Over the holidays, your aunt surprised you when she said, “You’re so pretty.” But just as you began thanking her, she added, “Why are you still single?”
What started as a compliment suddenly changed. Was your aunt implying there’s something wrong with you because you’re single? It sounds like a backhanded compliment.
It’s common enough. A friend, coworker, family member, stranger who seemingly says something nice, but adds an insult.
“Sometimes, it is a matter of ignorance,” said Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.” "They don't realize they implied a bad thing."
But often, people use backhanded compliments because they feel insecure.
“You want to sound complimentary, but you can’t quite do it,” she said.
In some cases, backhanded compliments serve a devious purpose. Pickup artists use them in a strategy known as negging to make women feel vulnerable and lure them into bed, as chronicled in the book “The Game.”
Yet still others use backhanded compliments because they’re just socially awkward and say the wrong things.
But no matter the reason, backhanded compliments sting. So, how do you cope?
1. Just ignore it
The cab driver seriously said, “You’re so smart for such a pretty woman.” Your anger grew and rebuttals ran through your head when you decided against responding.
“If you open the door, people will try to explain themselves or justify themselves,” said Morin.
Sometimes, your responses may make it seem as if you're the one with the problem. People might think they've said something kind and your response highlights your insecurities.
“Backhanded compliments are conscious or unconscious attempts ... to bring out the worst in you," said Carl Hindy, a clinical psychologist in Nashua, New Hampshire. "Don’t let somebody push your buttons."
2. Thank them
When someone gives you a backhanded compliment, be gracious.
“You can focus on the positive thing and say ‘Thank you for the kind words,’” Morin advised.
Positive attitudes are contagious, she added. By focusing on the good, the next time the person might stop short before uttering the snarky part.
3. Model good behavior
When someone pays you a backhanded compliment, respond with a genuine kindness.
“Give a compliment back and keep your dignity,” said Hindy.
But be sincere or it could backfire. Showing a person true affection might impact how they talk to others.
“Take the high road. Be nobler,” he said.
4. Address it
When a friend or family member constantly doles out backhanded compliments, it might be time to talk.
“Address it. Otherwise, I think you walk around feeling a little hurt,” said Morin. "And, it damages the relationship."
She suggests taking a measured approach.
Something like “I am really happy when you said those nice things, but when you added that on the end, it really hurt me” helps people realize they're adding negative quips.
5. Remember, it says more about them
You’ve just been promoted and your coworker wants to celebrate.
“Congrats! I didn’t think you were qualified,” she says.
Her negative response might be because she’s feeling jealous, insecure, or angry. That remark is her attempt to bring you down, so don’t let her.
“If someone makes those comments, it is about how they are and how they feel about themselves and not how they feel about me,” Morin said.