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The Art of Decoding a Backhanded Compliment

As insults go, the backhanded compliment is a sophisticated weapon. It’s not as straightforward as simply tossing an insult grenade. Instead, it’s like setting and springing a trap, which is typically a two-part takedown: The setup (the compliment part), followed by the knockdown (the semi-veiled insult). Sometimes, though, it’s even more subtle than that, and you’re left trying to parse the insult from the compliment.

There are many common examples we’re all familiar with:

  • “You look good for your age.”
  • “That was a really funny joke — for you.”
  • “I can’t believe you’re still single!”

And if you want a masterclass in the art, look no further than Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock: “If you were any other woman on earth, I would be turned on right now.”

What makes such backhanded compliments so devastating is the judo-like way they highlight a supposed strength of the subject, then use it to tear them down, making them feel bad about the very thing they’ve just been built up to feel good about. And like a good judo hold, it’s hard to counter, because it’s often such a passive-aggressive move that it’s impossible to call out.

But it’s not impossible to parry either.

How to Handle It

The biggest problem when responding to a backhanded compliment is that they’re not always meant insidiously — rather than trying to be witty, sometimes people will give you a backhanded compliment by mistake, while genuinely trying to be sincere, according to Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. Think about a guest at a barbecue telling you, “These are delicious, I can’t believe you made them yourself!” What they’re trying to say is that they’re impressed at your restaurant-quality cooking — what you hear is that they didn’t think you were capable of such a feat.

As with many of life’s interactions, working out the intention is all about looking at the context. If you’re with close friends, where there’s trust and a measure of intimacy, you can assume that any backhanded compliments are intentional, but are meant purely as a needling form of chop-busting humor, according to Fine. You shouldn’t take it personally from these folks unless they hit particularly hard or deep, in which case, Fine suggests addressing your anger in private and one-on-one.

If you’ve received a backhanded compliment from an adversary at work, though, or someone you know to be an asshole, you can be reasonably certain they’re actually trying to get a negative response out of you.

Fine says you obviously can respond with a backhanded compliment of your own, but escalating the situation is almost never a good idea — who knows where it’ll all end? That leaves you with a couple of options: 1) You can either laugh if it’s actually funny; or 2) roll with it and acknowledge whatever perceived flaw they’re calling attention to.

Either of these things will disarm your enemy, she explains, since they’re really just trying to get under your skin. Overall, the best thing you can do is just take it — acknowledge the compliment portion and forget about the rest of it. You might worry that this makes you look oblivious, Fine says, but knowingly acknowledging the nice part and disregarding the mean part makes you look like the bigger person in the end.

How to Give It Back

Should you choose to fire back, it’s vital to do it right. One of the keys to a solid backhanded compliment is for it to be spontaneous, says Fine. A rehearsed backhanded compliment, she explains, not only has far less luster, “it becomes manipulative the minute you’ve prepared for it in advance,” she says.

While it can be tough to think of the perfect remark on the spot, the key is to figure out your mark’s insecurity — whether it’s that they’re still single, they’re (normally) not very funny, they don’t dress well or whatever. From there, work backward, finding a creative way to compliment them on this — e.g., “I love how you don’t care what you look like!”

There are also situations where it will never land properly, no matter how perfectly crafted your barb. You should never drop them on future in-laws, for example (“They’ll be judging you anyway,” Fine says), or around your boss — not even at an external environment like a workplace happy hour. You should probably forget it around strangers, too. As Fine points out, first-time meetings aren’t ideal scenarios for intricate, easily misinterpreted humor.

All in all, your best bet is just to laugh off a backhanded compliment from someone else and change the subject. And if you just dropped one and completely alienated the entire room, it’s time to play the “blundering social incompetent” card. Because no matter what the situation, unintentional idiot is always a better look than vindictive asshole.