Call it what you like—the backhanded compliment, the left-handed compliment, the bad compliment, the double-meaning compliment, the clumsy compliment, the putdown compliment, the oh-lordy-she-didn’t-just-say-that compliment—if you’re on the receiving end of one of these zingers chances are you’re left feeling more flummoxed than flattered.
Any accolade that leaves you stumped qualifies as a bad compliment. My friend Patti described a guy who asked her out this way: “He kind of looks like Frankenstein, but he’s really cute.”
After a good belly laugh on my part, I wondered if Frankenstein boy would take this compliment in stride. Probably not.
A bad compliment is like a fly that kamikaze’s into your 5-star soup. Not only is the soup spoiled, but we tend to remember the assault for a long time afterward.
After all, is it really possible to forget the time a woman at the post swimming pool complimented you on your “nice big legs?” Is it easy to get over your boyfriend telling you late at night while driving in a dark car, “You look beautiful in this light.” Or what about a colleague commenting on your pregnant state by announcing to a roomful of people: “You look really good fat!” Is it possible to forget these “compliments?” Not to my friends who were on the receiving end.
I received my first oddball compliment seconds after entering the world. The doctor who delivered me told my mother I had cow eyes. Yes, that’s right, cow eyes. To this day my parents see this as high praise, which explains why they called me “cow eyes” through much of my childhood. As animal compliments go, I’d have preferred doe eyes. But it could have been worse. The doctor could have said I had elephant ears.
Most people mean well when they give bad compliments. That’s why I take no offense when people I’ve just met say: “You’re much nicer than I thought you’d be.” Or, “You look a lot better in person than in pictures.”
Family members tend to be a rich source for bad compliments. “Because you’re
the biggest b---- we know!” said a very sweet and elegant mother to her adult daughter, who happens to be my friend Gabrielle. (Gabrielle’s mother was explaining to her why she was the perfect person in the family to give a pep talk to a wayward relative.)
My family tends to give me mixed messaged compliments on meals I’ve prepared.
My husband: “It’s good, but I wouldn’t make it again.”
My mother: “It’s good, especially if you’re really hungry.”
But my all-time family favorite bad compliment is when my parents refer to an attractive older woman as “well preserved.” Example: “That Nancy Pelosi is well preserved.”
After we’ve nursed our bruised egos, bad compliments are almost always humorous — at least to those not on the receiving end. I foraged the military community and beyond for these doozies. Here’s what not to say:
How not to compliment people on their looks:
* “You look good for your age.”
* “You’re pretty in an unusual way.”
* “You’re actually really pretty, but if you used more make-up, you wouldn’t look so mime-like.”
* “I met your sister yesterday. She’s so beautiful! You don’t look a thing like her.”
* “You look different...you look good.” (Commentary: “Did I need a bell tower before?”)
How not to compliment people on their weight:
* “You look...you look...anorexic.”
* “One of the paralegals in the law office that I was working in told me it was OK that I needed to lose a few pounds because ‘You have such a pretty face that you can get away with it.’”
* “Wow, Deb, you’re looking good! I used to be able to look at you say to myself "‘Bob, you’re not doing so bad.’" (Commentary: Bob weighed 300 pounds and walked with a cane to support his girth. The lady he complimented had just lost 30 pounds and weighed 150.)
What not to say to a female soldier:
* “Really? You don’t look like you could be a soldier.” (Commentary: “Does that mean I don’t look capable of that job or that it is a compliment?”)
What not to say if you’re a commissary/PX/gate guard military ID card checker:
* “You look much thinner than it appears in your picture.”
* “You look a lot younger in your photo.”
* “THAT’S YOU?!”
How not to support a colleague running for office in a professional organization:
* “I didn’t vote for you because you are already too busy.”
How not to compliment a coworker on her new haircut:
* “Your hair looks A LOT better like this.”
How not to introduce a female Army officer who is new to your coffee group:
“Don’t worry about Veronica—your husbands are safe around her!”
How not to compliment athletic women:
“Are you the American rowers?” We said “Yes!” He said, “I thought so from your intense workout because don’t all American rowers use steroids?” (Commentary: “We had to wonder if we looked like we were on steroids.”)
And the golden rule… never, ever, tell a random woman, “You look good, how far along are you?” There is no way to recover from that whammy if the woman isn’t pregnant. A woman would have to be two weeks past her due date, have a shopping cart full of antacid bottles and maternity tights and lamenting to the cashier about her swollen feet and inducement day before I open my mouth.
Let’s face it, most people don’t want compliment complexes. To make sense of it all, I spoke with Robin Abrahams, (www.robinabrahams.com) a psychologist and former stand-up comic who writes the weekly “Miss Conduct” column for The Boston Globe Magazine. Abrahams is the author of the new book “Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners: Master the Slippery Rules of Modern Ethics and Etiquette.”
Miss Conduct was chock full of useful advice. Here are the highlights:
Tip No.1 Respond with “thank you” after a bad compliment. Most people’s intentions are innocent. Even with ill-intentioned remarks, thank you works best. The benefit, you get to annoy the bad compliment giver, Miss Conduct said. Some situations, such as comments on race, gender and religion require a proactive approach. Example: “You’re really good at math for a girl.”
Tip No.2 Avoid the compliment that says “I didn’t think you could do this.”
“It shows you are surprised that someone is intelligent or capable,” Miss Conduct said. “It sends a bad message.” Example: “You’re a... soldier? Wow! Good for you!”
Tip No.3 Compliment people on what they do and not on what they are.
When your child does well on a test, rather than say “You are so smart!” Say “You studied really hard or you worked really hard.”
“What if they didn’t do well on the next test?” Miss Conduct said. “Are they no longer smart? Show what’s valuable. Give a compliment that’s more effective in shaping behavior.”
Tip No.4 The more specific a compliment is, always the more weight it carries.
Example: Instead of saying “You look nice today,” say “Your scarf goes so well with your jacket.”
Tip No.5 Compliment people on the stuff other people don’t notice.
Example: The top salesman at your company might also be an avid fisherman. The neighborhood mom might coordinate her clothes really well.
Tip No.6 Compliments should be sincere.
“Compliments can enforce behavior,” explained Miss Conduct. Not crazy about a meal your host serves? Don’t say you love it. “They might cook it again the next time you come over,” Miss Conduct warned.
The same goes if you compliment someone wearing an outfit you actually don’t like. “They may wear it again,” she said.
Next, I had some specific questions for Miss Conduct. Since Miss Conduct is also a research associate at Harvard I wanted to ask only well thought-out questions.
Me: “Was it so wrong of me to tell my father-in-law he had the ugliest feet I’d ever seen? My sister-in-law recently dragged him to get a pedicure and he told the lady what I’d said.”
Miss Conduct: “Yeah, apparently that was not a very cool thing for you to have said.”
Me: “Should some compliment subject areas just be avoided?”
Miss Conduct: “Never ever on body parts, especially in the work place. It’s not a
good idea to talk about body parts unless you’re a doctor.”
Me: “Any interesting comments you’ve received lately?”
Miss Conduct: “A woman told me I looked like Spock.”
It’s true. After a presentation, Miss Conduct took questions from the audience.
“Has anyone ever told you, you look like a female Spock?” a woman wanted to know.
“The room was horrified,” said Miss Conduct, who just happens to be a Trekkie. While it’s rude to be compared to an alien, especially in a public format, Miss Conduct took no offense.
“I thought it was really fun” she said. “I think Spock is really hot. Both the old and young versions.”
After Spock shock, I had one last question for Miss Conduct.
Me: “Do you know anything about cow eyes?”
Miss Conduct: (Silence)
After some context on my part Miss Conduct gave an impressive dissertation on the meaning of a bovine’s optical organ when applied to Greek mythology and rural America circa mid-20th century. People from rural regions of the country would know a cow has beautiful eyes, she explained. But as rural regions become fewer and fewer farm animal comparisons become more uncommon. “Metaphors can change quickly,” she warned.
Next, Miss Conduct said “cow eyes” dates back to ancient Greece. Hera, the beautiful wife of Zeus is referred to as “ox-eyed.”
“It refers to a woman with large, soulful eyes,” Miss Conduct said.
Who knew? Thanks to Miss Conduct I feel better about my eyeballs. So go ahead, call me cow eyes. Just don’t tell me I look like a cow.