How often have you wondered whether you should say “thank you” or punch that person in the mouth? Insults I understand, but the compliments that really aren’t, baffle me. Is it personal ambivalence? Is it possible they don’t understand the difference between a compliment and meanness? Or, for that matter, an insult?

As a child, my mother comforted me with her classic 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 self. Mom would reassure me in her special way: “There’s someone for everyone,” she told me. “Even you.”

Then there was the clothing my mother made for me. It was gorgeous, fashionable. Far better quality than the other girls wore. The Mean Girls are nothing new and my schools were full of them. “Eww! Where did you get that ugly dress?” In later years, I realized their clothing was totally tacky, but at nine or ten, I didn’t get it.

As a young woman, I put on a lot of weight. Before I got rid of that hundred and fifty pounds, there were some great lines from friends who knew the perfect words to brighten my day: “You dress really nice for a fat girl” and “I don’t think of you as REALLY fat.” And let’s not forget “You are the first person of Jewish persuasion I’ve ever met.” Were they living in a fish tank or was it merely Uxbridge? Needless to say, Garry and I are THE integration for the town.

Later on, no longer fat, compliments have streamed in nonstop: “I thought you were a nun. Don’t you own anything that isn’t black?”

My all-time favorite came from the woman who was unsuccessful in marrying my first husband. Had he lived longer, she might have worn him down. She was baffled by my apparent popularity with men. “I’m very nice to them,” I said. “I make them feel special and loved.” There was more to it than that, but that was plenty. Snarkiest woman who ever trod the earth.

“I do that too,” she whined. (No, she didn’t.) “But,” she continued, getting ever more nasal, “How come they marry you?” I probably could have come up with a good line of my own.

Finally, the clincher. After I published my book, “It was much better than I expected.” What were you expecting?

Classic back-handed Compliments for every occasion:

“You look great, for your age.”

“I love your new hairstyle! It suits you so much better.”

“That’s such a difficult degree, I never thought you’d study that.”

“You look so good in photos, you always pose the same way.”

“That’s a wonderful photograph, you must have a really fancy camera.”

“I wish I could just let my kids watch TV all day like you do.”

“You have such a lovely smile, you don’t even notice the acne.”

In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to compliment Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (a woman) in a speech at Dhaka University on her terrorism policy.

“I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism,” Modi said.

It’s even better when it goes international.

Categories: Humor, Marilyn Armstrong, Personal, Relationships

Tags: , , , ,

14 replies

  1. The mean girls are everywhere, Marilyn, and some of them never grow up. Your ending is hilarious.


  2. The backhanded compliment tends to tell me that the speaker of said non-compliment is nervous or intimidated by me. I’ve been guilty a time or two of the back handed compliment, I think perhaps everyone has. The embarrassment some of us feel at even a true compliment comes from our early conditioning about not being quite good enough. I still fight the urge to turn around and see who might be standing behind me if someone compliments me. And it’s tough to give or receive a true compliment. Nobody much believes any more… Your book, by the way, was awesome.


    • Thank you about the book! I don’t do backhanded compliments, but I have given some unfortunate compliments, like congratulating a woman on her upcoming birth when she wasn’t pregnant. I wanted to crawl under the furniture. You can’t take it back. There’ NOTHING you can say. It’s awful. I am VERY wary of complimenting people unless I’m sure I know the ground is solid.

      I always feel like explaining why I don’t deserve the compliment. The hardest thing for me to do is just say thank you. My friend beat me up about this and I’m getting (a little bit) better.


  3. This post was much better than I expected. If you can keep coming up with good material like this, you might end up becoming a decent blogger…


  4. I have been on the receiving end of such compliments/noncompliments. You almost have to laugh at THEIR ineptitude.


  5. Foot in the mouth sort of compliments.


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