Compliments are meant to lift us up and put a smile on our faces.
But some do quite the opposite.
That’s because they’re not compliments after all. They are sneaky insults that put you down.
The problem is they can be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, so you don’t always realize.
Here are compliments you may have received that are actually quite condescending.
1) “I’m impressed that you know that.”
The insult here is their surprise that you displayed knowledge beyond their lower expectations of you.
There is also a hint of superiority.
They obviously knew it, because they are clearly much smarter than you are.
But the fact that you knew it — well, kudos to you.
It’s like the same admiration you offer to a pet who has learned how to sit on command.
2) “Well at least you tried your best.”
This one is subtle, and I’ll admit it’s not always meant in a condescending way.
Yes, you are recognizing hard work, which is nice. But saying you tried your best is also highlighting that it wasn’t successful.
It’s a patronizing consultation prize in the face of failure. And it sounds like they weren’t particularly surprised by any shortcomings.
3) “I’m surprised that you’re still single.”
Yes, it’s nice that they think you are such a good catch. But it’s also a bit of a putdown.
For starters, what is wrong with being single?
The very statement in itself implies that coupledom is the ultimate goal.
The inference of surprise at your relationship status suggests that there is something wrong with anyone who is single.
Love isn’t like getting picked for a sports team. It’s more complicated than that. Flying solo is not the same as being benched.
4) “Wow, your wife is quite the looker.”
…Or words to that effect.
Commenting on the appearance of someone else’s partner is actually really inappropriate as well as shallow.
What really adds the extra kicker here is their astonishment at this fact.
It’s another way of saying “Wow, you’re punching above your weight”.
They may as well go straight out and say they don’t know what she sees in you.
5) “You’re a good driver for a woman.”
Sexist or racist stereotypes can masquerade as so-called compliments.
The implication that your sex factors into your skill level is incredibly patronizing.
Another example might be that certain races are more likely to get good grades.
Even when these generalizations sound on the surface flattering, they’re insidious.
They feed harmful stereotypes and prejudices.
6) “Good for you.”
This is generally either a sarcastic or condescending comment, and I don’t know what’s worse?!
We pretty much never mean good for you when we say it, as pointed out by Urban Dictionary:
“When saying good for you to someone, the real meaning behind your words are “GO F**K YOURSELF!”
The teacher was telling me about his unimportant weekend events, I said “good for you” because I hated him.”
7) “What, YOU like classical music? You don’t seem the type.”
You could also insert any other pastime or interest that is viewed in a snobby or superior way.
They wouldn’t have imagined a heathen like you would enjoy something so refined.
But maybe you’re not as dumb as you look I guess.
This only goes to prove our next point…
8) “Just goes to show, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”
They have complimented what you have on the inside, and in the same breath insulted what’s on the outside.
Ok, we’re taught that it’s what’s on the inside that matters most.
Yet that doesn’t mean we want it implied that we present ourselves in a shoddy way.
9) “You’re actually pretty cool.”
Oh, who would have guessed it, but you are quite fun to be around.
Not me! I thought you were dull and a total buzz kill at first.
But good news…it turns out I was wrong.
Isn’t that great?!
Don’t you feel special now?
10) “You scrub up well.”
This one is still dolled out the world over to throw a little compliment to someone who has seemingly made an effort in their appearance.
It’s a recognition that they have gone above their usual standards.
But in doing so, it is also a recognition that you normally look worse. So it’s sort of an insult too.
Or as columnist Danny Katz puts it, it is a “complisult”:
“A complisult is any kind of positive remark that’s loaded with negative subtext, so if a neighbour says, “Geez, you scrub up well!“, it could really mean, “Geez, you’re normally such a drab-headed pudding of physical nothingness, but if I squint a bit, through my weak eye, somehow you seem passably presentable. Bravo. You’ve done the impossible. Almost.”
11) “Just look at what you can achieve when you actually apply yourself.”
I’m guessing if you’ve heard this before it probably came from your parents or a teacher.
Hopefully not from your boss!
It has a know-it-all tone to it.
If only you managed to put in more effort, you would be less of a loser. What a shame you’re not like this more often.
12) “That’s a nice bag, it looks like one my mom has.”
Believe it or not, this is an actual comment once made to me by a friend.
Sure, it’s not condescending if I was trying to look like her mother.
But funnily enough, that wasn’t the vibe I was going for as a young woman in my early twenties.
I’d also met her mom and most certainly didn’t feel like our dress sense matched up.
13) “I wish I couldn’t care less what people think of me like you do.”
Are they really complimenting your laid-back essence?
Orrrrrr is it another way of saying that they put in way more effort than you do?
Plus, if someone suggests that you don’t care what people think, they’re sort of suggesting that people do think badly of you.
And you are merely ignoring this fact because you don’t mind.
Not that you would notice of course, because you obviously don’t give a damn about anything or anyone…right?
14) “Nice place, it’s so cozy and lived-in.”
Nice place = so far so good.
And cozy is one of those words that can go either way.
It has a comforting vibe to it, but estate agents also use it when they’re trying to sell you a tiny poky apartment.
But it’s “lived-in” that really seals the deal.
They are flat-out telling you that your place is a dump.
“Lived-in” is a synonym for “worn down” and “messy”.
How compliments should sound
All jokes aside, a lot of people throw out a backhanded or condescending compliment without even realizing.
They aren’t necessarily intending to offend you. They thought they were being nice.
Maybe they just need a little master class on how to deliver a compliment.
Because the best compliments are always:
- Thoughtful (so you avoid unwittingly putting your foot in your mouth)
- Sincere (so you don’t come across as full of it)
- Specific (rather than offering up some vague platitude)