How to recognise backhanded compliments

By , K24 Digital
On Tue, 19 Mar, 2024 06:30 | 4 mins read
Backhand compliments

When someone gives you a compliment, it makes you feel good. A backhanded compliment, however, can have the opposite effect.

“A backhanded compliment, also known as a left-handed compliment or a double-edged compliment, is a statement that appears to have positive connotations on the surface, but also contains a subtle insult or criticism. They are intended to appear as an expression of praise at face value, but the underlying meaning is often insincere or mocking,” explains Jessica Alderson, relationship expert.

It can be hard to recognise a backhanded compliment, especially if it’s delivered in a way that appears helpful or genuine. You may not realise it’s a backhanded compliment because of what’s said, but you’ll be able to acknowledge the way it makes you feel.

Experts say that the way a person receives a backhanded compliment can largely depend upon their own feelings and vulnerabilities.

For Alderson, words directed at her became a term of endearment. “A guy I dated used to call me ‘cabbage patch kid,’ referencing the cute-but-odd-looking dolls of the ‘80s. He told me that when I smiled, I looked ‘cute but funny, like a cabbage patch doll’,” she states. While the words ultimately made her smile, that’s not often the impact of words with a hint of insult.

“A personal backhanded comment I received was, ‘Wow Jordan, I didn’t know you could get so many great couples to work with you!’ At first, this feels like a direct complement. Rather, this has a lingering residue of an insult,” explains Jordan Marks, marriage and family therapist.

Telling a compliment isn’t genuine

If someone says something to you in a complimentary way, but it’s off-putting, there are signs you can look for to determine if you were just given a backhanded compliment.

“You can tell someone is giving you a backhanded compliment because of how the compliment makes you feel. Initially, you may smile upon hearing the compliment, but that smile may turn to a frown quickly as you realise that the compliment was not entirely positive,” states Nicole Moore, relationship expert.

Also, if you find yourself questioning whether the person meant to hurt you by what was said, chances are it’s a backhanded compliment.

Do their words make you doubt yourself or your abilities? Does it highlight an insecurity that you have? It’s likely a backhanded compliment.

Other examples of backhanded compliments include:

“’You look great today! It’s amazing what a little make-up can do.’ This implies that the person’s natural appearance isn’t as attractive and that they rely on make-up to achieve a certain look,” says Alderson.

“’Your work was good for a beginner.’ By saying this, the speaker is implying that the receiver’s work is only of high quality because of inexperience,” Alderson adds.

“Another prevalent backhanded compliment is when you achieve something and someone says, ‘I didn’t expect this of you,’ says Moore. “The implication with this backhanded compliment is that the person being complimented either doesn’t really deserve their achievement or hasn’t proven themselves to be remarkable yet in the eyes of the person giving the compliment.“

 Why give backhanded compliments

Research shows that people who are on the receiving end of a backhanded compliment see it as a putdown. The person behind the putdown is often battling issues of their own.

“Typically, a backhanded compliment tells you that the person has some hidden jealousy, aggression, or competitiveness with you. The person giving the compliment may feel insecure on the inside, so they need to tear others down to feel better about themselves,” Moore notes.

A person may also give backhanded compliments as a passive-aggressive way to make a point, instead of directly confronting a situation.

Not all backhanded compliments are negative. For some people, not knowing what to say or trying to fill a quiet space can lead to saying something they wouldn’t normally say.

“Some individuals may give backhanded compliments unintentionally due to a lack of tact or poor communication skills. They may not realise the negative impact of their words, or they might be trying to make a joke without realising that it could come off as offensive,” Alderson explains.

Ways to cope

No matter the reason for the offhanded remarks, knowing how to respond to them is key. Highlight the positive and ignore the negative. Thank the person for the positive point they made, and don’t address their dig at you. If they intended to be hurtful, they’ll see their tactics didn’t have the intended result.

Deflect with humour. A joke can be disarming and catch the offender off guard. “Employing humour can diffuse the tension of a backhanded compliment while also indirectly addressing the underlying criticism. You could respond with a lighthearted comment such as, ‘I’m sure you mean that in the nicest way possible!’ or ‘I’m glad I exceeded your low expectations’,” Alderson notes.

Change the conversation. A sudden redirect of the topic at hand can be an impactful way of shutting down a backhanded compliment. Talking about another subject not only removes the focus of the negative words, but also changes the power dynamic in your favour.

Directly address what was said. “A mindful and direct response would be to say something like, ‘You may not be trying to hurt me with that comment or compliment, yet I feel uneasy and I don’t know how to respond. Can you please try telling me again in a different way?’ This takes the negative energy head on and could potentially elicit the person to take a beat and reconsider their intentions and be more responsible with their actions,” advises Marks.

Do nothing at all. Smile, ignore what was said, and simply walk away from the conversation. If a person’s intention was to insult you, they won’t get the satisfaction of achieving their goal. You emerge as the bigger person.

“The approach you choose will depend on your own personality, the context, and the relationship between yourself and the speaker. Ultimately, any of these strategies can be a productive way to respond to a backhanded compliment. The key is to take the time to assess the situation and figure out which course of action best meets your needs in a given situation,” Alderson says in ending.

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