Just a minute ago, a friend said some kind things to me about my writing. It made me recall the phrase in the title.
In high school, I took the advanced English classes, a college English class, and the available humanities and creative writing courses. I also helped just a little with the school’s literary magazine. So of course I wrote a lot during high school, both for school and not for school, and I read a lot of other students’ essays, poems, and even songs. Peers and teachers also critiqued my writing.
It’s hard for a person to share his creation, for the most part. It can be hard to receive criticism, and so we have various ways of defending ourselves against it. For a variety of reasons, it can also be hard to receive compliments though, and that’s where the “no butter” story comes in.
In all of those classes with all of those papers, so many people would say things like, “I couldn’t think of the right word,” or “I was so tired when I wrote that,” or simply, “Sorry, it’s not very good.”
One of my teachers, with whom I still occasionally speak because he has had a great impact on my life, told a story that I will now paraphrase:
A man and his wife prepared dinner for their friends one evening. The meal was delicious, and the company was even better. But when one friend complimented the man on a dish he had made, the man replied: “Oh, it’s not good. I’m sorry. There was no butter, and I didn’t have time to go to the store to buy some. I had to use margarine, but even that margarine has been in the back of the fridge for a long time…”
By the time the man had finished rattling off the circumstances which had prevented him from preparing the dish just perfectly — and responding to his friend’s compliment as though it had been a negative criticism, the genial mood was ruined and the rest of the food had gotten cold.
The story could alternatively go:
A man and his wife prepared dinner for their friends one evening… When the man brought out the dishes to be served, before anyone had tasted them, he apologized, “I’m sorry this dish won’t be quite right. See, I was caught up at work, and got home late. I got home to see there was no butter, but of course I had no time to go buy some. I had to use margarine instead, but even that tub of margarine has been sitting in the back of the fridge forever…”
By the time the man finished explaining what was wrong with the meal he was serving, his friends were decidedly less interested in tasting it.
So you see that no buttering yourself is taking compliment as criticism, which is rude to your friends. Or it can be preempting criticism by giving it of yourself, which gives your friends a bad impression before they even “taste” what you are serving. It applies to music, art, writing, food, anything. Do you see? I find this story profound.
My parents and my uncle, all of whom play or played musical instruments with exceptional skill, also taught me — a terrible musician — to receive compliments well. My uncle, who played professionally, told me about giving bad performances. He told me that sometimes an audience will applaud, or an individual will give a compliment, not out of flattery or politeness, but from genuinely having enjoyed the show, even when the musician himself knows that this part was off tempo, that chord was struck wrong, or something else hadn’t been played perfectly. The proper response is never to say, “Oh no, the second movement started off wrong,” or anything like that! No. The proper response is always, “Thank you.” And you should mean it when you say it, too, because as a musician, a writer, a cook, whatever, although you may know you are no Johnny Winter, no J.R.R. Tolkien, no Jacques Pépin, to the person complimenting you… maybe you are!
Think about it like this. Would a rich person be happy with a gift of dirty, used sneakers? Probably not, but someone who’s never been able to afford shoes would be. Would Anthony Bourdain be pleased with a breakfast from Denny’s? Maybe not, but someone who hasn’t had a square meal in a couple of days would be thankful. (I would be thankful, too. I love Denny’s.) We all have different standards. Don’t argue with people when they are more generous to you than you are to yourself.
So don’t “no butter” yourself. Say “thank you,” and mean it.
And Thomas, if you read this, you know, I wanted to no butter myself in response to your comment on my last entry. I thought better of it though, and I thought it might be a good time to write down the no butter story. I hope you understand. And thank you again for your kind words.