One time at the park, I spotted another woman I have often seen getting her walk on. We started talking and she mentioned her age. “Wow, you look great for 54,” I said. Sis had a banging body! Instead of being appreciative, she looked taken aback. “You know that’s not a compliment, right?” she asked. Then she broke it down, explaining why my “compliment” was offensive.
I’m glad she did. Now that I know better, I do better.
Comments like the one I made are backhanded compliments, when a person gives a compliment but sandwiches it with something negative, says Krashelle Cuffy, a therapist and owner of Siloam Trauma & Wellness Solutions Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“You carry your weight well.” “That hairstyle makes you look younger.” “You look good for having three kids!” And the go-to for when someone looks amazing: “Where you going?” which implies they don’t look good at other times. All are backhanded compliments.
We’re being torn down by everyone else, so we need to be uplifting and championing each other.
These and similar statements come from family, friends, romantic partners, coworkers and strangers. We dish them out too. Sometimes on purpose. Sometimes unknowingly.
Although backhanded compliments may not seem like a big deal, especially if unintentional, they can make a person feel confused, angry or sad, says Cuffy. That can negatively affect their self-esteem or impact their relationship with the person giving the pseudo-compliment.
Why people give backhanded compliments
Like me, they may not realize they’re doing it. “Learning to genuinely compliment people and be happy for them is a skill many people don’t learn early on,” says Cherrelle Shorter, a licensed clinical social worker and licensed therapist at Therapy Juice Bar, a virtual therapy service available to residents of Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.
In some Black families, the snarky “compliment” style is just how we interact with each other, and it gets passed on from one generation to the next. For instance, instead of being positive and saying, “You’re pretty,” Grandma or Mama may say, “Oh, you think you’re cute,” Cuffy says.
There’s also the issue of our being pitted against each other so much. With that comes insecurity and jealousy. “This can make expressing genuine happiness or appreciation for someone a challenge due to us viewing another’s greatness as the absence of our own,” Shorter says.
Cuffy adds that some folks in our community believe complimenting someone will cause them to start feeling themselves too much.
How to respond to a backhanded compliment
Ignore it. If you know the person is trying to push your buttons or it’s an outsider and you don’t give a flying fig about their comments, feel free to walk away.
Call them out. Shorter says it’s OK to ask for clarity if someone says something that leaves you feeling confused or offended. Try, “I’m not sure how to take that” or “What did you mean by…?” Or, as the lady at the park did with me, be straightforward: “That’s not a compliment.” Shorter admits this may not go over well with some people, but not saying anything means the behavior will likely continue.
Use “I” statements. This allows you to express your feelings and tactfully describe the problem without putting the person in defense mode, Cuffy says. For instance, “Auntie, I feel hurt when you say. …”
Only acknowledge the positive. Accept the kudos; ignore the insult. For example, if a friend says your dress is cute even though you don’t have a butt, Cuffy says you could respond, “Thank you! I do look good in this dress, don’t I?”
Reevaluate the relationship. If the hidden insults are constant (especially if you’ve already discussed it with the person), it may be time to press pause on the relationship or end it altogether. Yes, even if it’s a relative or close friend.
If you notice you tend to give backhanded compliments, here’s how to give better ones:
Be genuine. If the compliment isn’t authentic and sincere, don’t bother.
Keep it simple. “Your nails are pretty” or “You’re so talented at. …” is good enough. Leave off any qualifiers, comparisons, “howevers” or “buts.”
Check your insecurities. Don’t let jealousy or competitiveness cause you to give nice-nasty compliments. “Know that one person’s beauty, success, greatness or accomplishments are not in the absence of your own,” says Shorter.
Give more compliments. “If you have the opportunity to tell someone something kind, do it and do it often,” says Shorter. A group especially deserving of compliments? Sisters! “We’re being torn down by everyone else, so we need to be uplifting and championing each other,” Cuffy says. Doing so, she adds, will help make all of us feel good and promote sisterhood.