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You’ve heard the urban myth about the Polish lady who thought the word ‘Penneys’ was an expression of thanks used by Irish people? She believed this because she noticed that whenever she complimented an Irish woman on a dress or handbag, she got the reply ‘Oh, this? Penneys!’

I was reminded of the tale this week when I read about a survey of Irish women. A hair care product asked 2,000 ladies what made them happy. (Naturally I was excited at the prospect of discovering the answer to an age-old riddle that has puzzled men for generations.) It isn’t a weekend away, or fancy make-up, or – in the case of new mums especially – a good night’s sleep that makes Irish women happy. No, it’s a simple compliment. Apparently a carefully observed flattering utterance is what brings most happiness.

Could this really be true? No, I thought to myself, and here’s why.

Irish people – but women especially – don’t know how to take a compliment. Take, for instance, an event such as a wedding. A simple exchange between two female guests might go as follows:

‘Mary, I love that dress, it’s gorgeous.’

‘Oh stop Sheila, this old thing? I have it years. I think I wore it to the last wedding I was at. It’s only a cheap yoke anyway.’

There seems to be an inability to accept a compliment; in fact I often detect a steely determination to play down any sort of praise or admiration:

‘Your hair is lovely Maureen, I like the new colour.’

‘Oh stop it Nancy; I look like I’ve been dragged through a bush backwards. It’s a complete mess, I hate the new colour, the stylist made a dog’s dinner of it and after this wedding I’m shaving my head altogether.’

Women go to extreme lengths to bat away the nice gesture. ‘You look great, have you lost weight?’ ‘Go way out of that; I’m always at the chocolate, I never get up off the couch and underneath this slim size 10 is a kebab addict cowering in shame.’

It’s very different for men. Even if we do admire another man’s hair or clothing we rarely vocalise it and when we do, it is with utmost word efficiency: ‘Nice jacket Joe.’ ‘Yeah, another pint?’

So why do Irish women react this way if compliments make them happier than any material goods? It’s fair to say – compared to some nationalities – Irish people have a downtrodden mentality. Perhaps our natural stoicism contributes to this, allied with our history involving our neighbours across the water. We also like to joke too; if gallows humour was an Olympic sport we’d be gold medallists. Have we a bit of an inferiority complex? Some might argue that our ‘fawning’ over visiting heads of state perfectly illustrates our need for reassurance and a ‘pat on the head’. It’s possible our inability to accept a compliment is an extension of all this.

However, I have reason to believe the real explanation is much simpler than grand theories about national identity traits. A lot of Irish men – okay, okay, just me then – aren’t world-beaters in terms of giving compliments. The reason why Irish women are seemingly incapable of accepting a compliment is because they often have trouble believing their ears. The result of this is to seek confirmation that indeed their dress is lovely, or their new hairstyle really suits them. Simply put, they’re looking for a further compliment.

The mistake Irish men make is that we stop after one, whereas we need to keep going until the lady stops batting away the compliments and says something like: ‘Aw, thank you, that’s so nice, let’s skip dessert and go upstairs now.’

Women compliment other women because they know Irish men regard one utterance as enough, whereas they’re only being warmed up at that stage. The sisters are looking out for each other. They’re doing the ground work because they know men are likely to enter the game at a late stage – with possibly a few spritzers on board – and suddenly expect a lot of affection in return for an obvious compliment about how nice a dress looks, even if we know as much about ladies fashion as we do about thermo-nuclear dynamics. (Genuine thermo-nuclear experts are exempt from this statement.)

The next time you get a compliment hit for six by a lady, just bowl a few more in quick succession. That’s what the game is all about. Now, have I told you that your necklace really brings out the colour of your eyes? Another pint?

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