Backhanded Compliments: Identify, Recognize, & Resolve

Caucasian businesswoman giving a bribe. Uncorrupted businesswomaEver give a compliment to someone and they seemed upset with you? Maybe they did not show the gratitude you thought they would or gave you a funny look after. This could be the result of accidentally giving a backhanded compliment.

A backhanded compliment is a compliment that actually has an insult in it as well. WHAT?! I know, seems to not make much sense right? How could complimenting someone be loaded with an insult? Especially when we had no intentions of insulting the person. Unfortunately, it happens.

The purpose of this article is to help us recognize what areas of a compliment could be perceived as an insult to help us better avoid accidental backhanded compliments. We will also discuss how to recognize if you may have just given one and how to resolve the situation.

Identify

Let’s start with an example so we can make better sense of this. Your friend comes up to you and excitedly informs you that they just got into the local college. You’re happy for them and want to give them a compliment. You might say “Congrats! That’s a great school for a state school.” OOPS! We may have just insulted them.

Let’s break it down. It is a compliment to say “congrats” and it’s a compliment to call it a “great school.” In our mind we also may feel that pointing out the fact that it’s a great school for a state school is a compliment. However, it may not be perceived that way. What they might hear is “That’s a great school… but only for a state school and not when being compared with other schools.”

I know this may be frustrating because it’s not what you meant. Try to ask yourself if the compliment you are giving can be perceived in any other way. You could either shorten your compliment and say “Congrats! That’s a great school!” because it’s not necessary that they know the facts of it being a great state school. You can also rephrase it if you really wanted them to know that it’s one of the top state schools. This may look like this “Congrats! That’s a great school! It’s one of the top rated schools of the state.”

Recognize

Now we want to prepare for when we do give a backhanded compliment (because we all accidentally do at some point). Notice if after you give a compliment if the person tightens up their face or body posture or if their expression falls more flat. You can also notice if they gasp or move their face back (such as being taken aback). These may be signs they felt your compliment had an insult in it.

Let’s try an example. You notice your friend cut their hair and you like it. You might say “I like your hair like that, it’s so much better this way!” OOPS again! They stopped smiling and their jaw drops and eyebrows raise up. This is also a sign they are upset, confused, or surprised. Can you think of what part they might have taken as an insult? It’s the part where you unintentionally insulted their previous hair style. By saying “it’s so much better this way” you are also saying “that last way was not as good” or “I did not like that other hair cut.”

So let’s try this again. “I like your hair like that” is a way to simplify it without taking the chance of adding an insult accidentally. You can also try, “I like your hair, it looked great before but I’m really liking this new look too!”

Resolve

The purpose of the previous paragraph was to be aware of signs the other person may give us that we have given them a backhanded compliment. Once we’ve identified the person is upset we can try and resolve it. We can do this even when we are not sure if they are upset or what we said that was taken as an insult.

A good rule of thumb if you think someone is upset but are not sure is to simply ask (much better then assuming). Simply say something like “you look upset, did I say something to upset you?” Hopefully they will be honest and tell you the truth so you can work on resolving the issue.

If they say that they are upset keep it simple again. Rather than explaining yourself and what you said you can simply let them know you are sorry and that it was not your intention to upset them. A lot of times we think we need to explain ourselves or defend our statement when really we just need to apologize and accept it offended them in order to move on.

Let’s recap. A backhanded compliment is usually a well-intentioned compliment that unintentionally had an insult buried in it. We can identify if we have given one to someone by their response. If we do feel their response indicates we have insulted them we can directly ask them and then simply apologize that it was not our intent.

So don’t be afraid to give compliments. If you’re ever not sure just keep it simple! 

Knowing we sometimes give backhanded compliments on accident it’s good for us to realize that if we ever receive one that it may also be an accident. Remember, don’t assume it was meant to insult you. If you’re really upset just let them know what exactly hurt your feelings. 

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