A long, long time ago, I was a musician, or so I defined myself. As such, I had to give a lot of public performances, ranging from a few other students’ parents in the neighbor’s basement to a thousand or so people in an auditorium. Afterwards, the scene would be something like this.
Well-meaning person: I enjoyed your piece very much. It had good rhythm.
Me in hyper-self-critical-performance-analyzing mode: Well, that was about the only good thing about it.
Taken aback well-wisher: No, it was lovely, really, I-
Me: Yeah, sorry it couldn’t be better.
And so on until one or other of us broke off, embarrassed.
It wasn’t until I watched a former professor of mine after a recital, just a small one on weeknight, when he dealt with the inevitable little old lady who attended any classical concert and thinks it’s just lovely:
Little old lady: Oh, thank you so much, that was just lovely.
Professor, smiling warmly, looking her directly in the eye, and shaking her hand: Thank you!
That was it. She turned away, satisfied, and left, without any embarrassment on either part.
It was a revelation to me. And after learning the technique I found that public situations (except talking to strange women in bars) got a lot easier. It’s really no big deal: everybody is usually wanting you to do well because they don’t want their time wasted, and everyone who comes up to you afterwards had a nice time and just wants to express that. There’s really nothing so scary about it.
I thought I was just particularly socially inept, but now I read Stephen Fry’s second-ever blog post (no, each post is not called a blog, thank you very much), and how he got the same lesson from John Cleese, of all people:
“Oh, nonsense. Shut up. No really, I was dreadful.” I remember going through this red-faced shuffle in the presence of the mighty John Cleese who upbraided me the moment we were alone.
‘You genuinely think you’re being polite and modest, don’t you?’
‘Well, you know …’
‘Don’t you see that when someone hears their compliments contradicted they naturally assume that you must think them a fool? Suppose you went up to a pianist after a recital and told him how much you had enjoyed his performance and he replied, “rubbish, I was awful!” You would go away thinking you were a poor judge of musicianship and that he thought you an idiot.’
‘Yes, but I can’t agree with someone if they praise me, that would sound so cocky. And anyway, suppose I do think I was awful?’ (which most of the time performers do think of themselves, of course.)
‘It’s so simple. You just say thank you. You just thank them. How hard is that?’
Granted, Fry writes as if he’s so British it might hurt occasionally, and thus he tends to a particularly English need for self-effacery, but I’m glad to see it’s not only me who needed a virtual clout about the head.