Have you ever received a compliment that left you feeling strangely uneasy? You know the type… the words sound lovely on the surface, but something about them just doesn’t sit well with you.
The kind of praise that feels like a pat on the back but leaves you scratching your head is what we call back-handed compliments — those sly, subtle remarks that can chip away at your self-esteem.
Rest assured, reader, these insults veiled as praise are more common than you might think.
In this article, we’ll get into some of the compliments that often carry hidden criticism and explore why they’re not as uplifting as they might seem.
1) “Not many people can pull off that look, but it works for you.”
I once wore multi-colored, floral-patterned trousers to a friend’s birthday party. They were vintage — I was almost obsessed with them.
A man at the party, who I wasn’t friends with, approached me and said, “Not many people can pull off that style, but it kind of works for you.”
At first, a comment like this might seem like a nod to my unique style. But look closer, and you’ll notice the twist.
This back-handed compliment carried the implication that my fashion choice was so outlandish, so beyond the norm, that only I could make it work.
If you come across this compliment in the wild, this person might be indicating that your taste is on the margins of acceptability, which, despite the supposed compliment, is a bit of a dig.
2) “You’re such a free spirit. I wish I had your lack of responsibilities.”
Being referred to as a free spirit may sound liberating, carrying connotations of having a passport full of stamps and flowers in your hair.
So, it can certainly sound like a positive thing in the beginning. Who doesn’t want to be seen as an open-minded, adventurous person who goes with the flow?
However, like many other statements that get thrown around, it all boils down to the delivery. Does it sound well-intentioned to you? Does it sound like a genuine compliment?
If someone says something along the lines of, “You’re such a free spirit. I wish I had your lack of responsibilities,” or maybe even “You lead such a care-free existence,” they might be suggesting that you’re carefree to the point of being careless, and that you’re not as responsible or practical as the people around you.
3) “You look so thin in that outfit!”
We sadly live in a world that often equates thinness with beauty. So, a compliment such as “You look so thin in that outfit!” might be coming from someone who subscribes to that culture, and they might intend it in a genuine way.
Even still, this phrase is a classic back-handed compliment. Why? It reduces your whole appearance to the size of your body.
This comment implies that the outfit’s main purpose is to make you look slender. A genuine compliment, that doesn’t hinge on weight, might sound more like: “You look great in that outfit!”
4) “You’re quite the individual — there’s no denying that.”
Once after a work meeting a few years back, a senior coworker turned to me and said, “You’re an acquired taste. I know some people are really into that.”
For a second, I appreciated the recognition of my individuality, but soon after I was left wondering, “Uh, is my personality off-putting to some people?”
Perhaps you’ve had this one before. Maybe a family member or a friend has said: “You’re not like everyone else, and some people find that refreshing.”
It’s their way of hinting that they think you’re an acquired taste and that you’re not appealing to most people you meet.
It could seem like a nod to your uniqueness, however, it can also insinuate that you’re challenging or a bit tricky to understand.
Of course, this is just their opinion, and it may not even be true. And if it does carry a bit of truth, remember, as Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw once said: “I’d much rather be someone’s shot of whiskey than everyone’s cup of tea.”
5) “You look so good for your age!”
This is definitely a back-handed compliment that surfaces a lot. If someone says: “You look great for your age!” they might be implying that looking good at your age is out of the norm and that appearing youthful at a certain age is the exception, rather than the rule.
Such compliments exemplify how deeply ingrained ageism is in our world. A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that older adults attempt to look young in order to escape age-based prejudice.
So, this tendency to praise individuals for looking younger than they actually are reinforces ageist stereotypes.
It hints that appearing one’s age is not a very attractive trait, thereby contributing to a culture that values youthfulness above all else.
6) “You’re so lucky that you’re low-maintenance. You don’t need much to be happy, do you?”
One day in my apartment, a friend once turned to me and said, “You’re so lucky to be low-maintenance… you don’t need much to be happy, huh?”
I certainly value the simple things in life, like a walk in the park or a hot cup of coffee on the balcony, but this comment made me wonder if others perceived me as having low standards or not very many goals in life.
Particularly as the comment came from someone who lived quite a lavish lifestyle, and it felt like they were almost looking down on me.
While being low-maintenance might sound like an admirable characteristic, this back-handed compliment can convey that you’re very easily pleased or lack ambition.
The person who issued this comment is not only undermining your achievements or goals, they’re suggesting that your desires or expectations are small.
This insult disguised as praise might also come in the form of: “I wish I could be so content with my life, like you.”
On the surface, this feels like a compliment about your enviable ability to be content with what you have. But underneath, it indicates that your life is basic or lacks challenges.
It might also be their way of hinting that you may not have achieved as much as them, almost insinuating that they are more successful or ambitious.
7) “Your perspective on things is certainly unique — I’ll give you that.”
Being on the receiving end of “Your perspective on things is certainly unique — I’ll give you that” can be a confusing experience indeed.
This phrase acknowledges your uniqueness, sure, but it does so in a way that implies your read on things is so unusual that it’s hard to relate to or understand, or it’s maybe even downright incorrect.
It subtly carries the impression that your opinions or ideas are too strange to be taken seriously in discussion.
8) “You’re so ambitious. You’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead.”
Have you ever been in the workplace, going about your day, and been hit with a snide comment about your performance and drive?
Perhaps it came in the form of this: “You’re so ambitious — you’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead.”
This phrase might sound like praise for your incredible drive and determination, at least at first. However, it carries an undertone of criticism, it insinuates that your ambition might border on ruthlessness.
This person might be under the impression that you’re willing to go against your moral code, or possibly even step on your peers in order to get what you want.
According to Harvard Business Review, “Ambition damages reputations, relationships, and can lead to catastrophic failure. On the other hand, too little ambition can make the person in question look lazy and unmotivated.”
So, either way you swing it, being perceived as ambitious is a double-edged sword.
To sum things up, back-handed compliments, those sneaky little digs that masquerade as praise, can leave us feeling confused and at times, misunderstood.
It’s important to remember that compliments should lift us up and make us feel valued and appreciated. True compliments should be straightforward, sincere, and without hidden agendas.
If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of a back-handed compliment, it’s totally normal to acknowledge the underlying negativity and seek clarification, if you feel like it.