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So I met this person (opposite gender) online and we were just getting to know each other. I noticed I am struggling a lot with talking to someone who may think themselves - at least on a superficial level - less well off and "less intelligent" than I seem to be: We are both students and so we talked about our respective subjects. My study program happens to "sound impressive" as it is associated with high intelligence and especially mathematical ability. My field also happens to be associated with significantly higher salaries than theirs. I don't know how to respond to something like "You must be really intelligent then!" and "I heard you guys make a lot of money right?". To make things worse, I can not say the same thing about their subject, otherwise I would sound obviously dishonest. Moreover, the exact same thing came right after with our respective universities: My university happens to be highly prestigious whereas theirs may be more regarded as average. Of course I personally coulnd't care less about such superficial things however I then get worried that they start to think of themselves low or less worth because of me. I try to thank them for their praises and kind of deflect or ask them something about themselves but it always feels soo awkward to me.

So my question is: How to handle such situations and make the other person feel comfortable or even reciprocate their laudatory words without sounding dishonest or superficial especially considering facts are facts and cannot be changed?

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  • Why exactly do you think they feel less about themselves?
    – AsheraH
    Jan 9 at 8:26
  • @AsheraH Well because people always compare others to themselves don't they? For example someone might "just" be doing an apprenticeship and here I am telling them I am doing my masters ... I always feel bad about it but don't know how to handle it. Jan 9 at 9:47
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    So, besides the intrapersonal problem of 'feels soo awkward' (which is something that only happens inside your head), what is the interpersonal problem (the problem with the behavior that you use while interacting with this person, to achieve a certain goal) with your current approach? How does your current approach fail to achieve the criteria you set out in your last paragraph?
    – Tinkeringbell
    Jan 9 at 13:18

1 Answer 1

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People often give me praise that I think contains a kernel of putting themselves down. For example, on hearing about something I have done "oh, you must be really smart!". Because I hear "not like me" at the end of that, the compliment sometimes makes me feel bad and I want to argue with it. I have come to learn, though, that often people are literally and only saying something about me, not about themselves at all, when they give me such a compliment. Arguing with it to avoid insulting them just turns into both offending them by rejecting the compliment and insulting them if I mention that of course their program is less prestigious or their accomplishments are not as impressive as mine.

Here are some of the ways I handle these things these days:

  • agree, while pointing out this doesn't make me special: "well, we all have our things that we're good at. I'm lucky that mine is one few people can do but lots of people need."
  • thank them neutrally: "thanks! I've worked hard to reach this point and it's really nice to see the benefits now."
  • disagree mildly: "I wouldn't say smart exactly, it's more about putting in the work. I was lucky to be in a position to do that."
  • change the subject: "some people say that [laugh]. Tell me about [your program, your week, what you're working on.]

The number one thing you can do to make another person feel special and valued is to ask about themselves and to really listen to the answer. Not responding with a magical answer when they say something nice to you. So say something quickly (agree, disagree, whatever) and nicely, then ask about them.

You may discover that they plan to follow a similar path to you, but are a few years behind you. You may discover that they are motivated by different things than you are, or have different skills and talents. Perhaps they can do things you can't. Let them tell you about those things for a while. Be interested. Remember what they said. Have genuine conversations instead of worrying what they are thinking about you. If you truly do not care that your new friend is "less than" you, then stop building your conversations around that opinion.

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  • Great, very helpful answer, thank you! Jan 10 at 21:34

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