Ask an American what the polite way to respond to a compliment is and they usually tell you to smile and say thank you. I don’t think they mean to mislead you. They are just unaware that that’s not what they actually do in practice. In studies, it’s been found that around two thirds of the time they’ll do something like deflecting, downgrading or questioning the compliment to avoid accepting it. There’s a handy summary of some research into American compliments here:
It’s generally easier to pay a compliment than respond to one because there are competing politeness principles at work. On the one hand we need to be agreeable, but on the other, we need to be modest. For more on this see here.
There’s a nice video over at the British Council site that demonstrates how to give compliments. But more importantly, I think, it demonstrates different strategies for responding to them. For example:
Thanks, it wasn’t too difficult (downgrading the praise)
Do you think so? (questioning the praise)
Thanks for noticing (repaying one compliment with another)
It’s just an old thing (commenting by adding information)
Another common strategy people use that doesn’t appear in the video is sharing the praise – e.g Oh, I couldn’t have done it without the help of your wonderful team.
If you’d like to use the video in class, after your students have watched it, perhaps they can work out what strategies the woman used to avoid accepting the compliments. A nice round off activity could be getting the students to think of and pay a compliment to another student in the class. In my experience, the students listen avidly to one another’s compliments, and then you can analyse what strategies everyone used to respond. Do you think it’s something your students might find useful?