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6 backhanded compliments we all need to stop dishing out

Illustration by Twylamae
Words by Maeve Kerr-Crowley

Choose your words carefully.

Everybody loves compliments.

It feels good to give them and it feels good to receive them. They’re a universal breeding ground for warm and fuzzy feelings.

But sometimes, a compliment doesn’t come out exactly how you want it to. You might get tongue-tied and say the wrong thing, or hit on an insecurity someone feels particularly sensitive about. Then you just seem backhanded or shady, and you’re both left desperately looking for a way out of the situation.

If you’re intentionally delivering these kinds of backhanded compliments because you’re out to make people cry, then godspeed.

But in case you’re not, here are some of the most common examples of compliments-gone-wrong, and how to avoid using them in your everyday life. 

You look really good, have you lost weight?

So, you’re saying your loved one looks good – a compliment – because you think they’ve lost weight – not a compliment. What the average Joe could take from your words is that value and weight are inherently linked. Even if you don’t mean to, you’re implying that weight loss equals good and whatever they looked like before equals bad. People’s relationships with their bodies can be complicated and fragile, and life would be a lot easier if we all learned to stop commenting on each other’s flesh suits.

Instead, try saying: Hey, you look really nice. (That’s it. Don’t say anything else.)

You’re a lot smarter/funnier/more likeable than I thought you’d be.

Human beings have a morbid fascination with first impressions. Like whispering preteens at a sleepover, we’re all desperate to ask, “What did you really think of me when you met me?” But voicing those assumptions usually just leads to people getting their feelings hurt. Nobody needs to know you once thought they were dumb and boring, no matter how pleasantly surprised you are at being proved wrong. Personally, I’d prefer you just pretend you always knew I was a beautiful, hilarious genius with a heart of gold.

Instead, try saying: I always knew you were a beautiful, hilarious genius with a heart of gold.

I wish I could pull off the clothes you wear.

Bonus points if you follow it up with something like, “I’d look ridiculous if I wore that”. Implying that someone’s style is weird and wouldn’t look good on anybody else is a very roundabout way of trying to compliment them. They might suddenly feel like they’re wearing a clown suit, and you’ve just looked that clown suit up and down and said, “Yeah, that fits”. They’re not going to assume you wish you had a lovely clown suit of your own, they’re just going to remember that you called them a clown.

Instead, try saying: Where do you buy your clothes? I’d like to start single white female-ing you, but not in a creepy, stabby kind of way.

I think it’s great that you don’t care what people think of you.

Shockingly (cough, cough), girls who don’t wear makeup are champions at copping this kind of ‘compliment’. As are plus-size people, people with big personalities, and anybody who’s ever worn Ugg boots to the supermarket (because who could you possibly run into at this time of night, anyway?) Unfortunately, very few people are able to completely disregard how the world might see them. So, what someone might think you’re saying is, “People are definitely judging you right now, and you’re definitely asking for it. And it’s novel to me that you’re not doing anything to stop it”. If you want to really double down, just tell them they’re brave for leaving the house with a pimple.

Instead, try saying: Nice Uggs, girl.

You clean up nicely. 

Granted, I’m not sure anyone younger than 80 actually still says this. But, if you do, it might be worth eliminating it from your vocabulary. When your judgey great aunt says it, she wants it clear that she thinks you’re usually a slob and don’t put in enough effort, and if you dressed like this more often you might meet a nice, handsome doctor who could stop you from dying alone. If that’s not the message you’re trying to convey, consider rephrasing or just keeping your mouth shut.

Instead, try saying: You look classy, let’s go somewhere they serve free champagne.

Why are you still single? 

Your shock is intended to be flattering, obviously. With all these amazing qualities, how could this stud still be on the market? The implication: a relationship is the only sound verification of a person’s worth. It’s the be-all and end-all for any accomplished, likeable, easy-going individual, so why wouldn’t it be your pal’s goal? Maybe they’re not interested. Maybe they’re busy. Maybe they’re now going to start thinking about all the things they’re not good at and wonder if that’s what’s keeping them from finally being deemed Relationship-Level Great. And cue spiralling breakdown.

Instead, try saying: Hey, want to go out sometime?

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