The Backhanded Compliment Explained

Posted on April 15, 2011


You’re a great person.

Your mom likes you.  I like you.  Everybody likes you.

Or do they?

Is it possible people are secretly insulting you, but you always miss it because you’re unfamiliar with the art of the backhanded compliment?

The backhanded compliment is so effective because it starts with a positive first half that fits perfectly with what you had hoped to hear, thus triggering the brain’s this person is a friend so I don’t need to listen closely to what they say button and preventing you from detecting a thinly veiled insult in the second half.

Backhanded compliments: Do any of these compliments sound familiar to you?

1. This is so impressive…for you.

2. You march to the beat of your own drum, don’t you?  I admire you for resisting society’s obsession with body shape.

3. Thanks for having me over for dinner.  This meal tastes just like mom used to make…the time we were lost in the wilderness.

4. You’re a really great golfer for never having golfed before.  (You’re pretty sure he knows you’ve been golfing for years)

5. Sometimes I wish I’d followed your path and chosen a career I loved over making lots and lots of money…lots of money.

6. I love your free spirit!  You just wear whatever you want, and you don’t care what anybody thinks!

7. Your house is so cozy!  I love how you can see all your possessions at once.  I bet you never lose anything.

8. You are such a gifted public speaker…is what anyone would say if they missed the first eighteen minutes of your speech and only heard the last two.

9. What a cute little car.  I should downsize, too.  Maybe I’ll sell my car and get one like yours…or maybe two like yours.

10. This is the best first draft I’ve ever read.  (He knows it’s your sixth and final draft and due in fifteen minutes)

Grey-area compliments: Don’t be too quick to anger if you hear any of these.

I like your hat.  (It’s possible she really does like your hat, but it’s also possible she’s saying she hates your hair.)

Is this your girlfriend? (Not technically a compliment, but could be interpreted as such if the person he is pointing to is really attractive, and he’s saying you’re at a level capable of winning such an attractive girl.  Not a compliment if the girl in question is your elderly mother.)

Not backhanded compliments, not any kind of compliments: 

What time is it?

Has anyone seen my coat?

Kool-aid has too much sugar.

If you’ve received any compliments that confuse you, and you’d like my ruling as to whether they are back-handed compliments, grey-area compliments, or not compliments, please submit them in the comments section.
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Posted in: Columns