The Subtle Yet Brutal Art Of Backhanded Compliments

The old saying goes: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

But what if you do have something nice to say, but something mean to say as well?

The backhanded compliment is a subtle and brutal communication tool that pops up more regularly than you might expect. It often passes under the radar, but when it makes its presence known, it can be devastating for those on the receiving end.

If you want to master the backhanded compliment, let's delve into what a backhanded compliment is and the surprising impact it can have on both the recipient and the giver.

What Is A Backhanded Compliment?

A backhanded compliment is any comment that blurs the line between an insult and a compliment. These comments are also sometimes known as left-handed compliments or stealth insults.

When someone pays you a backhanded compliment, you could take it purely as a compliment, and walk away with the glow of receiving a nice comment about your character or appearance.

Conversely, you might take it purely as an insult, and walk away with that bitter feeling you get when someone makes a disparaging remark about you.

Oftentimes, the receiver can simply end up feeling confused. Was the comment intended kindly or negatively? Why say something nice but ruin it with the insulting aspect? Is this person being friendly or not?

This confusion, the beautiful two-sidedness of a backhanded compliment, is what makes it such a powerful form of communication.


How To Recognise A Backhanded Compliment

Backhanded compliments are, by their nature, easy to miss thanks to the fact that they are often wrapped in what feels like a genuine compliment.

If you know what to look for, it's easier to spot a backhanded compliment in the wild. Here are a few commonalities you can look for:


These ‘compliments' will usually start with a genuinely kind sentiment, but conclude with some kind of qualifying statement that more or less negates the compliment.

"You look great, for your age."


This type of stealth insult tells you something good about yourself, but only in comparison to something else. More often than not, it's a comparison with yourself, suggesting that something else about you is in some way sub-par.

"I love your new hairstyle! It suits you so much better."

Unnecessary surprise

In this example of a backhanded compliment, your conversation partner is kind enough to note something impressive you have achieved, but cruel enough to tinge that sentiment with surprise that you managed it.

"That's such a difficult degree, I never thought you'd study that."

Unnecessary observations

Unnecessary observations, a truly subtle left-handed compliment, include a nice thought, as well as an observation about your habits or character that you probably never even thought of yourself, but you'll also probably never forget.

"You look so good in photos, you always pose the same way."

Outside attribution

Here, someone will pay you a lovely compliment, then be quick to attribute something else for your success.

"That's a wonderful photograph, you must have a really fancy camera."

Faux envy

Have you ever had someone act like they're jealous of you, only to use it as a thinly veiled insult? If so, you've been on the receiving end of faux envy.

"I wish I could just let my kids watch TV all day like you do."

Bare-faced negativity

The most obvious backhanded compliment is one that doesn't even attempt to disguise the insult. It more or less simply pairs the two together.

"You have such a lovely smile, you don't even notice the acne."

If your blood is boiling from those handful of backhanded compliment examples, your radar for these comments is clearly working well. You're probably even thinking of countless times when you have been on the receiving end of similar comments.

A word to the wise: Be careful not to confuse sarcasm with backhanded compliments. Sarcasm is similar in that, at face value, it can be accepted as a positive, but with real negativity attached. However, sarcasm is intended to be negative from the outset, whereas backhanded compliments are much more nuanced and could be taken (or given) either way.

Best Examples Of Backhanded Compliments

The rich, famous, and talented are not immune to giving or receiving compliments that aren't quite compliments, and there are plenty of well-documented stealth insults in the pubic domain.

In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to compliment Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (a woman) in a speech at Dhaka University on her terrorism policy.

"I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism," Modi said.

This clear-cut case of a qualifying backhanded comment predictably was not well accepted, and gave rise to the #DespiteBeingAWoman hashtag on Twitter, which highlighted how ridiculous Modi's statement truly was.

In 2000, actress Liz Hurley became known as the queen of the backhanded compliment when talking about actress and sex symbol Marilyn Monroe:

"I've always thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous, but I'd kill myself if I was that fat," said Hurley.

The quote is now considered to be one of the dumbest things ever said by any celebrity, ever, but it's still a good example of a backhanded compliment.

In 1993, singer Aretha Franklin was on the receiving end of a stealth insult from columnist Liz Smith in the New York Post:

"She [Aretha Franklin] must know she's too bosomy to wear such clothing, but she just doesn't care what we think, and that attitude is what separates mere stars from true divas," wrote Smith.

Once again, this "compliment" was not well accepted.

Franklin responded: "How dare you be so presumptuous at to presume you could know my attitudes with respect to anything other than music. Obviously I have enough of what it takes to wear a bustier and I haven't had any complaints. I'm sure if you could you would. When you get to be a noted and respected fashion editor please let us all know."

As a postscript, the singer added, "You are hardly in any position to determine what separates stars from divas since you are neither one or an authority on either."

In practically all cases, backhanded compliments are taken poorly, both by the receiver and the general public should the comment be shared.

In a Harvard Business School paper titled Backhanded Compliments: How Negative Comparisons Undermine Flattery, authors found that "people who deliver backhanded compliments erroneously believe that they will both convey high status and elicit liking… but recipients and third-party evaluators grant them neither."

The Psychology Behind A Backhanded Compliment

So if we already know that a backhanded compliment is generally taken as a nasty insult more than anything else, why do people do it?

There are a number of factors that could lead to a stealth insult, and it can be difficult to know which one you're dealing with unless you know the person well.

In the above examples, Indian Prime Minister Modi was probably genuinely attempting a well-intentioned compliment, but it appears that his own underlying beliefs around women led to the insult. In this case, it was a compliment that was meant well, but ultimately the truth seeped through.

Another possibility is more more innocent - that it really was a genuine compliment, but an error in communication made it seem like an insult.

Think of a husband telling his wife, "You look lovely today."

While he may simply want to share a kind thought, the "today" could be misunderstood as comparing her appearance with other days, despite his good intentions.

If you know the person well enough, you may be able to spot instances when it's their own low self-esteem behind the compliment-insult.

Imagine a friend says something like, "I love your new car! I hope you don't fall behind on the repayment plan!"

In this case, they may genuinely want to compliment you, but their own self-doubt and insecurity around their own car's pricey payments holds them back from being overly positive towards you.

Have you ever received a backhanded compliment by a stranger who seems into you? This specific form of stealth insults has been granted its own term: Negging.

Negging, typically practiced by men trying to pick up women in bars and clubs, is the act of using a quasi-insult to undermine a person's confidence. By doing so, the giver of the comment hopes to make the target of his negging more open to his advances, as she now seek his approval.

Think of someone saying to you: "I wasn't planning on talking to you, because you seemed kind of snobby, but you actually seem ok."

In this case, the "complimenter" has given you a reason to talk to them - to prove that you are not snobby, and to find their approval in doing so.

And finally, receiving a backhanded compliment might not actually have anything to do with you. Not even in the slightest.

There are those who simply approach life with a negative world view, which adds a negative tone to many things they say.

For example, imagine you take a friend to see your favorite theatre show. Afterwards they say; "I wasn't expecting much, but I actually quite enjoyed that".

This negativity is not a reflection on you, but rather, they probably expect not to enjoy anything, so you can chalk this comment up as a poorly communicated - but genuine - compliment on your taste in theatre.

Why Do Backhanded Compliments Hurt So Much?

If there's one thing true of all backhanded compliments, it's that they really can sting, whether they come from a complete stranger or from a loved one.

At best, these comments elicit confusion, leaving the receiver wondering why the giver would even include the negativity in the first place.

At worst, the brain focuses purely on the negative, pushing the positive aspect of the compliment to the side and latching on to the less desirable parts. Naturally, it's the negative side we remember, and those upsetting feelings that we recall long after the conversation has died.


How To Respond To A Backhanded Compliment Like A Champ

When it comes to coping with a backhanded compliment, the way you respond can have a big impact on how much the comment will affect you. There are generally four camps you can fall into when it comes to responding to a backhanded compliment:

Point out the insult, making them uncomfortable and hopefully deterring them from this behavior, or at least getting them to explain and clarify that they didn't mean to be insulting.

Take the compliment as genuine, which is especially useful if you can tell they intended to be somewhat insulting, as this takes away their power.

Snap back with a backhanded compliment of your own, which can be a lot of fun, but is often hard to do because these responses usually only zip into your brain several days later in the shower.

Ignore it, especially if others were around to hear it. Backhanded compliments only make the giver look bad, so you'll look good in comparison without doing any work at all.

Let the public respond for you - although this only works if you're famous.


The Art Of Giving Backhanded Compliments

Though they can do a lot of har, a well-timed backhanded compliment can be a powerful tool in your conversational repertoire.

The best backhanded compliments are sincere, spiteful, and devilishly witty all in one. To craft the best stealth insult:

  1. Begin with a genuine compliment. This means knowing a little about your victim, which allows content for the comment and lets you get personal.
  2. Next, add a twist to make it insulting.
  3. Finally, include something clever to ensure your stealth insult has that lasting, confusing aspect..

For example, imagine a British person speaking to an American friend. The Brit might say, "You know, your English is actually pretty good".

This includes a compliment, a solid insult, and the joke of context (two English speakers chatting) all rolled into one.

However, there is a real dichotomy with backhanded compliments - after all, it's right there in the name. While they can be a powerful tool, they can also be damaging, not just to the person you're insulting, but to others' opinions of you. That's why you'll need to be wary of the (relatively few) times when you can use a stealth insult and still come out on top.

When To Use Your Powers In Backhanded Compliments

While few and far between, there are times to use a backhanded compliment.

For anyone with a sibling, you are likely already well aware of these moments - especially when a parent is around. Much like the relationship between siblings, a backhanded compliment can be all about love, but with a solid occasional insult as well.

For anyone who has spent any time on the internet, it can take serious willpower not to be drawn into a debate with trolls. In this case, a stealth insult can be a good way to diffuse a situation, rile up a troll, and offer a kind word, all at once.

For anyone who has been in a situation where kindness is required despite how strongly you feel the opposite, a left-handed compliment may be key. Whether it's at a work meeting with someone who has thrown you under the bus, or a family gathering with in-laws, being incredibly subtle with your insults will leave your adversaries wondering if you really insulted them or complimented them.

And finally, for anyone who has been asked for feedback from a friend, a backhanded compliment can be a kind way to let them know you do not approve. Perhaps your friend is trying on a dress, and while you don't want to be too negative, you can't honestly say you love it either, so instead you settle on, "Well… it's very you".

When To Refrain And Offer A Sincere Compliment

In most cases, a sincere compliment is best all around. Alternatively, if you do need to provide criticism to someone, it's best to be honest, constructive, and as kind as you can be while delivering it.

Remember that even though many people believe a backhanded compliment will make them look good and be more likeable, the opposite is actually true.

Whether you want to pick up someone's spirits, give them feedback or constructive criticism, or even simply help others see your perspective on an issue, opt for sincerity.

How To Avoid Giving A Backhanded Compliment By Mistake

Think about all the backhanded compliments you have ever received - how many of them weren't ever intended to actually insult you at all?

In many cases, stealth insults are unintentional, so it's a good idea to consider your own comments to make sure you're not accidentally upsetting strangers or loved ones with an ill-considered remark.

Half the battle is knowing what a backhanded compliment is, so you can avoid it before it slips from your lips.

If it's unavoidable, or you've already said the words, be sure to explain or clarify.

For example, perhaps you admire your friend's ability to remember things, so you say, "I wish I could be as good as you at remembering tiny details".

This could come across as snarky, suggesting that your friend is overly finicky or doesn't let things go. To make sure it is not taken this way, you would clarify that you genuinely wish you did have this talent, and perhaps go on to highlight a time when it would have come in handy.

If you have given a backhanded compliment that can't be explained away, apologize, mean it, and remember not to do it again!

What Will You Do With Your New Powers In Stealth Insults?

Backhanded compliments can be fun to dissect, but like the frog in your high school science class, they usually mean that someone has to suffer.

Once you're more aware of these insulting comments, you'll be better equipped to respond accordingly, make one of your own, call other people out on theirs, and mostly, avoid making them at all costs.

We have no doubt that you will use this information wisely, now that you are no longer ignorant*.

*Just had to give you one more stealth insult for the road.