"You're just so brave pulling off bold colours like that! I could never do it myself". Photo: Getty
I remember it like it was yesterday: we’d just been given our geography exams back, and the class genius (as hard as it may be for you to imagine, it wasn’t me) turned to my friend who’d just proudly received a B+, and cooed, “That’s so good… for you”.
It was my first - albeit second-hand - exposure to a backhanded compliment, though certainly not the last.
From “I could never wear that!” to “your teeth have such character”, like most people I’ve more-than-occasionally fallen victim to the passive-aggressive person’s favourite form of human interaction.
More often than not, I come up against them in the comments section of my own articles on this site: “Great article, Clem, so much better than your usual drivel” -- actually wait, that’s basically just a plain old backhand.
Regardless, there are few people on earth who’ve not been slapped with one: I asked my friends for their own experiences, and they included everything from “you have such a pretty face!” (translation “...for a fat woman”) to “I really admire how you’ve persevered for so long” (translation: “give up already, loser”)
Amusingly enough, Googling “backhanded compliment” will lead you to the Wikipedia page for “Insult”. So, with that in mind, here’s a spotter’s guide to the most common sorts of backhanded compliments (please feel free to add your “favourites”).
The “compliment” that has a go at you
“Whoa, haircut? Your hair looks so good now!” “You look great, did you lose weight?” These ‘compliments’ are designed specifically to remind you that while you might look good today, you are usually about as attractive as a pube-laced bar of home-brand soap. Also, some quick translations: “confident”/”brave”/”ambitious”/”feisty” = “bitchy”/”wearing something too small”/”bossy”/“annoying”
The “compliment” that has a go at everyone else
Closely related to the previous variety, these are the “You look amazing for your size” (... everyone else looks like blancmanges) and “I don’t usually like that hairstyle/makeup/facial hair, it looks great on you!” (...everybody else is a nightmarish circus freak).
The racist microaggression disguised as a “compliment”
Last year, Celeste Liddle memorably wrote about the notorious ‘compliment’ “you’re too pretty to be Aboriginal”; other reported ‘classics’ include clangers like “You’re hot for an Asian”, “You have such pretty hair for a Black woman” and “Wow, your English is really good!”. In addition to being idiots, these compliment-givers are racists. If you are a white person who observes such idiocy, use your privilege to step in and ask the ‘compliment’-giver, “What do you mean by that?” Or tip a kitty litter tray on their head, whichever is more convenient.
The “compliment” that betrays the compliment-giver’s sexism
These ones tend to come from older males (though not always): “You drive really well for a woman!”, “I’ve never met a female [insert job title here] before, good for you!” and so on.
These are the backhanded compliments that are a combination of all of the above, but laced with such a profound level of insensitivity-bordering-on-inhumanity that all you can do is pause and wonder if you in fact imagined them. “You’re such a strong woman, nobody would yell at you!”, followed by a ‘good-natured’ laugh, when I told a friend my partner had been emotionally abusive, could only be met with slack-jawed awe. Uh, thanks? “She’s too pretty/he’s too handsome to cheat on!” is one that celebrity (and often, pleb) breakups are met with, the implication being “if she/he were ugly, on the other hand…”.
When all’s said and done, I’d like to advocate for earnestness: either you really mean to compliment someone, or you really want to insult them; pick a side and live by it. And if you must insult someone, at least be witty about it.
Think about what French actress Sarah Bernhard (hopefully not apocryphally) replied when asked “Do you mind if I smoke?” by Oscar Wilde: “I don’t care if you burn.”