Backhanded Compliment: The Art of Insulting While Pretending to Praise

Have you ever received a compliment that made you feel more insulted than praised? If yes, you may have experienced a backhanded compliment. A backhanded compliment is a statement that appears to be a compliment but, in reality, contains a subtle insult or criticism. In simpler terms, it’s an insult disguised as a compliment.

Origin of Backhanded Compliment

The term “backhanded compliment” originated from the sport of tennis. A backhand is a type of shot in tennis where the player hits the ball with the back of their hand facing the opponent. This shot is known for being difficult to execute, and as such, can be used to surprise or trick an opponent. Similarly, a backhanded compliment is used to surprise or trick the recipient into thinking they are being praised when in fact, they are being subtly insulted.

Examples of Backhanded Compliments

Backhanded compliments can take on many forms and can be disguised in many ways. Here are some examples:

  • “I love your outfit today! It really makes you look slimmer than usual.”
  • “You actually don’t sound that bad when you sing. I wasn’t expecting that.”
  • “Your new haircut is interesting. It takes a brave person to try something so unique.”
  • “You’re really funny for someone who’s not even that smart.”
  • “You’re so successful for someone who didn’t go to college.”

As you can see, backhanded compliments typically start with a statement that sounds like a compliment but is followed by something negative or critical.

Why Do People Use Backhanded Compliments?

Backhanded compliments are often used by people who want to insult someone but don’t want to appear rude or confrontational. By disguising their insult as a compliment, they can avoid any backlash or negative feelings from the recipient. However, this is a passive-aggressive behavior that can be hurtful and damaging to one’s self-esteem.

Backhanded compliments are also sometimes used as a power play or to assert dominance. By making someone feel insecure or uncertain about themselves, the person delivering the backhanded compliment can feel more in control or superior.

Impact of Backhanded Compliments

Backhanded compliments can be damaging and hurtful to the recipient. They can make someone feel confused, hurt, or unsure about themselves. When someone receives a backhanded compliment, they may feel like their accomplishments or efforts are being dismissed or overlooked. They may feel like they are being put down or insulted.

In the workplace, backhanded compliments can be particularly damaging. They can undermine someone’s confidence or abilities and make them feel less competent or capable than their peers. Backhanded compliments can also create a toxic work environment where people feel insecure or anxious about their performance.

How to Respond to Backhanded Compliments

If you receive a backhanded compliment, it’s essential to respond calmly and assertively. Here are some tips:

  • Acknowledge the compliment part of the statement – For example, “Thank you for your kind words.”
  • Address the insult part of the statement – For example, “However, I don’t appreciate the comment about my weight.”
  • Assert your boundaries – For example, “I would appreciate it if you could refrain from making negative comments about my appearance.”
  • Stay calm – Don’t let the backhanded compliment upset you. Stay focused and assertive.

How to Avoid Using Backhanded Compliments

The best way to avoid using backhanded compliments is to be direct and honest in your communication. If you want to offer someone praise or criticism, do so in a straightforward and constructive way. Avoid using vague or negative language and be specific about what you are praising or critiquing.

It’s also essential to consider the impact of your words and how they may be interpreted by others. Think about how you would feel if someone gave you the same compliment or criticism and adjust your language accordingly.

The Bottom Line

Backhanded compliments are a subtle form of insult that can be damaging and hurtful. While it may seem like a harmless way to deliver criticism or insult, it’s important to consider the impact of our words and how they may be interpreted by others. By being direct and honest in your communication and avoiding the use of backhanded compliments, you can build better relationships and create a more positive environment for yourself and those around you.

FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions About Backhanded Compliments

What is a backhanded compliment?

A backhanded compliment is a statement that appears to be a compliment at first but actually contains an insult or criticism. It is a subtle form of criticism that can be tricky to recognize, as it may not be overtly negative at first.

Why do people give backhanded compliments?

People give backhanded compliments for various reasons. In some cases, they may be trying to be humorous or sarcastic. In other cases, they may be attempting to put you down or establish themselves as superior. Some people also give backhanded compliments without realizing they are doing so, as they may not understand the full impact of their words.

How should you respond to a backhanded compliment?

The best way to respond to a backhanded compliment is to call it out. Politely and calmly point out the negative or critical aspect of the comment and how it made you feel. This can help the person understand the impact of their words and discourage them from making similar comments in the future. It is also important to recognize that someone who consistently gives backhanded compliments may not have your best interests at heart, and it may be necessary to distance yourself from them.


References

1. Kteily, N., & Bruneau, E. (2017). Backhanded compliments: How complimenting groups with negative attributes undermines their future success. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 8(5), 539–546. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550616685858
2. Anderson, C. J., & Sriraman, S. K. (2017). “You’re surprisingly good at this”: An investigation of backhanded compliments in mathematics. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 19(2), 127–141. https://doi.org/10.1080/10986065.2017.1289871
3. Lamoreaux, M. J., & Geiselman, R. E. (2018). Backhanded compliments: Understanding the impact of pseudo-compliments on perceptions, emotions and behaviors. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 48(8), 423–434. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12529