Um, That’s Not a Compliment: On Problematic Attempts at Flattery

There are two ways of fumbling flattery: the compliment relies on an insult to others, or the compliment includes a dig at the person receiving it (example: "you look great for your age!").

Jan 11, 2014 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

You know that inner voice that tells you that you are truly worthwhile, kind, beautiful, and important, no matter what other people say to or about you?  Haha, j/k, I don’t have one of those. I hope you do, but I am told it might come when I hit 30 or so. For now I rely heavily on compliments from others to prove I deserve to live. 

I mostly fill the void where that inner voice should be with an iPhone application that sends me fortune-cookie style daily affirmations, and with texts from my mom. Her emoji game has gone to the next level lately and it’s made her love that much more expressive. But compliments from new people, romantic prospects, friends, and colleagues are really where it’s at 'cause you know they don’t have to say it just because they’re not sentient (YET!) enough to know better, or 'cause they’re your mom. 

image

I am dubious about this claim that I’m the prettiest girl in the world, MOM.


But I've found that a number of people (myself included on occasion) totally fumble compliments. I find that there are two primary ways of doing this: the compliment relies on a subtle or outright insult to other people, OR the compliment also includes a dig at the person receiving it. Below is a non-exhaustive list. 

Compliments That Insult Others

Once upon a time, I was an online dater. It is customary in this setting, if you are sweating someone’s flavors, to say something nice to them. But I’ve found on more than one occasion that saying something nice to someone also involves implying something unkind about other people.

Exhibit A:

image

“I am also surprised that you can read and use a computer machine.”


At first I was excited that the ghost of Christopher Hitchens, a personal favorite of mine, had chosen to spend his time in the afterlife e-flirting with me. What a disappointment to learn that this was just a normal dude who HAD to go ahead with the “Pretty girls aren’t funny, amirite foxy lady?” bit.  

Implying that most funny women are unattractive is, first, comically untrue. And also, how does one even arrive at such a conclusion without ALSO implying that dudes can be both and often are? Does the male specimen have infinite space for attractive features or talents like a symmetrical face, a sense of humor, the ability to tell right from left without seeing which hand makes an “L,” and the female specimen have room for only three? Since birthin’ babies is one of them in the vast majority of cases, there are really only two that have to do with being sexy, smart, cool, or funny. So good luck getting pretty and funny, gals!

I wanted to say, “Dude, you should see all my super-hot friends that are funny. Just kidding, no you shouldn’t. You should live for decades of your life in an iron mask awaiting rescue by The Three Musketeers.” I declined to reply because I find this notion so deeply offensive, which sucks, because not a lot of people are interested in my cat-related conspiracy theories.

So this next one might just be me being super-sensitive, but I’ve been given a platform for this and it’s made me go mad with power: “I can tell you take good care of yourself.”

Let me stop for a second. Are you this perverted squirrel that is always looking in my windows?

image

“Well hello again.”


If you are, you have seen that I have terrible sleep habits, pathological relationships to food and exercise, I forget to take medicine all the time, and I cry into my cat over really inconsequential slights. This little slut has SEEN IT ALL. I do not take especially good care of myself. But he can think what he wants.

If you’re not that squirrel, what you mean is “You look like you exercise.” You can feel free to say that. I do! But self-care is a combination of acts and attitudes related to physical, mental, social, and professional well-being that are not visible to the naked eye. They have much to do with that inner voice I lack.

The implication is that if people don’t have a socially acceptable body type, they are not taking care of themselves. It’s a euphemism that is subtle but one I find incredibly hurtful. Call me hyper-sensitive if you must.

Compliments That Also Insult The Complimented

“What’s a ______ girl/guy like you doing single?”

The blank in this is usually filled with an adjective pertaining to attractiveness or your overall chill vibes (not to be confused with “overalls chill vibes” that one gets from the daring wardrobe choice). Beautiful. Smart. Fun. Cool. Whatever it is, everyone who experiences singleness is just one crumbling wedding dress and a rotten cake away from sabotaging the romantic destiny of Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.

I am fortunate to get this one very rarely when I am single, but I know a lot of single folks that get it constantly. It is just a rewording of the very rude, “What’s WRONG with you?” and it also puts the single person in a really uncomfortable position where they feel obligated to come up with a reason that makes them seem either undateably whiny or unforgivably flawed.

My advice: go for the latter and go BALLS TO THE WALL. Here are a few responses I have found helpful:

  • “I’m a necrophile, so people I like never like me back.”
  • “I always order damp, room-temperature popcorn and scabs on dinner dates. I guess nobody likes a fussy eater.”
  • “The only gifts I ever give are self-help books and diet manuals.”

BAM, spinsterhood explained. No further questions, Your Singleness.

This next one was received by a dear friend of mine from a prospective suitor. She is 28 years old. 

image

“Thanks, 10% Match that is four years older than me.”


So the only time the phrase “for your age” is cool to say is when you’re telling someone how accomplished they are, or if you are Courtney Love in the song “Plump” saying, “Like a liar at a witch trial, you look good for your age.” Because that lyric has made me feel like a badass since I first started singing along to it at age eight.

But saying that to a 28-year-old woman implies that at her age, she is not expected to look young cause good God, is that old. It’s like saying, “You hit good for a girl.” The compliment is based on the idea that this is somehow remarkable. It’s not. You can just say, “You look great.” That’s a compliment. This “you’re really beating the odds against your hideously wrinkled peers is great” shit needs to go.

This last one sort of falls into both categories.

“(X Category of People) are so naturally good at _____! It’s a compliment!”

The frequency with which that last part comes with this non-compliment is indication that people have been told time and again that this is rude and still don’t get it. The number of these associations is endless. They rely on the idea that you can predict talents and skills based on race, ethnicity, gender, and other identifying features that have nothing to do with the desires, hard work, or inclination of the individuals within the groups described.
image

“Witness the female in her natural habitat: the cookie kitchen.”


Some people may think it's benign and complimentary to make an observation about a talent or skill they may have seen expressed more frequently by one group than another. But this perpetuates the idea that this association is therefore good and must remain. This is especially problematic when people say problematic things like, “Wow, Latinos are so naturally good at dancing!” and other bullshit like that.

For one thing, that particular one furthers the idea that people of color are hypersexual and just so good at all that physical stuff, eh? Ehh?  Secondly, it downplays the hard work, passion, and skill of the person that may have developed that talent without any natural inclination. Also, when you consider ones like, “White guy are just so naturally good at being heads of state!” and “Women are just so naturally good at low-paying jobs!” It becomes obvious that those compliments are just attempts to normalize existing roles and stereotypes. If a person is a good cook, dancer, scientist, parent, whatever, just tell them they are. No one should bring their census data into it.  

What non-compliments have you encountered?  Do you react with the same rage that I do or are you a grown-up about it? Tell me all about it, 'cause you have such a pretty face!

Come and send me backhanded compliments on Twitter: @alanamassey.