A spotter's guide to backhanded compliments

"You're just so brave pulling off bold colours like that! I could never do it myself".

"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.

The mind-boggler

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.”

24 comments

  • Or instead of over-analysing everything that's ever said to you on the basis that it may not offend immediately, but after several minutes of internal repetition and review decide that it possible might, just accept that some people are jerks, some people aren't, some people have a high opinion on themselves and a low opinion of others (and some don't), and at the end of the day being offended is a choice you made and you can just as easily get over it.

    Or, be more like men and just say what you think: instead of "you're just so brave pulling off bold colours like that! I could never do it myself" you could say "umm, are you really going to wear that? because it makes you look like an idiot".

    Alternatively, instead of "you look great, did you lose weight?" you could say "hey, didn't you used to be fat?"

    Simple stuff really.

    Commenter
    Dan
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 29, 2014, 9:01AM
    • Haha. Love it. I wouldn't mind if someone said that to me - at least they noticed! A compliment is a compliment, I think people are super sensitive these days.

      Commenter
      Shopgirl
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 4:12PM
  • Yes my boss has a regular habit of making backhanded comments

    Commenter
    BimBom
    Date and time
    January 29, 2014, 9:53AM
    • 'I’ve never met a female [insert job title here] before, good for you!'

      I'm no fan of backhanded compliments either (I think they are petty and mostly used by spineless people), but which part of "I grew up in an era where women were forbidden from becoming [job title], it's great to see that you've been able to get past that" is sexist?

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 10:22AM
      • My wife exact same thing when I found a male carer at my daughters daycare center. She meant it as a positive as I thought it was healthy for her to have a diversity of carers. I saw it as a case of a brave guy overcoming entrenched discrimination in the childcare system. I'm not sure why a female in a similar situation should automatically assume it's a sexist slur against themselves rather than viewing it as someone acknowledging their achievement in a loaded system. But hey, a male would never given heartfelt praise to a women as everyone knows all men are...

        Commenter
        Conrad
        Date and time
        January 29, 2014, 2:01PM
      • Sexist might be a stretch but perhaps a little patronising but it's not that bad. It would be sexist if he said 'bloody hell, now they're letting in women' with an eye roll and a huff.

        'But hey, a male would never given heartfelt praise to a women as everyone knows all men are...'

        All men are what? I don't get it.

        Commenter
        Ripley
        Location
        Hunting Aliens
        Date and time
        January 29, 2014, 2:54PM
    • I don’t believe that ‘all’ compliments are necessarily backhanded. Saying, “you look nice today”, may OR may not have an ulterior negative undercurrent. Perhaps he/she dressed-up as way to feel better, or because they are meeting someone, etc.

      But due to insecurity one might interpret that as an insult (e.g. “does that mean I don’t look nice every other day?”). The way we feel at the time we receive a compliment influences its interpretation.

      Commenter
      MainSail
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 10:29AM
      • I would read 'you did a great job' as a genuine compliment but if someone said 'that was a good job, for you' I'm not going to be so thrilled.

        It's the extra and unnecessary words that are the problem. Some people just really struggle with saying something nice.

        Commenter
        Ripley
        Location
        Hunting Aliens
        Date and time
        January 29, 2014, 11:37AM
    • Yes, back-handed compliments are to be avoided if that is actually what they are, but the problem with this is that sometimes whether or not it is a back-handed compliment will depend upon the receiver's perspective, not the maker's.

      Ok, consider a long-time friend of yours who has battled with obesity for some years, decides they are not happy with that and they do something most effective about it (whatever that might be - let's just assume that it's a healthy way to get fit, lose weight, etc). So, they lose this weight you know they've battled with (and you know they have because they've regularly mentioned the battle to you). So, they achieve their goal and they come and visit you, and they look terrific - they look fit and healthy, and above all, really happy.

      So, you say to them "Wow - look at you - you look awesome!". They are terribly chuffed and thank you and all is well. But should they read what you said as "Wow - look at you - you used to be fat!". Probably not - all you gave was a compliment, and not a "back-handed" one. However, what if you had added "... you look awesome! You've lost so much weight!".

      According to your article, that addition turns it into a back-handed compliment, even though all you have done is stated that they have successfully dealt with what they were unhappy with. In that context, it is no less a compliment than the first version. But is it the intention of the sender that makes it "back-handed" or the sensitivities of the receiver?

      Tough one, that ...

      Commenter
      Bloke from KP
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 11:02AM
      • I only wear make up on extremely rare occasions, e.g. at my wedding, formal dinners, about once every two years. At one dinner my husband and I got a professional photo taken which is now in our living room. My sister in law saw this photo and said to me 'what a great photo, you look gorgeous, really different!' - yeah, thanks. My sister in law is lovely but often speaks before she thinks. However if I made that sort of effort regularly, no one would notice when I bothered -and I would have wasted years of my life on excessive grooming!

        Commenter
        KerryC
        Date and time
        January 29, 2014, 11:29AM

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