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?


4 Answers 4


I have good news for you, according to research compiled by 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 leaves 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.

  • 2
    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
    Commented Apr 10, 2019 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
    Commented May 4, 2019 at 17:24
  • 1
    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
    Commented May 4, 2019 at 17:25
  • 1
    @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
    Commented May 4, 2019 at 18:44


Unless there is a particular reason you don't want the complimenter to think you're so smart, this is enough to pretty much end the issue graciously.

This has indeed worked for me in the past - I have from time to time received compliments, and whenever I simply thanked the person for the compliment, that has been the end of it, though I have to admit I am just assuming that the person paying the compliment hasn't been secretly offended - indeed I am not when the roles are reversed.

The reason I think the OP should only answer "Thanks" (or "Thank you" if that is preferable) is that the tone of the post implies the OP is feeling a bit awkward about receiving the compliment, and would like that line of conversation dropped. A simple "Thanks" puts a neat full-stop on it and they can get on with whatever the prior conversation was.

There is no need to make excuses when receiving a compliment.


You're so smart.

From your example, the asker is really just 'decorating' their thank you. I'm sure they think you are smart, but really, they're mostly expressing gratitude. That being the case, you can just respond with "no problem" or "you're welcome" as if they had just said "Thank you very much!".

...seemed really obvious to me because I've been writing code for several years.

Bingo - just let them know that! I would respond with "It's just practice" or something similar. This achieves a couple of things:

  • it doesn't deflect the compliment, which can be ungracious.
  • it subtly moves the underlying comparison from "You're smart/I'm dumb" to "You're experienced/I'm still learning", which is much nicer. This underlying comparison seems to be a big part of why people want to reject compliments.
  • It lets the asker know they're on their way to being smart like you. "Practicing" is much more aspirational than "Getting smarter".

Edit to add sources: I've been in senior development roles and experienced exactly this situation a number of times: it seems pretty common when mentoring less experienced people. This is how I've handled it, and it has worked very well for me thus far.


It's not always easy to accept compliments…

I'm an amateur musician, and sometimes after a performance, people express their gratitude by telling me that I'm so talented, that I play/sing so well, and so on.

I've always found such compliments hard to take, mostly because I'm probably far more aware of my own shortcomings and mistakes than they are, and so accepting them at face value seems dishonest.  So I used to reply with a self-deprecating comment such as “Well, I made several mistakes…” or “Well, I'm not as talented as all that…“

But, as detailed in other answers, that's not a very satisfying reply — not much for me, and especially not for people who are trying to pay me an honest compliment.

I eventually found my own solution, which is to take the compliment not as an objective assessment, but simply as expressing pleasure in the music.  (After all, that's what it usually is, fundamentally.)  And that's much easier to accept — and to respond honestly to.

So now, when people tell me I played so well, or whatever, I smile at them, and say something like “Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it!”  And I am!

I don't know how much this might be relevant to OP's work environment, but it's worth considering whether a compliment is really a way of thanking you for improving their understanding or making their jobs easier or whatever — if so, then maybe you could accept it with something like a sincere “Thank you, I'm pleased I could help!”

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