9 phrases that seem like praise but are actually backhanded compliments

There’s a thin line between complimenting someone and subtly putting them down. And that line is often blurred by backhanded compliments.

You know what I’m talking about – those phrases that, on the surface, seem like praise but carry with them an underlying critique.

The tricky part about these remarks? They’re cleverly disguised as positivity, making them tough to spot and even harder to respond to.

In this article, we’re going to uncover the code and decode 9 common phrases that might seem like flattery but are actually backhanded compliments. Keep reading if you’ve ever been left with a sour taste in your mouth after what seemed like a sweet comment.

1) You look great…for your age

This, my friends, is the classic example of a backhanded compliment.

On the surface, it seems like an admiring comment. It acknowledges that you look great, which is always nice to hear. However, the addition of “for your age” changes the whole dynamic.

It’s essentially implying that you’re expected to look worse because of your age. It’s a way of saying that you look good, but with a pinch of condescension.

And let’s be honest – nobody wants to hear that. Compliments should be genuine and uplifting, without any hidden negative undertones.

The next time you’re about to add a disclaimer or qualifier to your compliment, pause and reflect. Are you truly complimenting them or are you inadvertently delivering a backhanded compliment? 

2) You’re so brave for wearing that

Let me tell you a little story about a time this phrase was tossed my way.

I had just stepped out in an outfit that was a bit out of my comfort zone. You know the kind – daring, bold, and a little different from what I usually wore. I was feeling pretty good about myself until someone said, “Wow, you’re so brave for wearing that.”

Initially, it felt like a badge of honor. But then I thought, “Wait a second… Why would I need to be brave to wear this? Is there something wrong with my choice?”

That simple comment subtly suggested that my outfit was somehow outrageous or inappropriate. It was wrapped up in the guise of admiration but was, in fact, a veiled critique.

Remember – if you genuinely admire someone’s courage or boldness, there are better ways to express it without sounding like you’re attacking their choices.

3) I could never pull off what you do

This phrase may seem like a compliment, expressing admiration for the person’s ability to do something the speaker can’t. However, it subtly implies that the task or choice in question is undesirable or less than ideal.

Here’s an example: say you’re a stay-at-home parent, and someone tells you, “I could never stay at home all day with the kids.” It might feel like they’re acknowledging your patience and dedication. But in truth, they’re suggesting that your job is something they wouldn’t want to do.

And did you know that this form of backhanded compliment has its roots in envy? According to experts, people often resort to these types of comments when they feel threatened or envious. It’s their way of dealing with feelings of inadequacy.

4) You’ve got such a unique sense of style

This one might sound like a praise of your individuality and creativity. But, let’s take a closer look.

The word “unique” is often used as a polite way to describe something that’s unusual or even strange.

Instead of genuinely appreciating your style, the person might be implying that your fashion sense is different, and not necessarily in a good way. It’s as if they’re saying, “I wouldn’t wear it, but good for you.”

If someone compliments your unique style and you’re left feeling a bit off, trust your gut. Compliments should make you feel good, not question your choices. If it doesn’t feel entirely positive, it probably isn’t.

pic186 9 phrases that seem like praise but are actually backhanded compliments

5) You’re so photogenic

At first glance, this seems like a clear-cut compliment, doesn’t it? After all, who wouldn’t want to be described as photogenic? Yet, when you delve a little deeper, the implications aren’t as flattering.

Being called photogenic could imply that you look better in photos than in real life. It’s as if they’re surprised that your pictures turned out well, suggesting that perhaps you don’t usually look as attractive.

When you compliment someone on their appearance, it’s better to keep it simple and genuine. A compliment should make someone feel good about themselves without any hidden jabs or implications.

6) You’re smarter than you look

This one really tugs at the heartstrings because it plays on our insecurities. It seems to commend your intelligence, but simultaneously attacks your appearance, implying you don’t look intelligent.

The truth is, our looks have nothing to do with our intelligence or capabilities. It’s disheartening that some people still hold on to such outdated stereotypes.

Next time you’re on the receiving end of this backhanded compliment, remember – your worth is not defined by your appearance, but by who you are and what you bring to the table. Don’t let anyone’s misguided comments make you feel otherwise.

7) It’s so good to see you in the real world

I remember hearing this phrase at a party a few years back.

After working remotely for so long, I’d finally ventured out to a social gathering. When I arrived, an acquaintance greeted me with, “It’s so good to see you in the real world!”

Initially, it felt like they were genuinely happy to see me. But then it hit me – the phrase was subtly suggesting that I had been hiding away or not participating in “real” life because of my remote work lifestyle.

This backhanded compliment is a reminder that our lives are varied and unique. What one person considers the “real world” might be completely different for another. So let’s be mindful of how we express our happiness to see someone, ensuring that it’s purely joyful and not laced with judgment.

8) You always know how to lighten the mood

This phrase could be a genuine compliment, praising your ability to bring a sense of fun and positivity to any situation. But sometimes, it can be used in a less flattering way.

The person might be implying that you lack seriousness or that you’re not capable of handling intense or meaningful conversations. It’s as if they’re saying, “You’re the comic relief, not the main character.”

Keep in mind, though, your ability to bring joy and laughter is a strength, not a weakness. If someone uses this phrase in a condescending way, they might be missing out on the power of positivity you bring with you.

9) At least you tried your best

This is the epitome of backhanded compliments. It acknowledges your effort, but the underlying message is that your best wasn’t good enough.

Don’t feel discouraged when you receive this comment.

The truth is: your value isn’t determined by the outcome of your efforts, but by the courage and perseverance you showed in trying. Don’t let anyone belittle your attempts with such disguised criticisms. 

Final reflections: Model positive behaviors

“A backhanded compliment is hardly a compliment at all,” said social worker Sarah Kaufman. That’s why responding to a backhanded compliment requires poise and assertiveness.

No matter how hurt you feel, opt to respond in a way that aligns with your personality and the specific context of the situation.

If possible, respond with empathy. Responding with empathy allows you to gently educate the other person about the impact of their words while modeling positive behaviors, particularly if the backhanded praise is the result of a lack of understanding.

Not every backhanded compliment requires a response, nonetheless. In some cases, it might be better to let the comment slide.

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Picture of Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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