How to Handle Backhanded Compliments

Relationship Rules
20 Apr 2024
8 min read
How to Handle a Backhanded Compliment

Have you ever received a compliment that leaves a bad aftertaste and makes you feel awkward? Well, chances are that was a backhanded compliment (sometimes referred to as a left-handed compliment) – just because it commonly makes you feel this way. But if so, what do you do? Maybe they didn’t mean to hurt you, so why should you do anything? Even if so, the question remains yet: how do you handle the situation yourself?

Here’s some solid advice on handling a backhanded compliment. This guide also includes all the relevant information to ensure you’re not the one handing out backhanded compliments. Everything is designed to make you a more comfortable person and surround yourself with people who make you feel better.

What Is a Backhanded Compliment?

A backhanded compliment is a statement or an action that appears to give praise but hides a subtle insult.

If expressed as an action, left-handed compliments appear to be a gesture of goodwill on the surface with a clear intention to insult underneath. The act itself may look generous but imply a backhanded compliment that you cannot do something provided to you by yourself. This vision will reveal itself in the phrases they drop or glances they take at you.

3 Signs to Recognize a Backhanded Compliment

How do you know if something is a backhanded compliment? There’s no foolproof way to tell. You don’t want to be so eager to find offense that you take a genuine compliment the same way. Still, there are some “tells,” and we’ll show you them here.

1. Sarcasm

Backhanded compliments go hand-in-hand with sarcasm. It isn’t what you say but how you say it. If someone compliments you with a snide, condescending, or exasperated tone of voice, they are probably not delivering a sincere compliment. People often use exaggerated descriptors and superlatives that don’t fit the situation at hand. Or, they may be much louder than normal or use exaggerated expressions.

“Hey, Julie, thanks for your help on the shop floor today,” is probably a sincere compliment. But what about, “Wow Julie! Thanks for today! You were super helpful! You know soooooo much more about doing inventory than people who have worked here for years!”

2. Having a Qualifier Behind

In a backhanded compliment, a qualifier often implies that you are only worth complimenting when someone has low expectations of you. A classic example is, “You throw great, for a girl!” The idea is to imply that you, or someone with your characteristics is only on the receiving end of any compliment because your inherent inferiority is being taken under consideration.

“Wow! You gave a thorough summary of that engineering article for someone from a developing nation.”

3. There Is a History of Negging You

Not everyone who praises you has good intentions. If you are dealing with a person who is motivated to make you feel bad about yourself or doubt your status, there’s a good chance that anything positive they have to say is an insult in disguise.

The real intent behind a backhanded compliment

Understanding the Intent Behind the Backhanded Compliment

Before you decide how to handle a backhanded compliment, take a moment to assess the situation. Sure, impact is most important, but your response should also align with the person’s intent.

Why do people give backhanded compliments? There are many reasons, some are more malicious than others.

1. Plausible Deniability

Direct offense means having to own your words, but a backhanded compliment lets you avoid that accountability and give yourself plausible deniability. That’s why many backhanded compliments use unclear or ambiguous weasel words. The intent is to protect the person giving the dubious praise from being confronted. 

The other person may even gaslight you or express shock that you think they meant anything other than high praise. Here are control questions to check if it is your case: 

  • Why are you angry with me? 
  • I was just being nice! 
  • What did I say that was so wrong?

Related reading: Gaslighting Phrases Everyone Should Know About

2. People Pleasing

Backhanded compliments sometimes are just a clumsy attempt to soften the blow. It happens to people who are socialized to believe that any negative feedback is potentially offensive. That’s why they feel obligated to soften any criticism they deliver with a compliment.

The problem with this strategy is that you end up delivering backhanded compliments that are more hurtful than simply sharing your honest but gentle criticism.

3. Passive Aggressive

Being passive-aggressive with backhanded compliments is close to people pleasing, as some people are so afraid of conflict that they won’t acknowledge hurt or anger directly. So, they lash out in more indirect ways.

The backhanded compliment is one way to handle anger or hurt feelings. A person who delivers it seems to give a polite, civilized remark, but the hidden anger adds in that little dig with a sense of getting you back.

4. Power Dynamics

Sometimes, when someone has the upper hand in a relationship, they want to keep that position of power. Acknowledging your success or achievement could upset that balance, so they want you to feel inferior or unsure of yourself. This desire to maintain current power dynamics results in giving you a backhanded compliment.

Men in the pick-up artist community commonly use this tactic. It’s called negging, where guys give women backhanded compliments or will even insult them directly to make them feel vulnerable and crave approval. The idea is to cause a lack of self-respect in the other person.

Related reading: 12 Signs of a Toxic Relationship

5. Cultural Illiteracy and Prejudice

A microaggression is a small but harmful remark or action that discriminates against or insults someone based on race, gender, sexuality, or other characteristic. A left-handed compliment can definitely fit into this category if the dig involved reflects prejudice or a lack of cultural understanding.

Thus, backhanded comments can be insulting even if they are based on ignorance rather than malicious intent.

6. Stupidity

Not all backhanded compliments are malicious. Hanlon’s razor states that you should never attribute things to malice or bad intentions what you can attribute to stupidity.

Sometimes, people say dumb things. Most of us have put our foot in our mouth with friends or family members because whatever we were saying came out entirely wrong. Don’t be naive, and know when to stand up for yourself. At the same time, be willing to extend some grace and benefit of the date to folks you know are sincere.

Ways to respond to backhanded compliments

4 Strategies to Respond to a Person Giving Backhanded Compliments

How should you respond being on the receiving end of a snarky compliment? It’s certainly tempting to give the person a piece of your mind or get some revenge by making them the butt of your own joke. No matter which strategy you choose, your response should be appropriate for the situation and reflect well on you. So, you’ll want to read the room before you come up with an amazing comeback.

These general strategies will help you determine how you might respond to a person who makes a potentially hurtful dig:

  1. Diffuse the situation with humor: This technique will remove the tension from a situation while letting you remain your charming self. Whenever you use a joke to acknowledge the insult, this is a great response to an otherwise well-meaning friend or acquaintance who has been unintentionally insulting.
  2. Be direct: Sometimes, you can say your feelings are hurt, or you don’t know how to take the other person’s comment. You can say something like, “Hey, I know you don’t realize that could be insulting, but if I’m honest, it feels like you are dismissing my efforts and hard work by mocking me.”
  3. Focus on the positive: A good strategy is to respond to the positive part of the comment only. This immediately removes the sharp point they were trying to add. This can be fun because the person insulting you has two choices. They can simply go along with you, or they must make an effort to insult you directly. That’s hurtful, but at least they must own their words.
  4. Change the subject: The changed subject sends the clear message that you don’t intend to take their bait. You simply let the comment hang in the air as you start another conversation on another topic.

6 Most Common Examples of Backhanded Compliments and How to React

Let’s look at the most common examples of backhanded comments, your ways of responding, and the exact cases when you should ignore them.

1. Great Picture! You Can’t Even See Your…

What’s the next word? That usually depends on your stage of life. It could be acne, wrinkles, stretchmarks, or something else. In any case, the comment moves quickly from a positive to a hurtful negative.

How do you respond? Try focusing on the positive. You might say, “Yeah, I feel good whenever this one comes across my memories on Facebook. I love how relaxed and happy I look.”

2. You Have Such An Independent Streak. No Wonder You Haven’t Found a Life Partner!

This comment implies that your independence or focus on your career is driving potential partners away from you. The idea is that the only way you can get a relationship is to stop being so ambitious. Often, there is a sexist undertone to here. So, how should you respond?

How do you respond? Be direct and make it clear you aren’t interested in anyone who expects you to sacrifice your life plans for them. Try, “That may be true, but I am happy to wait for an incredible person who respects my job and career goals.”

3. This Haircut Makes You Look So Much Younger Than the Last!

While it’s nice to get complimented on a new haircut it sucks to be told (indirectly) the old one made you look like a hag. Worse, it’s usually a friend delivering the not-so-positive news.

How do you respond? Maybe some humor. For example, “Wow! I’m glad you think I look great today. But, wouldn’t a real friend have warned me that I looked like my last ‘do made me look like I got my hair straight from Granny’s wash and set?

4. It’s So Cozy at Your Place!

Cozy is good, right? In this case, the comment is probably well-intentioned. But, your friend may need a moment to realize they may have just implied your house is too small.

How do you respond? If no harm was intended, you can respond with self-deprecating wit. It will keep the conversation light. You might say, “Well, with rent prices these days, I might have to sublet 50 square feet or so! Are you looking for a place?”

5. Your Instagram Makes Your Life Seem So Interesting

Seems is one of those qualifiers that are used to hide insults. The other person is giving the impression that they admire you. In truth, rather than offering congratulations, they are implying that your life is dull.

How do you respond? Ditch the negative and treat this like you’ve been paid a sincerely positive compliment. Say, “Oh wow! Thank you! I really do intend for my social media to reflect how happy and blessed I am.

6. You Look So Put Together When You Wear a Little Makeup!

At first, it sounds like the other person is complimenting your efforts. But, they may be subtly implying that you look a mess when you don’t. That’s pretty bad if you prefer the natural look. They may be being a bit judgy here.

How do you respond? You can be tongue-in-cheek here with a question that makes them stop and think. You could say, “Alright, but just how bad do I look when I don’t spend 30 minutes painting on my face?” You might also use a bit of mock horror. “Wow! Now you tell me! Normally, I expect a true friend to warn me when I look like a mess.”

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Better Communication, Fewer Backhanded Compliments

You may have recognized yourself as someone guilty of passing out their own backhanded compliments. If so, don’t worry – we’re all guilty of it from time to time.

Often, we have no intention of causing any hurt feelings. Still, it’s best to avoid backhanded compliments when you can.

If you do offend someone with a backhanded comment, that’s okay. Own it, apologize, and fix it. If they respond with a bit of a humorous jab, remember that you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously. Then, endeavor to keep your communication clear and sincere.

Love&Sex Expert
Cherie Hamilton
I’ve always been inspired by women who are outgoing, very sure of themselves, and not afraid to be who they were, including their sex lives. Under their tutelage, I gradually shed my old self, hung out and socialized with them, and, over time, became the empowered, self-confident, and sexual woman I am today. Happy to share my insights with other women today!
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