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Backhanded Compliment: What It Is & the Best Ways to Give It Back

Sometimes when someone says something “nice” about you, it leaves you scratching your head. Do they mean it? Or did I just get a backhanded compliment? 

backhanded compliment

Compliments are always nice to get, and hear. It makes up feel good about ourselves, boosts our morale, and like the other person’s company as well! But have you ever received a compliment where you’re not very sure if you’re supposed to be happy to accept it to be insulted by it? Welcome to the world of the backhanded compliment.

It’s probably intentional as well, so while you’re wondering how you should feel about it, here’s everything you need to know about it – why people give it, and how you need to react to it as well!

[Read: How to recognize the signs of a mean person and the best ways to deal with them]

What is a backhanded compliment?

A backhanded compliment is a way to make someone feel good by praising them for something, while at the same time, saying something in the same sentence to offend and hurt them.

Often leaving you scratching your head wondering if they were trying to be nice, or if they knew that they were intentionally nasty.

Sometimes, people use backhanded compliments to mask aggressive behavior, and sometimes they are completely unaware of how the things they say can sting or come across.

A backhanded compliment would be something like “you’re so pretty that you could be a plus-size model.” The pretty part is meant to make someone feel good, but the overall compliment leaves the recipient knowing that the compliment giver thinks they are overweight.

A backhanded compliment can sometimes come out wrong and isn’t noticed until they leave our mouths. 

But, there are times when you can use them to put someone in their place, let them know that they have been a jerk, or bring down the queen bee who you don’t want to call out directly. [Read: 101 awesomely good comebacks for every occasion]

A masterful trade, a backhanded compliment can not only catch you off guard, but they can leave you guard-less. Although you know that they were meant to intentionally hurt, they are disguised in niceness.

Like “Bless your heart,” it is hard to combat them or be overtly aggressive when handed one without looking paranoid or ridiculous. After all, it was a compliment meant to make you happy… or was it?

[Read: How to respond to a compliment and accept it without feeling awkward]

Why do people give backhanded compliments?

So, why would someone want to give a backhanded compliment? It’s not a very nice thing, so what do they get out of it? 

To be fair, some backhanded compliments are accidental. They could just be an honest mistake, but the receiver gets offended anyway. So, there would just be a perceptual difference between the sender and the receiver. Thus, we shouldn’t just automatically assume that there is some intended malice behind a backhanded compliment. 

But now let’s assume that the sender did have intent. They might have intentionally had a strategy of insulting the receiver, but it also gives them plausible deniability.

In other words, they can claim that they didn’t really intend to insult the other person, even though they really did. This leaves the receiver scratching their head wondering what the truth really is. [Read: Creative insults – 40 ways to taunt someone with cleverness]

Of course, usually the sender does this on purpose. It’s a way to be mean without admitting that they are being mean. It’s almost like gaslighting the other person. It makes them question their sanity about whether or not the compliment was real. And then, the receiver is the one who looks bad, not the sender. That is the whole point of a backhanded compliment.

A backhanded compliment is meant to insult someone, and yet, the person who was insulted can do nothing about it but just accept it! Honestly, it’s a mean thing to do, even if there’s a reason to hurt someone with it.

If the backhanded compliment is intentional, then the main reason the sender does this is that they are a coward. They don’t have the courage to just say what they really mean. They should be able to be open and honest with their communication. But instead, they resort to this immature way of insulting people.

Are backhanded compliments an insult?

In essence, yes, it is an insult. But it’s disguised as a compliment. So, a backhanded compliment is a type of very insincere flattery. It is patronizing and condescending to the receiver. [Read: 101 Savage, good comebacks for every witty, funny, or rude comment]

Being condescending is a weak power move. The tactic seeks to make the other person have false gratitude or be perceived as submissive to the “complimenter.” 

Someone who gives backhanded compliments wants to feel more powerful in the relationship. They think that if they insult the other person and make them feel bad about themselves, then they will “win” by being more powerful because the other person can’t argue back with them.

Of course, this is not an ethical thing to do. And we don’t recommend doing it to any person. However, there are many people who do it anyway. [Read: Smartass quotes – 50 smart and sarcastic lines that kick ass]

Examples of backhanded compliments

Now that we know what a backhanded compliment is and why people do it, here are some examples to watch out for.

1. You clean up so well!

Translation: This implies that you usually look like a slob. You really should dress up more so you look better.

2. I couldn’t even tell you were pregnant!

Translation: You are pretty fat already, so I can’t even tell where your fat begins and where your baby ends.

3. You’re so brave for going back to work. I could never let a stranger watch my kids!

Translation: You are a terrible mother for going back to work. You are so selfish! Your kids are going to turn out to be tyrants.

4. You look great! Have you lost weight?

Translation: You are fat, but aren’t I such a good person for noticing that you are trying to look better?

5. Your hair looks so good straight! You should do it more often.

Translation: Your curly hair is ugly. Straight hair is much better, so you shouldn’t wear your hair naturally anymore.

6. I didn’t expect you to get the job. Congratulations! 

Translation: You’re pretty dumb and lazy. I can’t believe that someone actually hired you. What were they thinking? [Read: 20 smart medieval insults in English that should make a comeback]

7. I wish I was just as laid back about clutter.

Translation: Your house *or office* is a total pigsty. Why can’t you just be like a normal person and clean up after yourself?

8. It’s so great that you don’t care what other people think of you.

Translation: You are a loud-mouthed jerk. You say and do things that are offensive to other people.

9. Your place is so cozy.

Translation: You must be poor because if you weren’t, there is no way you would live in this tiny dump.

As you can see, these common backhanded compliments are all really insults! [Read: People who put you down – how to face them and grow from within]

The most effective ways to deal with a backhanded compliment

The key is to meet backhanded compliments with kindness. Being overly aggressive, mad, or angry about them will only bring out the worst in you. In intentional cases, that is what the compliment giver is hoping for.

So, it is best to be as covert as they are in your response. Meeting passive aggressiveness with the same is the only way to put a backhander in their place. Here are the effective ways to deal with a backhanded compliment.

1. Ignore it

Maybe you know someone who you think is the best backhanded complimenter of all time. They might say things that sit in your crawl for months. They might even be so good at what they do that you still, to this day, really don’t know if they had any idea that what they were saying to be nice was so mean. [Read: The mean girl – 25 traits to recognize her and stay away]

The best way to defend yourself from a backhanded compliment, especially if you aren’t sure if the person intentionally meant to hurt your feelings, or if they just were speaking their version of the truth, is just to ignore it and move on.

In the end, if you call them out, they will vehemently deny it anyway. And, it may backfire to make you look insecure, accusatory, and paranoid. If it is something small you can live with, and it doesn’t happen frequently, sometimes it is best just to let it go.

There are times when the backhanded complimenter is saying what they say to purposely push your buttons or get you upset. If that is the case, ignoring it is the best way to combat it. If they can’t get a rise out of you, they may just stop it and move along to the next victim. Pretend not to get it, and they may not waste their time on you anymore. [Read: Self-concept – How we create and develop it to control our own happiness]

2. Only acknowledge the good portion of the compliment

A backhanded compliment didn’t just come out of thin air. The person providing them has thought pretty hard about how to hurt you. If someone gives you a backhanded compliment like “I love that dress, it really hides your midsection,” simply reply “Thank you, I thought the blue looked good with my eyes.”

If you only allow the positive message to make it through to your psyche, they will see that you refuse to take on the nasty portion. That negates the whole reason for a backhanded compliment.

If you do it enough times, the backhanded complimenter won’t waste the time trying to take you down through passive-aggressive methods. [Read: 15 different types of humor and how it affects relationships]

3. Be appreciative of their compliment

To stop the backhander from thinking they got the best of you, simply say thank you and nothing else. If you say thank you, it shows the backhanded complimenter that you are tough and self-confident enough to take it without being hurt or even affected.

By saying thank you, you acknowledge “yes I heard what you said” and “yes I got that it was supposed to hurt” while also saying “I don’t care… you can’t hurt me or my feelings with anything that you have to say.”

Remember, you are rubber and they are glue, just let it bounce off you and stick to their ugly self. By explaining yourself or showing them that you were hurt by their backhanded compliment, you’re giving them exactly what they want. [Read: Bad friends – 25 types of friends you must unfriend from your life]

4. Call them out

There are occasions when a backhanded compliment comes with such fervor that it becomes impossible to subject yourself to it another moment without putting a stop to it.

If you have a friend or family member who simply can’t stop themselves from being passive-aggressive, and is constantly making you feel bad by disguising their ugliness in something that sounds nice, then it may be time to take out the bully.

Bullies come in all forms, and a passive-aggressive backhander is the worst type. You aren’t the only recipient of the hurtful phrases, so take one for the team.

Just like any bully, calling out their behavior and meeting it with like aggression will do the trick to ensure that they can’t continue to dump on you without reprise or any responsibility for what they say. [Read: How to deal with bullies – 13 grownup ways to confront mean people]

If you are tired of the backhanded compliments flowing your way, state in no uncertain terms that you don’t appreciate being hurt. Sure, it will be met with a “What are you talking about? I was just giving you a compliment!”

But, once you have shown their covert actions for what they are, they will have a really hard time trying to dive-bomb your feelings in a kind/unkind form of verbal attack again.

Letting them know that you know it is no mistake that they intentionally say shitty things will stop them from being able to hide it anymore.

Someone who uses backhanded compliments does it so that they sound nice and don’t want anyone to know their ugly side. If you call them out and confront them, they no longer can claim the “I didn’t know” defense. They have been put on notice. [Read: The burning question – Why are people so mean to nice people?]

5. Give it right back

If you receive a backhanded compliment, sometimes it is best to keep your sense of humor and keep it light. When they give you a compliment, it is okay to give one right back that is just as caustic and covert.

Maybe you are a quick-witted person and know how to send your own zingers, so have at it. A like-kind comment works in two ways. [Read: How to be witty and 25 ways to win over everyone with your charm]

It lets the backhanded complimenter know that you understand what their phrase was intended to do, and it insults them in the exact same manner. Not everyone has the skill. But, if you do… let it ride to take out a word-bully.

Backhanded compliments are one of the hardest things to counterattack. After all, the entire purpose of them is to be nasty while sounding nice. An intentional way to make you feel bad while giving you the cue that they didn’t mean it, chances are good that it was spot on.

[Read: How to spot and stop selfish people from hurting you]

You can be quick-witted, ignore the backhanded compliment, acknowledge only the positive, or meet it with your twist. It is really about timing and how masterful the person you are dealing with it. 

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