I was out on a date one night back in the heyday of my Tinder, okCupid, and CoffeeMeetsBagel craze when the girl I was with told me I was (and I quote) ‘the heaviest guy she would still find cute’. Now…correct me if you think I’m wrong…but I’m almost positive she was trying to compliment me. I think in her head she was thinking ‘oh yeah, that went perfectly’. I’m pretty sure she was trying to make me hear ‘I think you’re cute’ but what I did hear was ‘you’re not too fat yet chubby!’ Okay the chubby was harsh, even for the imaginary her in my hypothetical mind. But still.
We have all been on at least one side of the ‘back-handed compliment’. Some of us may have given these very such passive-aggressive remarks before in the past, others of us may have been the unwilling and unwitting recipients, and a good number of us will have at one point or another been on both sides in different situations. We may not always be aware our good intentions are being marred by adding just a bit too much information or we may be very, very much aware that we are trying not so subtly to jab at the person when we deliver our contempt masked as a compliment.
We’re not all evil and cruel creatures. But we might think like them sometimes. Our negative-focused minds may not know how to give an honest compliment without lacing it with a bit of bitter cynicism simply because we aren’t even aware we are doing it in the first place. Our propensity to focus on the negative aspects of things may be why sometimes we can’t help but add a little backhanded slap to the face when we’re really trying to offer a pat on the shoulder. The problem is back-handed compliments very rarely feel like praise and most always are heard as criticisms and insult. Remember that while your mind is sub-consciously focusing on delivering the negativity, your poor unfortunate recipient is very consciously focused on receiving it.
I believe one of the reasons why we might purposely give a back-handed compliment is a sense of ‘balance’ or a fear of ‘imbalance’. You may feel a certain level of insecurity or competition with this person. Giving a compliment to someone elevates their status, at the very least in your eyes. Praise literally ‘lifts’ a person up. We might not want to, by extension, feel below someone, so we purposely wrap our well-meaning praise with a bit of criticism to drag that person straight back down.
Now to be fair, criticism does have its use and necessity in society as well. We can’t just go around telling each other how incredible we are. That’s how we end up with things like ‘participation trophies’ and believe me, there isn’t a single part of me that agrees with or appreciates those. Yes we all need to be realistic about ourselves and should be able to take criticism as well as compliments. The problem is back-handed compliments are neither. They aren’t the positive, image reinforcing, inspiring messages that genuine praise should be. Nor are they the constructive, well-meaning, productive messages of criticism that help to direct our efforts towards improvement and betterment. Back-handed compliments are stuck in the middle and they do a rubbish job on either side. If you mean to criticize someone, criticize them openly and honestly for actual effect and appreciation. When praising someone, especially in an area that you are perhaps passionate in or have some expertise in, resist also the temptation to give someone a back-handed compliment because you think it might diminish your status or stature in that field. Helping to raise someone up by recognizing their efforts does nothing to conversely lower your own contributions. It is simply addressing and acknowledging something that already exists and is already true.
I do also believe that there are times when we are aware of our actions and have no desire or intention of being positive or giving praise at all. A back-handed compliment is really just a subtle insult for someone who for whatever reason a) has some desire to bring you down and b) wants to avoid direct confrontation. Passive-aggressive jabs like this are common, and, not to be sexist or anything, hilarious when it’s between women. I mean…how many times have you heard…
‘I love how you can just wear anything and not worry about it.’
‘You look great in this picture. It must have been a really nice camera.’
‘Usually that looks terrible on people with your body type. But you made it work.’
These are without a doubt some funny and not so subtly hidden jabs but they’re still terrible. Whatever happened to the golden rule, people?! Don’t forget. If you have nothing good to say, don’t try to say it in a good way.
Aside from the first one I shared with you, I’ve been the recipient of plenty of these kinds of compliments that I am not too embarrassed or too proud to share.
‘I knew someone your size would know good places to eat.’ Uhm…there MAY be a correlation but I don’t need you HIGHLIGHTING it. How about just thanking me for the great recommendations.
‘You were too smart to be a teacher anyways.’ I don’t even know how to process this. There MAY be some well-meaning comfort behind this since this was right after I chose to leave education. But you insulted a career I had a passion for, and had I decided to soldier on or go back, have implied that I’d be stupid to do so.
‘Your English is incredible.’ Yo. I was BORN here. My parents weren’t and they STILL speak better than some people I’ve met.
‘You’re a great cook, you dress well, you’re incredibly articulate, are you sure you’re not gay?’ Thank you, thank you, thank you, and WHAT. Listen the common everyday man’s inability to feed himself, clothe himself, or express himself isn’t a statement on sexuality. It’s a cry for help. These should be skills all men aspire to. Why couldn’t you have just topped at three things?
‘You look great in that. Now imagine it with less weight.’ I do. Every morning. Don’t worry folks. I forgot to mention that if you are trying to use a back-handed compliment to draw the person’s attention to some aspect of themselves you are genuinely concerned about and want to address without seeming rude, the odds are if they have any self-awareness they are already thinking about it.
Now what I really genuinely and honestly hope to read from you all are some examples of back-handed compliments you’ve received! They don’t serve much purpose but at least their clumsy attempts at praise could be a good laugh.