Writing My Life

Now and Then

… a back-handed compliment is better than no compliment at all … maybe; maybe not …


Formerly called “left-handed compliments,” the politically correct term is now “back-handed.” Because I birthed left-handed children, I respect this change in terminology. Nevertheless, I feel I need to define the idiom and explain why I prefer “back-handed.”  The Phrase Finder’s definition is as follows:

A left-handed (or back-handed) compliment is an insult concealed in an apparent compliment and thus is the reverse of a real compliment, as left is the reverse of right. The left side has long been associated with wrongness.

Aside from all of the Christian superstitions about “sinister” left-handed” people, there are other reasons for apprehensions about offerings from one’s left hand. In many areas of what is called “the developing world”, where people eat without utensils, they use only their right hands, since they use their left hands for “toilet-related” functions. Apparently, it is still a tradition in some areas.

Well, that last paragraph is rather gross, but I remember hearing that explanation as a reason why we don’t shake left hands. With the “wash-your-hands”campaign blitz going on in rest rooms across the nation, I hope this isn’t an issue anymore. But back to the topic at hand.

I LOVE to give and receive compliments because they cheer up  people. It’s when we base our self esteem upon receiving or not receiving plaudits that praise becomes problematic for the hearer. But what about those times when the giver’s motivation includes an additional message that might not be so kind? What EXACTLY are those statements? And how do we pick up on those implications? More importantly, how do we feel about them?

Giver’s Intentions: I don’t really think we can “guess” why individuals share compliments that leave us wondering what they really meant unless we know that person fairly well. For example, my hair dresser often chats about her grandma who looks at her straight hair and says, “I just love your hair when you wear it curly.”

Jessica knows her grandma well. She knows how much the elderly woman dislikes straight hair because she thinks it looks stringy or slutty or both. She knows her grandma is outspoken, but she also knows Grandma loves her. So Jessica just laughs off the remark or says, “I really like it this way, too, Grandma.”

Sometimes we want to give our friend or family member some “helpful” advice, but we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We think embedding the suggestion in some sort of “compliment” will soften the words. But that rarely works. Our dear ones can usually see right through the ploys, and the whole idea blows up in our faces.

There are also times when we’ve experienced a misunderstanding with someone in our lives, and we may be working through the disagreement. We want to improve the situation, and so we make an effort to be kinder and to share our appreciation through sincere compliments. Because of the hurt feelings, our friend or family member may be suspicious of our comments, but I think we can show our sincerity by sharing heart-felt thoughts.

Examples of back-handed compliments: While most of us can recognize one when we hear it, here are a few common examples ~

  • “You look nice today.” (Inferring that other days you DON’T?)
  • “You look so skinny in that dress.” (Even though you aren’t.)
  • “You’re smarter than you look.” (What does a smart person look like???)
  • “I can’t believe how cute this baby is.” (Why? Because the parents are so ugly? because babies are ugly? Hm?)
  • “You think like a man.” (Because women’s thinking is so flawed? Or maybe that is an EXPLICIT insult!)

Picking up on the intended meaning: We sometimes decide a person is actually slamming us with a disguised compliment by the “way” he or she says it. If the tone seems a little too saccharine or condescending, we become suspect, especially if a false smile accompanies the statement.

Body language, as well as facial expressions, often tells us the giver is insincere, too. If the body seems tense, we assume that anger or even jealousy lies behind the words.

The preciseness of the language might suggest the individual has long thought about what to say and how to say it, and has just been waiting for the right opportunity to pounce.

What about those times when the comment is obviously backhanded, but no other “signals” accompany the words. Then, I think, the person has NOT thought about what he or she is going to say or how it will sound. They just spit out their opinion not realizing that it might come across as insulting.

Should we become offended in such circumstances? Probably not. It goes back to how well we know that person. Are they ALWAYS saying things like that? Do you have a history of not getting along with said person? Because of that history, are these asteisms subconscious attacks upon us? In reality, I DON’T think so. These people are just a little oblivious. Or maybe a lot oblivious.

How to react to backhanded compliments:  Can’t we just laugh them off most of the time? Naive as I might be, I believe most people are not so conniving as to work on ripping on people in this way. After all, it takes a clever person to come up with a clever backhanded compliment on the spur of the moment. That’s why most of the examples I shared are pretty cliche’.

When we know the person well, we sometimes joke about the compliment – “I guess I look pretty shabby most days then.” And our colleague, friend, mother, sister usually blushes and says, “Oh, I didn’t mean it that way,” and they really didn’t.

Last night a friend of mine that I’ve gotten to know over the past year told me how nice I looked. Then she followed the compliment with questions:

Friend: What is different? You got your hair cut. (I had.) But there’s something else. Is your hair lighter?

Me: Yes, sort of. I got highlights put it in.

Friend: That’s it!!! I like it!!! It’s so much softer.

Me (thinking to myself): So you think the brunette color made me look like a hardened old woman?

Although I thought the grumpy comeback, I knew she didn’t mean it that way. She’s one of the sweetest, kindest women I know. The last thing she would do is insult me – I am sure of it. And so I said, “Thanks. Glad you like it.”

To wrap up this text that grew and grew in length, I don’t want anyone to become paranoid about sharing compliments. It is a wonderful thing to do. If you see something you like, say so. That person will usually (like 99% of the time) LOVE it and will not take offense to how it was offered. I really don’t think we tell each other enough how much we enjoy her company or how inspiring he is to to us or how lovely she is. Such sentiments can brighten moods and make our little worlds better places, don’t you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

Author: rbs

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6 thoughts on “… a back-handed compliment is better than no compliment at all … maybe; maybe not …

  1. My daughter came with me to my university class the other day. As we left she said, “I really hate coming to class with you because you make me want to be a teacher, and I REALLY don’t want to be a teacher.” It’s the best back-handed compliments I’ve ever had.

    • I like to CAPITALIZE for emphasis – have you noticed??? =) I’m quoting your cute daughter’s comment as my Google Chat status today. Love it!

  2. I was thinking about what you said about the intention. My mom sends me thank you cards that say things like, “Thank you for the ‘nice’ present. I had ‘fun’ seeing you.” When I complained to my sister, she laughed and said, “She doesn’t mean it that way. She thinks the quotes add extra emphasis.” Now when she says things like that to me, I translate it in my head to what I’m sure she meant to say.

  3. This has nothing to do with backhanded compliments, but in medieval Asia they referred to the left hand as the “dung hand” for obvious reasons.

  4. WoW! A record number of comments – all in one day! Thanks everybody. I even like Claire’s historical commentary! (Was that a back-handed compliment???)

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