What Are Backhanded Compliments: Explained with Examples

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Backhanded compliments are compliments that may sound nice at first, but they also have a hidden negative meaning. In this post, I will explain backhanded compliments, why people use them, and how you can use them.

Backhanded compliments are disguised insults that mean they seem positive but have a hidden negative message. For example: “You’re so confident, I wish I didn’t care what people think of me!” or “You look great in that outfit; it’s very slimming.” These comments praise and criticize at the same time.

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Now, let’s explore everything about backhanded compliments in detail. I’ll give some examples and explain them to make the idea clearer. I’ll also provide some tips on how you can respond to backhanded compliments.

Table of Contents

What Is a Backhanded Compliment?

A backhanded compliment is a compliment that also says something negative. It is a mix of a compliment and an insult. This means that the person who says it is both praising and criticizing you at the same time. Sometimes, people use backhanded compliments to be funny, but other times they use them to hurt other people’s feelings. It is important to understand these compliments so you can know when someone is using them.

Why do People Use Backhanded Compliments?

There can be so many reasons why people use backhanded compliments. Here are a few reasons explained.

#1 To make fun

Some individuals may employ backhanded compliments as a form of humor, intending to entertain or create laughter. In this case, the speaker might not mean any harm, but the dual nature of the comment could still be hurtful or offensive to the recipient. Understanding the context and the relationship between the people involved is essential to determine whether the comment is meant to be humorous or insulting.

#2 To feel better about themselves

Some people may use backhanded compliments as a way to boost their own self-esteem by putting others down. By making others feel inferior or highlighting their flaws, these individuals may feel more powerful or secure in themselves. This tactic can be harmful and damaging to the recipient’s self-confidence, making it essential to recognize and respond appropriately to such comments.

#3 To hide their true feelings

Another reason people might use backhanded compliments is to conceal their true emotions or opinions. They might not want to express their negative thoughts openly, so they resort to a backhanded compliment, allowing them to criticize indirectly. This approach can make it difficult for the recipient to understand the speaker’s true intentions, causing confusion or hurt feelings.

#4 To maintain social appearances

Some people use backhanded compliments to appear polite or maintain social etiquette while still expressing their disapproval or criticism. They can fulfill social expectations by offering a seemingly positive comment with a hidden negative message without overtly offending the recipient.

#5 To provoke a reaction

In some cases, individuals may use backhanded compliments to elicit a response or reaction from the recipient. They might want to see how the person handles the situation, or they might enjoy causing discomfort or confusion. Recognizing this motive can help the recipient decide how to respond effectively.

Examples of Backhanded Compliments

To make the concept of backhanded compliments, here are some examples. You can use them when you need to. However, you must consider a few factors before giving someone backhanded compliments. I’l talk about them later in the post.

1. You look great for your age!

This compliment says that you look good, but it also says that you are old. The person who says this might be trying to make you feel good and bad simultaneously.

2. You’re pretty smart for a girl.

This compliment says that you are smart, but it also says that girls are not usually smart. The person who says this is being rude to girls in general.

3. I didn’t expect you to do so well!

It says that you did well, but it also says that the person did not think you could do well. The person who says this might not have much faith in your abilities.

4. You’re not as bad as people say.

This expression says that you are not bad, but it also says that people think you are bad. The person who says this might be trying to hurt your feelings.

5. You’ve lost weight! You look so much better now.

This compliment says that you look good now, but it also says that you did not look good before. The person who says this might be trying to make you feel bad about your past appearance.

6. You’re so brave for wearing that outfit.

It says that you are brave, but it also says that your outfit is not good. The person who says this might be trying to make fun of your clothing.

7. Wow, you’re so articulate for someone from your country.

This compliment praises your communication skills but implies people from your country aren’t expected to be articulate, which can be seen as disrespectful.

8. You clean up nicely!

This phrase suggests that you look good now, but implies you don’t usually look well-groomed or put-together.

9. That’s a really interesting choice of hairstyle.

While it acknowledges your hairstyle as interesting, it also suggests that it might be unconventional or unattractive.

10. You have such a unique fashion sense.

This comment can be interpreted as praising your creativity, but it may also imply that your style is strange or unappealing.

11. You must be so courageous to go out without makeup.

This compliment acknowledges your courage but also implies that your natural appearance is something to be ashamed of or requires bravery to show.

12. Your new job sounds so much better than your last one.

This compliment praises your new job but also suggests that your previous job was subpar or unimpressive.

13. You’re really good at that for a beginner.

While it compliments your skills, it also emphasizes that you’re a beginner, which can feel belittling.

14. Your homemade dessert is almost as good as store-bought.

This compliment praises your dessert but also implies it’s not as good as professionally made desserts.

15. You’re so photogenic; you look even better in pictures than in person.

This comment suggests you look good in pictures, but also implies that you don’t look as good in real life.

16. It’s great that you’re so comfortable with yourself to go out dancing like that.

While this compliment recognizes your confidence, it also implies that your dancing may be embarrassing or awkward.

5 Tips on How to Respond to Backhanded Compliments

Dealing with backhanded compliments can be challenging, as deciding the best way to react is not always easy. Here, we’ll explore various response strategies in more detail, helping you to handle such situations effectively and with poise.

#1 Ignore it

Sometimes, the best approach is to ignore the backhanded compliment. By not acknowledging the comment, you avoid giving the speaker the satisfaction of a reaction. This can be particularly useful if you suspect the person is trying to provoke or make you uncomfortable.

#2 Say “Thank you”

Offering a polite “thank you” can be a diplomatic way to respond, even if you recognize the negative undertones of the compliment. This response shows that you’re taking the high road and not allowing the speaker’s words to affect you negatively. It can also subtly communicate that you’re aware of the hidden meaning but have chosen not to engage in the negativity.

#3 Ask for an explanation

If you’d like to make it clear that you understand the backhanded nature of the compliment, you can ask the speaker to explain their comment further. This puts the person on the spot and may cause them to feel uncomfortable, as they’ll need to confront the negative implication of their words.

#4 Give a backhanded compliment back

Although it’s essential to exercise caution with this approach, responding with a backhanded compliment of your own can be a way to demonstrate that you recognize the humor or sarcasm in the situation. This tactic may be appropriate among close friends who share a playful sense of humor, but it could escalate the situation or create conflict with people you don’t know well.

While it’s important to note that using backhanded compliments can potentially hurt others’ feelings or create tension, there may be situations where you feel it’s appropriate to use one in a light-hearted, playful manner. Here are some tips on how to give a backhanded compliment effectively:

  1. Know your audience: Be sure you’re using a backhanded compliment with someone who can appreciate the humor and won’t take offense. Close friends with a similar sense of humor are generally better suited for this type of communication.
  2. Keep it light: Choose a topic that is not too sensitive or personal, as this will minimize the risk of hurt feelings. Avoid discussing topics like appearance, intelligence, or deeply-held values.
  3. Use a playful tone: Make sure your tone is light and playful when delivering the backhanded compliment. This will help convey that you’re joking and not trying to be hurtful.
  4. Consider timing: Timing is important when using a backhanded compliment. Look for a moment when everyone is in a relaxed and positive mood, as this will make it more likely for your comment to be taken in a humorous spirit.
  5. Be prepared for a response: Remember that the person you’re giving the backhanded compliment to may choose to respond in kind or confront you about the comment. Be ready to handle their reaction with grace and humor.
  6. Observe their reaction: Pay close attention to the recipient’s reaction after you deliver the backhanded compliment. If you notice any signs of discomfort or offense, be prepared to apologize and clarify your intentions immediately.
  7. Use sparingly: Backhanded compliments can be fun and entertaining in moderation, but overusing them can lead to misunderstandings and strained relationships. Use them sparingly to maintain a positive and healthy social dynamic.

Always remember that backhanded compliments can be a double-edged sword, and it’s crucial to be mindful of their potential impact on others. Use them judiciously, and be prepared to apologize if you inadvertently cause offense.

#5 Be direct

If you feel confident and wish to address the issue head-on, you can calmly and assertively tell the person that you don’t appreciate their backhanded compliment. It’s important to remain respectful and avoid becoming confrontational, as your goal is to communicate your feelings and help the speaker understand the potential harm of their words.

Sample Conversation: Discussing Backhanded Compliments

Situation: At a party, Alice and Bob discuss a comment made by a mutual acquaintance.

Alice: Bob, did you hear what Jenna said to me earlier?

Bob: No, what did she say?

Alice: She told me, “You look so much better with makeup on!” I wasn’t sure how to take it.

Bob: Ah, that sounds like a backhanded compliment. It’s like she’s praising you and criticizing you at the same time.

Alice: Exactly! It felt more like a subtle insult than genuine praise.

Bob: It’s unfortunate. Some people give those kinds of compliments without realizing how they sound, while others do it intentionally.

In Conclusion

Backhanded compliments is a tricky part of the English language especially for ESL students.However, by knowing these expressions, you can better navigate conversations and understand the true meaning behind people’s words. Remember that it is always better to use kind and genuine compliments when speaking to others.

1. What is a backhanded compliment?

A backhanded compliment is a remark that seems like a compliment but contains a subtle or not-so-subtle criticism or negative observation.

2. Why do people give backhanded compliments?

Some may do it unintentionally without realizing the implications of their words, while others might use it as a passive-aggressive way to criticize someone indirectly.

3. Are backhanded compliments harmful?

Yes, they can be. They may undermine the recipient’s confidence or create feelings of self-doubt.

4. How can you tell if something is a backhanded compliment?

If a compliment makes you feel good initially but then seems critical or leaves you feeling doubtful, it might be backhanded.

5. What’s an example of a backhanded compliment?

“You’re so articulate for your age!” This implies that someone’s age typically prevents them from being articulate.

6. How should one respond to a backhanded compliment?

Responses can range from addressing it directly (“What do you mean by that?”) to taking the high road and saying “Thank you” without diving deeper.

7. Is sarcasm a form of a backhanded compliment?

Sarcasm can sometimes be used to deliver backhanded compliments, but not all sarcastic comments are backhanded compliments.

8. Why is it essential to be aware of giving or receiving backhanded compliments?

Being aware can help prevent misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and ensure that communication remains genuine and positive.

9. Can backhanded compliments be cultural?

Yes, in some cultures, direct praise might be avoided, leading to compliments that may sound backhanded to those from different cultural backgrounds.

10. How can one avoid giving backhanded compliments?

Being genuine, thoughtful, and clear in your praise, and taking a moment to consider how your words might be received, can help.

Niaj A A Khan is an ESL Instructor with over 8 years of experience in teaching & developing resources at different universities and institutes. Mr. Khan is also a passionate writer working on his first book, "Learn English at Ease."

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