Dealing with backhanded compliments can be tricky. Here’s how to respond when someone offers praise interwoven with critique.
At some point in your life, you were most likely on the receiving end of a backhanded compliment. You may have even been the one (unknowingly) dishing out a comment with double meaning. While it’s important to be honest with folks, these veiled barbs may hit hard once they register as an insult.
“A backhanded compliment is hardly a compliment at all,” says Sarah Kaufman, a licensed social worker in New York City. “It’s an insult that is poorly disguised as a compliment, oftentimes rooted in the insecurities of the person delivering it.”
Not all backhanded compliments are mean-spirited, some rude comments are even said out of ignorance. That’s why it’s important to ensure you can identify:
- What you feel is needed and appropriate at the moment.
- If the type of comment is worth overlooking or providing a mindful response.
Unlike authentic praise, backhanded compliments (also referred to as left-handed compliments or underhanded compliments) are
Backhanded compliment examples
“You look great … for your age.” Kaufman says this is just revealing the speaker’s insecurities about getting older and how aging might impact their physical appearance.
Some backhanded compliment’s insult lies in what is implied. Many people of color have reported an all-to-common reference usually uttered in surprise. These kinds of remarks double as microaggressions. It often sounds like:
“You’re just so put-together … and so well-spoken, too!”
Ultimately, if someone’s compliment makes you feel bad about yourself or questions their intent, then it’s most likely a backhanded compliment.
“Although a person might not intend for their words to be hurtful toward you, backhanded compliments can sting,” says Kaufman. If you find yourself on the receiving end of one, Kaufman suggests taking a moment to observe the emotions that come up.
She suggests doing a self-check: “Do you feel hurt, angry, unseen?”
If you feel comfortable sharing your feelings, consider using “I statements” to let the other person know how you feel.
“I’m sure you didn’t intend to hurt me, and yet I feel upset hearing that from you.”
If you believe the backhanded compliment was out of ignorance and not ill-intended, then you can acknowledge their good intentions (or the positive portion of the compliment) to show empathy and disarm any defensiveness, says Kaufman.
For example, if your friend says, “I love your pants, it hides your stomach so well,” you can respond to the former statement, not the latter.
“Thank you for noticing my pants, I love them too.”
By accepting the compliment — or part of it — you’re not allowing the insult to land, which shows the person giving it that you secure in yourself even if the person doesn’t think so.
Backhanded compliments are not pure praise, they usually stem from a person’s insecurity. If you feel comfortable responding, then consider using “I statements” or acknowledge the positive portion of the compliment.
Remember, backhanded compliments are a backdoor attempt at delivering a critique or bias.
Even the catchall “Bless your heart” Southern saying can have some mindful responses if it’s offered as a backhanded compliment.