How should you respond to deep, sincere praise? There are no easy answers

I don’t watch much TV in the morning – I put it roughly on a par with smoking weed in the morning – and this has led me to miss the entire brilliant oeuvre of Lorraine, on ITV, until Thursday. She was interviewing Prof Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green, the authors of Vaxxers, but more relevantly from the globe’s perspective, the scientists behind the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has now been administered half a billion times. Lorraine called them superheroes, and they dealt with that fine. But then the show’s in-house doctor couldn’t contain himself. “I am starstruck,” he said. The amount of hope … the number of lives they’d saved … the sheer scale of their achievement. He’d worked in resuscitation in a south London hospital at the height of the first wave, and recalled the feeling of despair as he wondered if it would ever end. He thanked them personally, and then he thanked them on behalf of the whole of the NHS. At this point, there seemed to be a very real risk of his crawling toward them in fealty and kissing the hem of their garments. It was all so palpably sincere, and Gilbert and Green just didn’t know where to put themselves.

It is hard to take praise at the best of times, and there are no easy answers. A simple and warm “thank you” is the recommended course, but the bigger the praise-event, the more excited the praiser gets, and then it’s polite to try to match their excitement, except you can’t, really, because their joy all relates to how great you are. I’ve definitely said that to people before – “I think you’re just wonderful” – and these would mainly be authors, or teachers, or once a woman who made me some curtains, and realised too late that there’s nothing they can say back, they can neither agree nor disagree, so I’ve effectively cut them out of the conversation, just at the point when conversing with them was all I wanted to do.

When the victory has been epic, as in Gilbert and Green’s case, this is going to be the experience of the rest of their lives, times a million. So maybe the onus is not upon them to learn to take praise, but upon us to learn to give it. We should all send them a postcard.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist