If you’re lucky enough not to know what a “back-handed compliment” is, let me first congratulate you, and then explain. These are the compliments, delivered with sugared sweetness or perhaps even wide-eyed innocence, that really are a put down, a veiled insult… a way to keep you in your place. Although they can sometimes be accidental, it’s been my experience that most often they are not.
The speaker knows exactly what they’re doing.
In case you thought you looked good or were doing well, these remarks, typically delivered in front of an audience, reassure you that you’ve miscalculated… again. Back handed compliments are often things like…
- You have incredible grace/such a pretty face for someone your size.
- You’re really on top of things for a cashier/waitress/secretary
- Amazing that someone with your (insert handicap) is so good at…
- You look so comfortable, I wish I could dress like that
- That’s a really great looking paint job, if you like that color
- This is such a nice, new car/home, I can’t imagine how you afford it
- Who would have thought YOU would get the best husband of us all?
- It’s such an important job, how amazingly lucky of you to get it
Yes… sadly some of these are personal examples. Hopefully you can’t add ones of your own to this list, but if you can, you have my sympathy. I know how these things sting, how they echo in your head on night’s you can’t sleep and how damaging they are to your self-esteem. No matter how old you are, how happy you are or how far you’ve come, a back-handed compliment sets you back on your heels.
What to do?
Unfortunately your reply will be dictated by just who is delivering this fake flattery and under what circumstances. Your boss, an elderly relative or someone you don’t know well should usually be given a pass, for though you’d like to let loose with just what you think of their opinion, it makes you look small, petty and mean to reply as the speaker so richly deserves. Breathe.
In these instances, the best solution is to bite back the verbal response that will level the speaker, find (force) a smile (or at least don’t grimace) and thank the speaker for being so observant, always so supportive. And then move on. Giving this one more moment of your attention is counterproductive.
As a reward for your restraint, allow your imagination free reign. Let the superb comeback you have take hold of your thoughts and radiate out of you. Say the words in your head… loudly and more than once. Just because some clueless soul has decided to offer a pronouncement on your situation does NOT make it true. It’s an opinion, and the opinions of thoughtless, heartless, mean people should never be considered.
If you manage this… please let me know how you did it. Clearly I need help.