7 phrases that seem kind but are actually backhanded compliments

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We’ve all been there — receiving a compliment that leaves us with a puzzled smile, not quite sure if we should say “thank you” or feel a tad insulted. 

You know, those sneaky comments disguised as praises that leave a bitter aftertaste? They’re called backhanded compliments, and they can be confusing, even hurtful. 

In this article, I’ll uncover 7 phrases that may sound kind on the surface but are actually veiled jabs. 

Recognizing them can save you from awkward moments and help you navigate social situations more authentically. Let’s dive in.

1) “I love how you don’t care what people think of you.”

We all long to feel free to be ourselves, even though it’s guaranteed that some people out there won’t like who you are. 

I must admit I’ve used this phrase myself — and I sincerely meant it as a compliment, because I often struggled with people pleasing.

But now I realize that this phrase can actually come off as a bit insulting.

It subtly implies that there’s something inherently odd or inappropriate about your behavior or appearance, but hey, at least you’re confident about it, right? 

It’s as though the person is saying, “It’s great that you don’t care what people think because, well, you’re really not fitting in.”

While it might be presented as a compliment, this phrase may even be used purposefully to undermine, making you question your self-worth and social standing.

So the next time someone gives you this compliment, don’t jump to conclusions right away — they could just be making the same mistake I was.

But do be cautious, and make sure to consider the context of their other behavior towards you.

2) “That looks great on you! You should wear it more often”

The phrase “That looks great on you! You should wear it more often” sounds like high praise at first glance. It’s like someone has taken note of your fashion choice for the day and approved. 

You feel a little glow of validation, right? I know I did when I heard it.

But then, as you start to really think about it, that warm glow begins to fade. 

Why? Because the underlying implication could be that your regular style choices are less than impressive. It’s like they’re saying, “Wow, you finally got it right today! You should stick to this, trust me.”

But you’re the only person who gets to decide how you express yourself through your appearance

It feels a bit like a sandwich compliment — there’s something good, but it’s layered with an unspoken criticism that your usual look is somehow lacking. 

The person might not intend to hurt your feelings, but the message could be that your daily outfits don’t make the cut. 

3) “Wow, I didn’t know you knew so much about this topic!”

“Wow, I didn’t know you knew so much about this topic!” Hearing this for the first time, I felt a mix of pride and puzzlement. 

Sure, it’s affirming to be recognized for your knowledge or expertise. It feels good to know that you’ve made an impression, especially on a subject you’re passionate about.

But if you linger on it a bit, you start to wonder: Why are they so surprised? Is it that astonishing that you’d be well-versed in a particular area? 

The comment subtly casts you in the light of someone who usually wouldn’t have valuable insights or a deep understanding of the topic at hand.

The underlying message might be, “You’re not as uninformed as I thought you were,” or even, “This is an unusual moment of wisdom for you.”

The surprise element of the compliment can be what turns it into a backhanded one, implying that the knowledge you displayed is an exception, not the rule.

So the next time someone seems shocked by your smarts, take a moment to consider what they might actually be saying. 

Are they truly impressed, or are they subtly suggesting that you’ve exceeded their rather low expectations of you?

4) “You’re doing really well for a beginner”

The first time someone said to me, “You’re doing really well for a beginner,” I felt encouraged and seen. 

Here I was, trying something new, putting myself out there, and someone noticed! But as the words settled in, I couldn’t help but feel the edge to this seemingly kind remark.

The phrase “for a beginner” carries a weight, doesn’t it? It’s like a qualifier, a little asterisk that says you’re doing well, but only within a certain context. 

The implication is that while you’re performing well for someone with your limited experience, you’re still not on par with those who are more seasoned or skilled.

And granted, that’s probably true. After all, we don’t become experts the first time we try our hand at something.

So the person offering this compliment might not intend to patronize you, but the message sent can be a double-edged sword. 

On one hand, it’s validating your efforts, but on the other, it’s limiting your achievement to a specific, and presumably lower, tier. 

If you find yourself wanting to compliment someone who is new at something, make sure to think about their skills or performance in general, without comparing it to other people or a higher level. 

5) “I could never pull off what you’re doing, but it works for you.”

At first blush, this phrase sounds like high praise, doesn’t it? They’re essentially saying that you’re achieving something they couldn’t. 

You’re unique, daring even. You stand out in a way that they couldn’t imagine for themselves.

However, the more you mull it over, the more it sounds like they’re saying, “What you’re doing is so far outside the norm that only someone like you could make it acceptable.” 

Maybe it’s your fashion choices, or your unconventional career path, or a quirky hobby you love. 

The compliment insinuates that it’s not just unusual; it’s borderline unacceptable for anyone else.

It’s a way of praising you while simultaneously reinforcing their own sense of normalcy or superiority. 

The underlying sentiment might be, “I wouldn’t dare do that, because it’s not generally acceptable, but you seem to get away with it — because you’re, well, also not quite acceptable?”

Remember to always appreciate the unique qualities that make you you, but also be aware that not everyone may see those qualities in the purely positive light you do.

6) “You’ve come a long way!”

When I heard this one, my first reaction was one of modest pride. Progress is good, right? We all want to grow, evolve, and improve ourselves.

But then, the sentiment settled in a little deeper. The phrase “You’ve come a long way” inherently begs the question, “From where?” 

The compliment, while acknowledging growth, also implies a less-than-stellar starting point.

It’s like someone patting you on the back and saying, “Good job for improving, you really needed it.” 

While it seems like a tribute to your hard work and dedication, it could also be a subtle reminder of your past shortcomings or failures.

So, the next time you hear this phrase, take it with a grain of salt. Is the person recognizing and celebrating your growth, or are they offering a backhanded reminder of where you used to stand? 

7) “You’re much more interesting than most people I know”

When someone told me this, I felt elated. Who doesn’t want to be the life of the party, the person who lifts everyone’s spirits?

But then I took a moment to think about the second half of that sentence: “than most people I know.” 

Suddenly, the compliment felt less warm and fuzzy. While it made me stand out, it did so by casting a shadow on the other people in the giver’s life.

It’s as if the person was saying, “You’re a rare find in a sea of uninteresting people.” At face value, that might make you feel special, but it can also come across as divisive and judgmental of others.

It’s great to be appreciated, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of others — or because you’re being compared against other people. 

It’s a delicate balance, and it’s always good to be aware of the nuances.

Navigating the world of backhanded compliments

As we’ve delved into the realm of backhanded compliments, it’s become evident that not all praise is created equal. 

Not everyone who dishes out backhanded compliments is out to hurt you; some might be unaware of the impact their words can have. 

Still, it’s beneficial to recognize these seemingly kind phrases for what they are — compliments with conditions. 

Learning to identify backhanded compliments empowers you to foster more genuine relationships. It can be a protective shield in situations where people might try to undermine your self-confidence or question your worth. 

But remember, it’s equally important to reflect on our own language to ensure we aren’t unknowingly hurting others with our words. 

As we move forward, let’s strive for authenticity, encouraging ourselves and the people around us to be better, kinder, and more understanding. 

After all, the best compliments are the ones that come from the heart, pure and simple, with no hidden agendas. Let’s give more of those, and accept nothing less in return.

Pearl Nash

Pearl Nash has years of experience writing relationship articles for single females looking for love. After being single for years with no hope of meeting Mr. Right, she finally managed to get married to the love of her life. Now that she’s settled down and happier than she’s ever been in her life, she's passionate about sharing all the wisdom she's learned over the journey. Pearl is also an accredited astrologer and publishes Hack Spirit's daily horoscope.

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