WAS THAT A COMPLIMENT? – Marilyn Armstrong

It can be difficult to tell compliments from insults. You’d think it would be easy and obvious, but it isn’t.

As a child, my mother comforted me with her classic witty lines. Somewhere in my head, I can still hear her. A lonely, probably odd child, it took me a long time to find my social persona. But Mom could always reassure me in her own special way.

“There’s someone for everyone,” she assured me. “Even you.”

1970

1970

And then there was the clothing my mother made for me. It was gorgeous, fashionable and of far better quality than the other girls wore. The Mean Girls (those girls have been around forever and live everywhere) just said, “Eww! Where did you get that ugly dress?”

It wasn’t ugly. They were ugly.

Nicer, kinder people (adults mostly) would say, “Oh, your mother must have made that for you. It’s so … interesting.”

As a young woman, I put on a lot of weight. Before I eventually got rid of that hundred and fifty pounds, there were some great lines from “friends” who knew just the right words to make me feel good.

“You dress really well for a fat girl.”

“I don’t think of you as fat. You’re just Marilyn.”

Later on, no longer fat, but still me, compliments have streamed in nonstop.

“I thought you were a nun. Don’t you own anything that isn’t black?”

My all-time favorite, from the woman who never managed to get my first husband to the altar, though had he lived longer, she might have worn him down (she just needed another decade or two) and who couldn’t figure out the source of my continuing popularity with men. I said: “I’m nice to them. I make them feel special.”

“I do that too,” she whined. (No, she didn’t.) “But,” she continued, getting more nasal by the minute, “How come they marry you?”

And finally, after I published my book.

“It was much better than I expected.”

What were you expecting?

27 thoughts on “WAS THAT A COMPLIMENT? – Marilyn Armstrong

  1. Back handed ‘compliments’ have been around forever. Some mean spirited person may be mistaken in their thinking that those are ‘nice’ or even allowed. I’ve had my share as well. These days if someone hands me one of those, I send it back with added weight as I might just say “Why would you say something like that? Do you know how mean you sound?” They usually STFU around me after one verbal return like that.

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    • Some people really don’t know better, others are just mean-spirited. Some are just awkward and the younger generations, like my granddaughter, never learned to have a conversation because they’ve been on the phone too much.

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  2. If you don’t have something nice to day, don’t say anything at all. I think this is why I’m pretty socially awkward and introverted in real life. I really don’t have genuinely nice things to say very often because I’m not a gratuitous flatterer and people in general tend to annoy me. Though in many ways, that makes me the perfect squirrel…

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    • You are the kind of squirrel that will sit on the rail trying to stare me down. They have lost all fear of me unless I look like I’m going to actually come and pick them up and remove them from the feeder — it might come to that because they are getting worse and worse. But the woods is all GREEN and there IS food there. They need to go eat real squirrel food, like … you know … squirrels.

      I try to give real compliments, find something nice to say. Although people who tell me my book was better than they expected always leaving me wondering what they expected.

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  3. My mother’s favorite compliment to me was ‘You’re going out like that?’ WTH. It took a very long time but eventually I just had to let anything she said roll off my back or ‘consider the source’ as I was often told–not by my mother, of course.

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  4. Over here we call these back-handed compliments. They’re saying nice things but the wrong way round. I think it’s mainly that people don’t really think when they open their mouths. It’s worse than ever now. I think the crazy modern world with it’s obsession with the internet and social media, and time-poor parents wrapped up in their own worlds and not instilling common decency in their kids has robbed so many people of social skills that we almost don’t know how to interact any more. Throw in a bit of jealousy to the mix as well and you’ve got a tact and diplomacy time bomb.
    My daughter is different, and she feels isolated at school because she’s sensitive and the other kids don’t ‘get’ her, even though she’s such an interesting, funny and kind person. I’m different too, as you may have realised, and I don’t have a lot in common with most of the people I know – other mums, neighbours etc. So both her and I have had all kinds of back-handed compliments to deal with – it seems to be part of life now. You’re not alone, then… 🙂

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    • That’s probably why there isn’t a crowd at our door looking to be pals with us. But what was my mother’s excuse? Or is that just a parent-child thing? She didn’t treat my brother and sister like that, either. Just me.

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      • If it’s any consolation, my Nan was utterly tactless and used to speak her mind, so I was in line for some very frank opinions that can’t even be described as back-handed. Some people just don’t have the right skills to say the right thing in the right way. Often when we’re too close we’re like that. My sister has inherited our nan’s lack of tact, and she can be really horrible to me – I think she does it o purpose. She enjoys disagreeing with me and likes nothing more than slighting anything medieval because she knows I love it. She doesn’t even look at my blog. I think it’s just a family thing. Even my mum is critical of me, even though she claims to be proud. But what can you do? Nothing – so I just ignore it, and look forward to moving up to Northumberland! 🙂

        We don’t have a crowd at our door either because we’re all quirky and different, and Nathan is autistic and people have no patience or understanding, but we’re happy to be on the outside as we’d never fit in with the in-crowd anyway. Just value the clearly close relationships you do have and blow the rest of them. That’s what we do and we’re happy. 🙂

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      • Marilyn, I agree about the jealousy. Some folks actually feel “inferior”, think they’re being “shown up”. I heard this from a few people during my TV News career. In retrospect, when I look at old pics – “GQ” Garry covering murders, fires, etc — it does look a little hinky. If I KNEW I was covering “grubby” stuff, I dressed accordingly. But very often, the perps didn’t consider my attire when they were doing bad things that drew TV coverage. I gave ’em ‘class’.

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  5. I didn’t grow up with compliments. I just gave up looking for them. I wish my mum had an idea of dress sense, but she bought either everything from a stall down the market, or there was a trip to the West End where the C & A store seemed to be the only place that my mum would enter. As long as it was cheap it was good. Shoes were always bought in the Co-Op store as mum could buy weekly cheques which she collected and could use in the co-op. How I hated that store and their dreary shoe choice.

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    • My clothing — if my mother didn’t actually make it herself — was ALWAYS whatever was on final sale at the nearest store. I think the concept of whether or not it might look good on me never crossed her mind. It was clothing. It covered my naked body. So what was MY problem?

      “No problem, Mom.” No problems at all.

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      • When I was young — grade school. 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade….Mom often dressed me like “Little Lord Faunteroy”. From the Eton cap to short pants and white shoes –CLEAN white shoes! My look didn’t play well at P.S. 116.
        As much as I hated the jibes and insults, it began a life long quest to dress stylishly. My Dad gets credit for showing me the “GQ” way of dressing which became my mantra during my years as a TV News Reporter. I frequently was complimented for my “GQ” appearance over the years. Go figure.

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      • I believe some people (former work colleagues, for example) think it’s “cool” to be rude. There’s a delicate balance between being politically incorrect – if everyone is on your frequency, and being plain MEAN. Much of the banter on Facebook is mean, meant to demean someone from the safety of your cyber-hut. I am learning to curb my well-intended barbs because they obviously are flopping and misunderstood.

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