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Why Being Complimented is Basically the Worst Posted by on Mar 22, 2017 in Archived Posts

People are just trying to be nice, sure. But even well-intended statements don’t always go over well.

There’s nothing like a compliment to put me down in the dumps. I’ve been living in Germany for several years now, and my German is far from perfect. It’s actually far from great, even. It’s admissible. Whenever I speak to a native German, I can see their mind teetering between “should I just speak English with this guy? He’s having so much trouble over there,” and “good on him for trying to learn the language. I should just be patient.” I can see that debate floating around behind their eyes. I’m on to you, Germans!

Anyway, compliments. Getting a compliment on your language skills after so long living in a country is kind of like being accepted into a spelling bee in college. Sure, it’s kind of great, but it also kind of sucks. Having someone say “wow, your German is so good” only means they’re surprised you aren’t worse. What they’re really saying is, “most foreigners don’t even bother to learn the language. Good for you!” And considering I moved to Germany for the explicit purpose of learning the language, this is a pretty low bar. The only statement from a local that I will accept as a compliment is a shocked “wait, you’re not a native speaker? That’s impossible.” I of course haven’t received that statement; I’ve only seen others receive it (there’s a reason my character isn’t the “star” of the comic above, you know).

Actually, I’m only kidding. Compliments are great, and it’s great to get them. It feels like you’re making progress. When you’re just starting out, the compliments are a lot more measured – “oh, wow, you’re…pretty good!” As you get better, the compliments get more confident. But I don’t want compliments. I want to be mistaken for a local.

And you know how it is with language learning. You keep moving those goalposts.

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Camilia:

    Thank you

  2. Matias:

    With some languages, it’s possible to give a compliment on a different dialect. Like someone asked me in Austria: “are you German”?

  3. Cliona:

    I well remember being complimented on my regional French accent by a student. I was with her, and another fellow language learner, a German girl. This girl then asked the student how her accent was…the answer was that it was ‘cute’! Unfortunately for me, we were 5 hours drive from our town and the German girl owned the car…it was quite a silent drive back and she didn’t speak to me after!

  4. Feathers McGraw:

    I’m German and I knew for sure my English was good when, living in Berlin, I met a bunch of Irish people at a party and switched between German and English for the evening, and several of them came away thinking “Wow, that American speaks really good German” I will never make it that far with any of my other languages again though.

Leave a comment to Camilia