What Is A Backhanded Compliment & How To Respond Gracefully

Photo: getty images
What Is A Backhanded Compliment & How To Respond

If you've ever received a backhanded compliment, you know how confusing they can be.

Sure, someone just said something nice to you — or did they? How should you respond?

According to Merriam-Webster, a backhanded compliment is one that is not a compliment at all. In fact, it's really a passive-aggressive insult disguised as praise.

Backhanded compliments sneak up on you. They are passive aggressive statements worded to sound like a compliment while really it's nasty, mean, and judgmental. 

People who dish out backhanded compliments think they’re so clever. They think that they can get their true feelings off their chest without bringing attention to their negativity. But we see right through those fake smiles — and can teach you how, too! 

How to Recognize a Backhanded Compliment

RELATED: 7 Ways To Keep Your Passive-Aggressive Partner From Driving You Nuts

If someone's "compliment" actually makes you feel worse, it's probably backhanded. Here are a few types of backhanded compliments to look for.

Feigned envy

This type of backhanded compliment singles out differences between you and the unpleasant person. They will phrase the remark like they are admiring what you have that they don’t, but the content implies that they are glad that they are not like you.

For example, “I wish I didn’t care what people think of me like you do” really means, “You’re a mess, you’re crass, no one likes you.” Or, “I’d love to go back to work like you, but I could never leave my kids with a stranger!” is actually, “You’re a bad parent for going back to work.”

If you’re unsure whether a compliment is backhanded or genuine, think about the context of the conversation. Is this someone you don’t get along with? What do you know about the person that can suggest if they really mean what they say? Do they follow up the comment with advice?

Downplayed achievements

These backhanded compliments are easy to notice because they are not very subtle.

The first part of these comments do sound like a genuine compliment and would probably be taken as such if standing alone, but that dreaded “for” preposition signifies the backhand swinging towards your face.

“You’re so smart, for a public school kid.”

The “for a…” part of the sentence is there to let you know that this compliment only exists because of the low expectations the person has of you. That latter half tells you that they are judging you for being part of the group that they classified.

This type of backhanded compliment means that they don’t expect you to have whatever quality because of the group that they're stereotyping. 

Criticizing your past

When you make a change big or small in your life and the unpleasant person notices, they will pounce on the opportunity to let you know that you needed to change. They will act too enthused about the change as if it gave them relief.

“I love your hair! You look so much better blonde!” means “You looked terrible before,” or sometimes they don’t even mean it at all. Sometimes they really mean the exact opposite of what they’re saying. They could think that you looked better before and are now glad that you look worse.

It doesn’t really matter if you know which undertone they mean as long as you recognize that a passive-aggressive undertone is there. 

RELATED: 6 Backhanded "Compliments" Mentally Ill People Are Tired Of Hearing

How to Respond to Backhanded Compliments with Grace 

If you do notice a backhanded compliment being thrown at you, don’t lash out! Because the unpleasant person is using passive aggression to push your buttons, if you then lash out at them they’ll paint you as the crazy and unreasonable one.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Hey You! Want more of YourTango's best articles, seriously addictive horoscopes and top expert advice? Sign up to get our free daily newsletter!

Take a deep breath

Before responding, take a breath to calm yourself down. Know that these comments come from the unpleasant person’s own insecurities.

Own the compliment

Even though it’s fake, you know that you’re awesome even if the unpleasant person doesn’t think so. By accepting the compliment, and even explaining why it is a correct compliment, doesn’t allow the insult to land and makes you seem immune to their nastiness.

Refute the insult

Contradicting their judgments that they try to use against you invalidates the negative perspective that they put on it.

If they’re judging you for leaving your kids with a stranger, say how you know the person taking care of your kids. Maybe it's your spouse, a relative, or a highly rated sitter. Or you can explain how daycare is good for their socialization and learning.

These methods illuminate how wrong — morally wrong, or incorrect — the words are and keep the focus on you so that the situation doesn’t turn into a battle where you’re dragged down to the unpleasant person’s level. 

Most importantly, remember that the unpleasant person feels something is missing from their life which is why they feel the need to rag on you. Their snide comments are not worth your time or worry. 

RELATED: 10 "Compliments" That Are Actually Slut-Shaming In Disguise

Colleen Fogarty is a writer who covers self-care, astrology, and relationship topics.