11 common backhanded compliments & how to react

In this article, we will talk about backhanded compliments, what they are and how to deal with them; how to manage difficult relationships and how to practice forgiveness. 

What are backhanded compliments?

We all like to be complimented. When we receive a compliment after completing a task or for our features, everything around us seems to change.

Compliments are accepted with an open heart, but there is always the opposite – criticism.

When faced with criticism, self-doubt immediately arises because it is seen as something negative.

It seems, however, that there is a form of hidden, disguised, sometimes even sarcastic criticism – and it is called backhanded compliments.

As soon as you receive a backhanded compliment you may feel flattered, but after a few seconds a feeling of confusion will set in.

Wait, did this person just compliment or criticize me?

A simple and common example of backhanded compliment would be: Congratulations, I didn’t think you could do that!

What do you really mean: congratulations, or that you didn’t think I was capable of doing great things?

Backhanded compliments are often used by passive-aggressive people, and are in fact a form of aggression, sometimes expressing jealousy and/or envy.

The social contract under which we all live has a special clause added by passive-aggressive people. It usually comes in the form of the “but” clause, for example, “I don’t want you to feel bad, but ...”, “I hope you don’t think I’m insensitive, but ...”, “I don’t want to judge, but … ”, followed by something mischievous, insensitive or a prejudice.

Another form of disguised insult, but which is at least sincere, can start like this: “You will hate this, but …”  If you notice this pattern in some people around you, it is very possible that you are dealing with a passive-aggressor. 

What to do? You need to respond to them, set clear boundaries, and if the situation does not improve, move away from that person.

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11 examples of backhanded compliments

  1. You did great, considering your abilities

You may not realize it at first, but this is an insult disguised in a complement.

That person does not think that you have certain abilities and that you can do great things, they underestimate you. The best answer here would be: Thank you for acknowledging my effort.

  1. This dress fits you perfectly, it distracts one’s attention from your wide hips.

I’m glad you like this dress, but your comment about my hips is rude.

  1. I love these pants, they fit you so much better.

This comparison, so much better, is meant to make you doubt yourself. Kindness would fit you so much better – is a great comeback in this case.

  1. What a wonderful opportunity, I would never have thought that you would be interested in such a difficult job!

The simplest way to answer this kind of backhanded compliment would be: Thank you, I am really proud of what I am doing. 

  1. I can’t believe that you graduated from college!

Seriously? This person is probably just jealous of your accomplishments. It is perhaps better so answer with a simple Thank you, and do not engage any further. 

  1. This haircut is amazing on you, you can hardly see the shape of your face.

This is an insult addressed towards a part of your body. You can always answer with: I know this haircut is amazing because it emphasized the great shape of my face. 

  1. Your painting is wonderful. What high-quality paints can do, right ?!

Umm, no? I put a lot of effort into this painting, and I am glad that all my years of study and painting have contributed to a result of which I am truly proud.

  1. What a wonderful smile you have in this picture, you always wear this lipstick

This kind of unnecessary observation stays with you forever. Instead of answering: what is wrong with my lipstick?!, you can say something like:  I choose only what is best for me!

  1. Congratulations, you actually managed to accomplish the task on time.

Usually, this is something your boss would say. Focus on the bright side: Thank you for acknowledging my hard work. 

  1. I wish I had time to relax all day, as you do

How do you answer envy? With kindness and silence. You just don’t take the bait and avoid conflict. 

  1. You would be so attractive if you just lost a few pounds. 

Sorry, I can’t hear you over how awesome and attractive I look. People should never, never give their opinion regarding other people’s bodies (unless they are a health professional who is paid to do so). Never. 

How do we manage a relationship with a difficult person?

Difficult people appear in the life of each of us at some point.

Whether we are talking about a family member or a colleague at work, most of us have experienced situations in which we have hardly been able to establish a relationship or communicate effectively with the person in front of us.

Sometimes such a relationship makes you act in a way that you later regret.

Although you would like to change the behaviour of such a person, this is not possible, so what you can do is try to change the way you approach such an individual.

Over time, all kinds of techniques have been described and experienced that could help us in managing the relationship with a difficult person. Here are some of them:

listen actively. Listening is extremely important in managing such a relationship.

It is certain that each person wants to be listened to, so while doing this, focus on what the individual in front of you wants to convey to you and not on the reply you want to give them.

be calm. It is ideal to temper your emotional reactions, although in such a situation the temptation is to burst.

Avoid encouraging that behaviour that you do not tolerate. A friendly tone can bring interesting results.

try not to be defensive. Even if the defensive attitude can bring you some benefits at the moment, in the long run, defensive people choose not to express their thoughts and emotions in a real way, and this will alter the relationships with others.

sets limits. Yes, it is advisable to listen and try to understand what led to such behaviour, but it is okay to set boundaries that you do not want to cross.

For example, if your interlocutor uses offensive words against you, it is good to tell him that you cannot tolerate such language.

do not avoid the person. Try to behave consistently in your interactions with a difficult person.

Avoiding it is not a solution, and a possible change in your behaviour can be interpreted as not being a trustworthy person.

focus on solutions. If you analyze a lot of the problem you have, all you do is prolong the stress and negative emotions.

If instead, you focus on what you can do to improve the situation, you will be able to feel effective, and this reduces stress.

set up a support group. Although it may seem tempting, sometimes you can’t do things on your own. Certainly, there are other people around you who have contact with the difficult person.

Sometimes people around you may see solutions that you would not have thought of.

try not to judge. Basically, you do not know the real reason why a person acts in this way.

He can be a vulnerable person and uses this behaviour as a defence mechanism.

These are just some of the things you can do when you interact with difficult people.

With patience, empathy and a little compassion, we can find a way to solve an unpleasant situation.

How to forgive and move on

Forgiveness can be both decisional and emotional. Decisional forgiveness involves a conscious choice to replace malice with goodwill.

You just don’t want bad things to happen to the person that has hurt you anymore. 

For emotional forgiveness, move away from these negative feelings. Emotional forgiveness is much more difficult and lasts longer because those feelings can return regularly.

This often happens when you think of the perpetrator of the injustice, of something that triggers the memory of that injustice, or if, however, you suffer the negative consequences of the action.

By choosing to forgive, you are taking a big step towards your own mental and physical health.

Numerous studies suggest that forgiveness is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

By learning to forgive you reduce your chances to ensure a greater satisfaction towards life.

Nonetheless, forgiving people is not always easy, as it requires patience, unconditional love and practice. 

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Conclusions

In this article, we talked about backhanded compliments, what they are and how to deal with them; how to manage difficult relationships and how to practice forgiveness. 

Backhanded compliments are a form of hidden, disguised, sometimes even sarcastic criticism.

Backhanded compliments are often used by passive-aggressive people, and are in fact a form of aggression, sometimes expressing jealousy and/or envy.

If you have any questions or comments on the content, do not hesitate to let us know!

FAQ about backhanded compliments

What is a backhanded compliment example?

A simple and common example of backhanded compliment would be: Congratulations, I didn’t think you could do that!

What do you really mean: congratulations, or that you didn’t think I was capable of doing great things?

What is another word for a backhanded compliment?

Another word for a backhanded compliment would be a subtle insult, or a no compliment. 

What does a backhanded compliment mean?

Backhanded compliments are a form of hidden, disguised, sometimes even sarcastic criticism that are hidden behind kind words. 

What are some backhanded compliments?

Some backhanded compliments: 

  • “You look skinnier in these jeans.”
  • “You would look so much better without your glasses.”
  • “This dress hides perfectly your wide hips.”
  • “You did an amazing job, considering your disability. “

What to say back to someone who insulted you?

When you want to say back something to someone who insulted you, first decide if you are up to fight this battle.

If you don’t, just ignore it or simply say “thank you”. However, if you do decide to answer them, be direct: “I appreciate your compliment, but your remark about my wide hips is just rude!

What is considered an insult?

An insult is an attack by words or, less frequently, by deeds against a person, with the intention of humiliating him, making one feel less.

Recommendations

Communication: How to Connect with Anyone, by Gill Hasson

How To Deal With Difficult People: Smart Tactics for Overcoming the Problem People in Your Life, by Gill Hasson 

Games People Play:  The Psychology of Human Relationships, by Eric Berne

Emotional Intelligence: Managing emotions to make a positive impact on your life and career, by Gill Hasson 

References

Marks, M. J., Trafimow, D., Busche, L. K., & Oates, K. N. (2013). A Function of Forgiveness. SAGE Open, 3(4), 215824401350726.

Overton, A., & Lowry, A. (2013). Conflict Management: Difficult Conversations with Difficult People. Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, 26(04), 259–264.

Rowe J.O., Halling S., Davies E., Leifer M., Powers D., van Bronkhorst J. (1989) The Psychology of Forgiving Another. In: Valle R.S., Halling S. (eds) Existential-Phenomenological Perspectives in Psychology. Springer, Boston, MA

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