What It Means When Someone Gives You A Backhanded Compliment (And How To Respond)

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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?

What is a backhanded compliment?

According to Merriam-Webster, a backhanded compliment is a compliment that is, well... not a compliment at all. The Cambridge Dictionary describes a backhanded compliment as "a remark that seems to say something pleasant about a person but could also be an insult."

Essentially, a backhanded compliment is a passive-aggressive insult disguised as praise. These statements are nasty, mean, and judgmental.

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

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How to Recognize a Backhanded Compliment

If someone's "compliment" actually makes you feel worse, it's probably backhanded. Here are a few signs 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 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?

Other examples include:

  • “You look great... for your age.”
  • “You look so comfortable!”
  • “You did so much work today!”
  • “Those earrings are so nice; my grandma would love them.”

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.

For example, “You’re so smart, for a public school kid.” The “for a...” part of the sentence lets 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.

Other examples include:

  • “That is such a cute car; I had the same model for my first car when I was 16.”
  • “Your art is so unique, I’ve never seen anything like it. Does this style sell often? It is so different.”
  • “You care so much. Good for you for trying your best!”

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 need 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!” really 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.

Other examples include:

  • “You should smile more; you look so much prettier with a smile.”
  • “I just love myself more when I eat healthily; I feel so gross when I eat how you used to."
  • “You look so much healthier now!”

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How to Respond to Backhanded Compliments

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 respond with anger, they will paint you as the unreasonable one.

1. Take a deep breath before you do anything.

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

2. Own the 'compliment.'

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

3. Refute the insult.

Contradicting their judgements that they use against you invalidates the negative perspective.

For example, 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.

4. Directly address them.

If someone gives you a backhanded compliment, it's an insult and needs to be addressed at times. If you don't address it, that signals to the person that it's okay when it's not.

If this relationship is important to you, speak up and hash it out. Of course, you can be stunned when you receive one of these so you can always address it at a later date.

5. Ignore them.

This method works best when you know the person is trying to get you to react. Staying silent doesn't mean you condone their behavior or that you accept being insulted; it can be seen as you not thinking their opinion is worth responding to.

This also works if you aren't in the mood for an argument.

6. Flip the insult on them.

When you receive a backhanded compliment, that person isn't expecting you to attack them back. Return the favor with a backhanded compliment of your own.

If they say something like, "Congrats! You passed the math test for once!" You can say, "It was so easy. Did you think it was hard?" This gets them to reflect and talk about themselves rather than about you.

7. Let it roll off your back.

Play it down like it's no big deal. If you don't take it seriously, they can't hurt you. This is one of the healthiest ways to respond. You can even laugh it off like it was a joke.

8. Change the subject.

If you change the subject, it's like you never heard it. This works best if the insult was said in passing or in the middle of a conversation. Don't dwell on it and move on.

These methods illuminate how wrong — morally wrong, or incorrect — the words are, and keep the focus on you so 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.

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Colleen Fogarty is a writer and contributor to YourTango. She covers self-care, astrology, lifestyle, and relationship topics.