Backhanded Compliment: How to Spot and Deal with It

Have you ever had a conversation with someone where they’d compliment you but you ended up feeling bad somehow? If so, you’ve probably received a backhanded compliment.

What is a backhanded compliment?

The meaning of a backhanded compliment is simple – it is an insult disguised as praise.
It’s something that a person tells you with a seemingly positive connotation, but that leaves you feeling upset and discouraged. For example, people often say things like “You are pretty for a particular ethnicity or gender”. On the surface, the person told you you’re beautiful but what they really did was put down the entire social group that you represent.
Backhanded compliments are often sexist and racist, but pretty much all of them include microaggressions. Say, you bring your crush home for the first time, and they burp out something along the lines of “Wow, I could never live in such a run-down apartment, good for you for making it work with the little space and dated furniture”. If that’s not a backhanded compliment, we don’t know what is!

Why people give backhanded compliments

Sometimes people are just jerks who want to hurt you. However, that’s not the only reason why someone might shower you with backhanded compliments.
  1. A common reason for that is insecurity. Many feel bad about themselves, and the only way they can deal with it is by putting others down.
  2. Backhanded compliments can also signal that someone is jealous or narcissistic. They can’t get over the fact that someone else is doing great, so they’ll do whatever is in their power to bring misery to that person.
  3. Sadly, sometimes giving backhanded compliments is a learned behavior that can be picked up in the family, friend groups, or relationships. That’s why even if you’re really annoyed with the person, try to empathize with their situation.
  4. It’s also possible that you’re talking to someone who lacks basic communication skills or emotional intelligence. They may not realize that they’re being offensive.
  5. And lastly, giving you a backhanded compliment can be someone’s passive-aggressive way of letting out negative emotions instead of confronting you directly. It’s common in all kinds of relationships, especially when people are living together or depend on each other financially or, let’s say, they work in one team and an open confrontation seems to be out of the question.

How to recognize a backhanded compliment

Spotting backhanded compliments is not always easy. Here are some tried and tested ways to identify a not-so-sincere compliment:
  1. Look at how it makes you feel. Words can be deceiving, but as Shakira said – feels don’t lie! Or something along those lines. Words that leave a bad aftertaste are not compliments.
  2. If you instantly feel that the person is trying to hurt you, it’s very likely that they are.
  3. When the compliment highlights something about you that you’re not happy or insecure about – that’s defo a backhanded compliment. Nobody with good intentions at heart would put you in the spotlight like that.

Examples of backhanded compliments

Trigger warning! You’ve probably heard some of these before. The Flure team definitely did.
  • You are really smart for a girl.
  • I didn’t expect you to do/reach/achieve that.
  • You look so much sharper with makeup.
  • You did surprisingly well in class today.
  • You look great for your age.
  • You are so well-spoken for an <insert ethnicity> person.
  • I didn’t even recognize you in this photo! You look amazing here.
  • I would have never thought you could lead a team! Well done.
Side note: All of the examples we’ve shared are 100% backhanded compliments. Still, sometimes they can be harmless. Like if your friend partied for six days straight and came to the exam still tipsy, but managed to get a B – that is impressive! And we would have definitely never expected that.

How to respond to a backhanded compliment

Backhanded compliments are rude and unnecessary. If you hear someone say mean things in disguise to you or someone in your social group, don’t let them get away with it!

If you see something – say something

Don’t be shy to call people out! Everyone is brave when they believe you won’t have the guts to stand up for yourself. Surprise them with something simple and uncompromising like “What you’re saying is rude” or “Why do you feel the need to give me backhanded compliments?”. Alternatively, you could give them the benefit of the doubt and say “What you said hurt my feelings, I’d appreciate it if you changed the way you talk to me”.

Thank you, next

Thank them for the positive part of the compliment and ignore the rest. It worked in middle school, and it works in adulthood too. Ignore the bully and they’re likely to vanish into thin air.

Give them a cheeky response

If someone gives you a backhanded compliment, give a humorous reply to throw them off. You can say something with a hint of passive aggressiveness, like “Wow, I sure am glad to exceed your expectations of me” or “Hearing this from you means so much to me”. Alternatively, you can take the classy route and say “I’m sure you meant it in a good way”.

No response is a response

The final tactic for handling backhanded compliments is to do nothing at all. If you believe that the person was trying to hurt your feelings or insult you in front of others, a possible way to deal with it is walking away. Sometimes your peace is more important than anything else.

Bottom line

Backhanded compliments can be hurtful and annoying. They are designed to make us feel bad about ourselves, so the ultimate revenge we can give to our ill-wishers is to thrive no matter what.
Whether you choose to confront the rude person who’s trying to ruin your day, turn it into a joke, or walk away – it’s important that you know that backhanded compliments tell more about the person who gives them than they ever will about you.
And if you do decide to call someone out for backhand complimenting you, bear in mind that they might not realize they’re being nasty. It doesn’t excuse them per se, but a little patience and open-mindedness might help you avoid direct conflict and help the person change their ways for the better.