Have you ever had someone compliment you, and then a second later, you think, “wait, did they just insult me?” You may have received a backhanded compliment. If you’ve received one, then you may not know how to respond.
If you’ve ever wondered how to respond to a backhanded compliment, then keep reading this article. Along with some responses, we’ll look into what a backhandded compliment is and whether they're a good idea.
What Is a Backhanded Compliment?
Hbs.edu defines a backhanded compliment as
“...seeming praise that draws a comparison with a negative standard.”
Backhanded compliments are compliments that are often paired with an insult. Some backhanded compliment examples include:
“You look so comfortable!”
This could imply that you look too casual for the situation or that you didn't put any effort into your appearance.
“You’re doing better than I thought you would when you were in training.”
While this sounds like a positive, the clear meaning here is that the person didn't expect you to do well.
“You should smile more. You look so much prettier with a smile.”
In this backhanded compliment, the person is implying that your looks need improvement.
“I love when you wear your makeup natural, so pretty!”
This is also implying that your looks need improvement.
“Hey man, have you been working out? You’re looking pretty slim lately.”
The insult in this is that you didn't look slim before.
Why Do People Give Backhanded Compliments?
People have a need and desire to be liked and viewed positively. This means that people give compliments to give favorable impressions on other people, even if they aren't being sincere. But sometimes people give a backhanded compliment without intending to.
According to a study cited in the American Association of Universities,
"In other words, when people are concerned about their status compared to others, they are more likely to use backhanded compliments."
When you compliment someone on a task, you imply that the other person is better than you. People give these backhanded compliments to earn social status without putting themselves down.
Are Backhanded Compliments a Good Idea?
In general, giving a backhanded compliment is never a good idea. You may think that delivering one is a subtle strategy cast a negative light on someone else. But in reality, a backhanded compliment just casts a negative light on the giver.
According to The Harvard Gazette,
“Not only does a backhanded compliment lessen the giver’s likeability because the insulting undercurrent is not nearly as veiled as the speaker may think, it also costs the giver status with the target and with everyone who overhears the remark, such as bosses or coworkers.”
Not only will it leave a negative impression on the person you give a backhanded compliment to, but it leaves a bad impression on others who overhear it. Most people recognize it for what it is: being rude.
10 Ways to Respond to a Backhanded Compliment
So, someone gave you a backhanded compliment? If you don’t know how to respond, read these ten responses:
1. Address the Insult Directly
When someone gives a backhanded compliment, it can ruin a relationship. Because of that, it can be beneficial to address the insult directly.
If you don’t address it, the insults can continue and cause further damage to the relationship. If the relationship is important, it's often best to speak up. If you're too stunned by the insult when it happens, you can always address the insult later.
A backhanded compliment example with a response is when your friend says,
“That shirt looks great on you it hides your fat.”
A direct response to this could be,
“I’m glad this shirt looks good on me, but when you call me fat, it hurts my feelings.”
2. Ignore the Backhanded Compliment
Another method on how to reply back when someone insults you is to ignore it.
Just because you’re silent when someone insults you doesn’t mean that you accept their insult. In fact, it can mean the opposite. When you stay silent, it can tell the other person that you don’t value their opinion enough to respond. This method also avoids arguments.
This method is great to use when you know someone is trying to get your attention or provoke a reaction.
A backhanded compliment example with response would be if your boss said,
“Thank you for getting that spreadsheet to me today. It’s about time earned your pay.”
If you think the boss is trying to upset you and get your attention, just ignore the bait and don’t give them the attention they want.
3. Flip the Insult
One way to respond to the insult is to flip the insult back on them. Don’t give the person insulting you time to think, and quickly reply with your own question.
This means that you're forcing the person insulting you to talk about themselves or justify their actions. Having them talk about themselves switches the subject.
An example of this method of responding to a backhanded compliment would be if someone says,
“Congratulations, you passed the science exam for a change!”
A way to flip the insult would be to say,
“I easily passed it! Did you think it was hard?”
4. Say Thanks
One of the smart things to say when someone insults you is to respond by saying,
When someone insults you there, it isn’t necessary to justify your choices. Especially if responding to the situation won’t help.
So, instead of arguing with the person who insulted you, just thank them. This is a way to graciously move forward in the situation without arguments.
This method is great to use when people ignorantly give a backhanded compliment. A backhanded compliment example of this would be is when your mother-in-law says,
“I’m glad you got a real estate agent job. Working on your computer at home isn’t a real job.”
Responding with a thank you avoids an argument of why that phrase is hurtful. This is especially effective if you think the other person won't understand your point of view.
5. Just Acknowledge the Positive
When someone gives you a backhanded compliment, you can respond by acknowledging only the positive part of the backhanded compliment.
While feedback and criticism can improve your work ethic or performance, backhanded compliments aren't constructive most of the time. Acknowledging the positive part of the backhanded compliment shows the person who insulted you that the passive aggressiveness of a backhanded compliment won’t be effective on you. Also, this response may throw the person giving the insult off.
A backhanded compliment example and how to use this method would be if your boss said,
“You got so much work done today! It’s a shame you couldn’t get this much work done last week when we needed your help.”
To respond to this, simply say,
“Thank you for noticing the hard work that I completed today!”
6. Agree and Make a Joke
Another method of how to respond to insults is to agree and make a joke about it.
The idea of this response is that you make fun of the insult or exaggerate the insult. This can make the insult lose its meaning. Not only does it make a joke out of the insult, but it shows the other person how confident you are.
A backhanded compliment example of this method would be if someone said to you,
“You’re not a very lazy person today.”
A joking response might be,
“Thanks, I drank a lot of coffee.”
This response is making a joke of the person calling you lazy and showing them that you don’t care what they say.
7. Don’t Take It Seriously
This method of how to reply back when someone insults you might be a more challenging response. By not taking the backhanded compliment seriously, you're helping yourself respond in a healthy way.
The person insulting you might not know how to deal with their own emotions or projecting their emotion onto you, or they could be actively trying to hurt you.
Here's a backhanded compliment example of using this method. Imagine you've got a coworker who says,
”Congratulations on getting promoted. Maybe now you won’t be in such a bad mood all the time,”
Your coworker is most likely jealous of your promotion. If you want to respond, here's what you can say in a laughing manner,
“Oh Jeez! It sounds like you can’t wait to see me go to the new department.”
8. Change the Subject
Another method of how to respond to insults is to change the subject away from the backhanded compliment. This works best when the insult is said in passing or in the middle of a conversation.
This method is suitable to use is if the other person just wanted to vent and worded their complaint as an insult. Most of the time, the insult is unimportant, and it'll be forgotten if the subject is changed to a different topic.
A backhanded compliment example would be if someone says,
“You're a lot nicer than you seem.”
A response to this insult by changing the subject could be,
“Did you see that concert that everyone in town saw?”
9. Command Respect
Everyone wants to know some smart things to say when someone insults you. But sometimes when someone insults you, it’s necessary to stop it immediately.
This method puts the other person on the spot. Hopefully, the other person will realize that it creates conflict to insult someone.
Here is a backhanded compliment example of this method.
If someone tells you,
“Remember when you acted stupid and did that?”
A response to this to command respect would be,
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t call me stupid. I don’t find it funny.”
10. Laugh It Off
This response to a backhanded compliment is one of the simpler responses. It's also straightforward. Just laugh it off and walk away.
The only issue with this is that if you’re not good at fake laughing, it can seem fake. But this method avoids any potential conflicts.
A backhanded compliment example would be if you had a customer say,
“You would look so pretty if you smiled.”
Your response then could be just to laugh it off and walk away. After all, this complete stranger (the customer) means nothing to you.
Learn More About Dealing With People
You just learned an important people skill: how to reply back when someone insults you in a backhanded way. If you're interested in learning other people skills, we've got plenty of tutorials to help. Here are a few to get you started:
- What Is Rapport? & How Do You Build It With Someone?Sarah Joy01 Oct 2022
- How Emotionally Intelligent Are You Really? & How to Improve NowSharon Hurley Hall21 Dec 2021
- How to Deal With Angry Difficult Customers EffectivelySarah Joy12 Oct 2022
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Respond to Backhanded Compliments in a Healthy, Proactive Way
The next time you receive a backhanded compliment, try out one of the responses in this article. And if you're tempted to give out a backhanded compliment, realize that doing so will make you look bad.
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Editorial Note: This content was originally published in February 2022. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.