" compliment, which makes me wonder if the culture may not have changed since the 1990's when these books were written. I personally would have interpreted the "compliment" as a way of saying thanks. Then, the proper answer is "you are welcome". – yo9cyb May 4 at 17:25
  • @yo9cyb note that the research I quoted does have a simple acceptance (“thanks”) as a valid answer—in fact it’s the first one in the list! And from the link I posted it appears to be well used too. But given OP’s feelings on this compliment, I suggested what I think the best responses are that will be both socially acceptable and in line with those feelings. If you think a different solution or response would be better, I’d love to see it written up in an answer! – scohe001 May 4 at 18:44

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