How to Handle Backhanded Compliments


"That dress is so cute. It really hides your tummy." Statements such as this are known as backhanded compliments. These indirect insults take the form of something positive, but actually have a negative intention. If your friend, sibling or co-worker is a pro at handing out backhanded compliments, handling the passive-aggressive insult in a direct, yet polite, way can help you to brush it off and move on.

Close To You

  • When a friend or family member exhibits this type of passive-aggressive behavior, understanding where it's coming from provides you with a road-map for handling the insult. In an article for Psychology Today, psychiatrist Neel Burton writes that before you become offended, you should consider whether there's any truth to the statement when someone you respect throws off a backhanded compliment. For example, if your best bud says, "Cool new elastic waist pants. They fit that gut perfectly," consider the possibility that he has health concerns over your growing weight. Instead of insulting him back or arguing, ask him politely, "Do you have a concern here?" On the other hand, if there's no truth or good intentions behind his words, be direct and let him know that you don't appreciate his insulting "compliment" and walk away. It's up to him to apologize before you can mend your relationship.

Strangers and Acquaintances

  • When a stranger or casual acquaintance uses backhanded compliments, ignoring the insults is the way to go. The behavior is unfortunate, but the stranger's opinion should not need to affect you beyond the moment. Veiled insults are often a tactic taken by people who want to remain free from blame, according to the book "The Psychology of Social Conflict and Aggression," because such behavior allows the person to say something mean in a sneaky way that doesn't sound 100 percent rude. If called on the insult, the person may deny any wrongdoing or stick to the explanation that she was truly trying to compliment you. You know the truth, so there's no need to dig deeper, especially if this person isn't truly a friend.

Romantic Relationships

  • If your long-term love starts dishing out the backhanded compliments, it can lead to resentment on your part. When your spouse or romantic partner engages in this behavior, speak up. Even if the comment comes from a true place of caring, tell your partner how you feel. Keep in mind that it's not only what he said, but also the backhanded way that he said it that's causing you stress. For example, he says, "Great dinner! I'm really glad you know how to use the microwave so well." Explain that for your relationship to work, he needs to understand that insults aren't going to help, no matter how nicely they are presented. If the backhanded talk continues, it might be time to reevaluate your relationship or walk away.

At Work

  • If a co-worker makes these types of passive-aggressive statements, you can ignore it, politely ask the co-worker to leave you alone or go to management for a formal conflict resolution. When it's your boss who is slinging the insulting remarks, and there's no one else to go to, acknowledging the positive portion and ignoring the insult can make a powerful statement. Ignoring the insult shows the person that you have confidence and don't let the little things get you down.


  • Photo Credit nyul/iStock/Getty Images
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