The Three Types of Backward Compliments

February 27, 2014
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The Backwards Compliment, or You Look Good … Today.

As dear Oscar Wilde commented, “All women turn into their mothers. That is their tragedy. All men don’t. That is theirs.” Men may, however, be the lucky ones in one respect. If they run no risk of turning into their mothers, they avoid inheriting the less desirable aspects of the maternal character. Take my own dear mother, who is the veritable mistress of the backwards compliment.

Backward Compliments

I put forward, as Exhibit A, the following example:

‘You look quite smart … for once.’

Thank you Mother, for the implication that I dress like a bag lady the rest of the time.

At first glance, the backwards compliment may seem a pure pleasantry, but delve a little deeper and you unearth an insult. I found myself recently, on seeing an old photo of a friend, offering up the following: ‘All I can say is, you’ve improved since then.’ At least I was aware of the backwards compliment, and knew he would be amused rather than insulted. However, I was also uncomfortably aware that I was following in my mother’s footsteps. Hardly a place I want to tread, given her predilection for flinging insults unawares.

There are three main types of backwards compliments:

1) The Hidden Insult This has come in handy recently when I wanted to appear to offer up a compliment while quietly expressing my true feelings. Never piss off a writer.

2) The Calculated Insult This is the kind of barb that the Dowager Countess would employ in Downton Abbey. It’s meant as an insult, and the recipient knows it. But the insult is cloaked by the correct social niceties, so the recipient can do nothing but accept with outward grace while inwardly fuming.

3) The Trap This is one backwards compliment that men often fall foul of inadvertently. They genuinely want to say something nice but their compliments are taken the wrong way. So if they tell a woman she looks good in the red dress, she understands it as saying that she looks worse in the black dress. Essentially, they can’t possibly say the right thing.

So how should one respond to a backwards compliment? You’ll be blissfully unaware of The Hidden Insult, so don’t worry about that. If targeted with The Calculated Insult, employ any acting ability you may possess and smile as though it hasn’t hit home. If you fall into The Trap – you’re on your own …

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