Let’s talk compliments, shall we? I’m not Emily Post or a trained etiquette advisor. But I have a few tips to share and I do consider myself a bit of an expert. This is because I have received plenty of back-handed compliments over the years so I can tell you what not to say. If you’re unfamiliar with the term “backhanded compliment,” it means a comment that is supposedly intended as flattering but instead comes off as negative because it has a critical element to it.
Here are a few gems that have been lobbed my way over the years:
“Wow, you look so much better with your hair down.” (Offered by a young man at my work when I was 17. Sad that I still remember that comment all these years later, but I’m telling you, our brains do tend to recall negative comments rather than positive ones. There have been studies and everything!) At the time I wasn’t as bold as I am now so I didn’t tell him that this was rude. I did give him a weird look, to which he responded, “WHAT?” He clearly didn’t get that he was insulting my usual look (hair up) when he used the phrase “so much better” about my hair worn down. He would have done fine by saying, “Wow, you look great!” Or even, “I love your hair down!” Don’t point out that a person’s usual look or former look is worse. Just keep it positive.
“Are you having twins?” (Offered by an elderly gentleman when I was pregnant with my first baby.)A) Sir, you’ve never been pregnant so just ZIP IT when it comes to commenting on a woman’s body. You don’t know what it’s like. And pregnant jokes aren’t funny.
B) Sir, unless you want a pregnant woman to shove her pregnant fist into your puny tummy, ZIP IT!
C) Which memo did you get that said it’s okay to poke fun at someone who is pregnant? During pregnancy a woman has very little control over how her body changes. She is very hungry and is bigger than usual but it’s necessary in order to grow a baby. This doesn’t mean she gets to be the punch line to all jokes. If you see a pregnant lady, tell her how cute her bump is. Don’t say what someone once said to me, “You’re not huge yet.” I looked her right in the eye and asked whether I was going to be visually calipered every time I saw her. She claimed she was complimenting me. But believe me, just don’t mention the word “huge.” Just tell her she looks great, or ask how she’s feeling. Don’t comment on how big her bump is. Just don’t. Tell her you’re excited about meeting her baby. Smile at her. It’s not that hard to be nice!
“Are these your grandkids?” (In reference to my kids.) Sadly, this has happened to me four times, three times while I was still in my late 30s! No, I don’t look as fresh as I once did, it’s true. But at 41 I’m not a grandma yet. My oldest is almost 11. I suppose some people become grandparents at age 30, but I am not one of them. Sheesh! Never suggest that a woman is a generation older than she really is. I don’t care if she has a walker and a sweatshirt that says, “I’m 100!” You do not suggest that she is older than she is. You ask something like, “Who are these delightful kids?”
If someone has lost some weight, perhaps say something like, “Wow, you look so healthy!” Don’t insult how they used to look. Don’t say, “Wow, you used to be such a lazy slob. Not anymore.” The positive message in that comment is completely hidden under a ton of manure. The negative comparison transforms what could be a compliment into criticism. Likewise, women do not particularly feel flattered when you describe them as solid or mannish. Nor do many of us feel grateful when you say that you’re just being honest with us. Did we ask for brutal honesty? Nope. In fact, we didn’t ask for your opinion at all! But if you must comment, you’ll get more flies with honey…
And who says we really have a right to comment on others’ appearances, anyway? The best compliments I’ve received involved a big hug and something like, “Man, it is so good to see you!” I don’t think you can go wrong with telling someone how glad you are to see him or her.
Now I’ve given you some tips on the art of the compliment. If you are someone who claims to say the wrong thing, despite your best intentions, I want you to run (not walk) to the mirror and practice saying nice things. It’s like when you memorized multiplication tables in grade school—memorize some nice things to say and you’ll always have something thoughtful at your fingertips. (But if you don’t heed my advice you may lose a fingertip if you scorn the wrong woman!)