Backhanded Compliments and How to Navigate Their Murky Waters

By Kevin McCann

Humans are strange. We’re all weird and wonderful in our own ways, and we rely on some rather arcane communication styles to interact and engage with one another.

However, if you take the time to understand these psychologically, you can learn to improve your communication and wield some wizard-like power over those in your social circles.

Backhanded Compliment Gif

One great example of this is the backhanded compliment – a communication technique that can wrong-foot anyone you’re talking to in your personal life or in the business context.

In this article, we’re going to explore what makes backhanded compliments so powerful and how you can leverage them for yourself.

What is a Backhanded Compliment?

Let’s start by laying the groundwork and defining what we’re talking about here.  

A backhanded compliment is a phrase or utterance that appears to be a compliment on the face of it, but upon further inspection, it actually lives closer to the insulting side of the scale.

The immediate reaction is one of joy, but as the receiver thinks about what was actually said – there is an underlying tone that is less than complimentary.

Backhanded Compliment - Um... Thank You?

This grey area between compliment and insult is what we’re aiming for here. It’s the ambiguity that confuses the person you’re speaking to, and it evokes a strong but nuanced reaction.

The 7 Types of Backhanded Compliments

The best way to understand what these are is actually to run through some examples. And as we work through 7 different types of backhanded compliments, all will become clear.

I’ll bet that you’ve heard these yourself in the past, but perhaps you couldn’t quite put your finger on why you felt the way you did. And that’s the beauty of this technique.

The Adjacent Insult

The most obvious type of backhanded compliment is one where a compliment and an insult are just placed next to each other. “Wow, I love what you’ve done with your hair; it hides those huge ears of yours.” This isn’t subtle at all, and it relies on tone and charisma to make it anything less than genuinely mean.

The Unsolicited Observation

Another type of backhanded compliment is when someone adds an additional observation to the end of the sentence that doesn’t actually have any relevance to what is being spoken about. Someone might say, “It’s so nice and peaceful today, even when you’re talking my ear off.” Ouch. This one can hurt.

The Patronizer

This type of backhanded compliment fakes envy to poke at the underbelly of whatever you’re doing. “I wish I could order dessert, but I’m trying to look after my figure.” This one patronizes the receiver, making them question their choice.

Backhanded Compliment - The Office

The Qualifier

In this case, someone might pay you a genuine compliment in the first half of the phrase and then add a qualification that belittles the compliment that’s just been given.

For example: “You’re really fit, for someone who doesn’t work out that often.” The qualification ruins what would have been a perfectly acceptable compliment with a tinge of judgment on the end.

The Disbeliever

Sometimes it’s just a tone of surprise that can create a backhanded compliment. When someone reacts to information with disbelief, it can create the impression that they didn’t think you were capable of whatever you’ve achieved. “Wow, I never thought you’d be able to pull that off….”

The Credit Thief

We’ve all had times where our hard work has been diminished by someone else taking the credit, and this is what this particular backhanded compliment does. By attributing our success to something else, it becomes an insult that is packaged in a shiny bow. “Well done on getting to $1m in sales. You must have really maximized your dad’s network.”

The Credit Thief - Backhanded Compliment

The Comparison

This backhanded compliment creates an indirect comparison that insults something else while complimenting the thing at hand. For example, “That logo looks amazing. It’s so much better than the one you had previously.” It begs the question: What was wrong with the other one?

Summary of the Types of Backhanded Compliments

Each of these types of backhanded compliments has their own nuances and evoke slightly different reactions depending on where they are used. But the common thread that runs through them all is that they leave the receiver feeling a little uncomfortable and thrown off their game.

To understand why that is the case, let’s look at the underlying psychological principles that make these such potent communicative tools.

How Do Backhanded Compliments Affect Us Psychologically?

If we know intuitively that backhanded compliments are merely insults in disguise, then why do we treat them differently than we do actual insults?

This comes down to our psychology and the social norms that we’ve established for human cooperation. There are three main pillars at work here:

  • We give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Communication is messy, and we don’t always get things right when we’re talking in the moment. As such, there is a certain level of grace that we afford to other people who may not mean what they said. When we receive a backhanded compliment, it appears that the other person was trying to do something nice, and so we give them the benefit of the doubt, chalking up the uncertain feeling in our stomach to a mere mistake in communication. This is especially true in cases where we’re interacting with people that we don’t know. In essence, our own kindness and patience are weaponized against us.
  • We hear what we want to hear. Compliments are food for the soul. Whether we admit it or not, we are all seeking validation from others, and when we hear a compliment, we want to revel in that moment. As a result, we might ignore the thinly veiled insult momentarily, and it’s only when we think about it later that we realize what actually happened.
Backhanded Compliment - Hear what we want to hear

  • The words and the tone diverge. Human communication is so much more than just the words being exchanged. The vast majority of information actually comes from body language and tone. So when we hear something that appears to be a compliment, but the tone portrays something nasty – that dissonance creates confusion for us. It’s almost like seeing someone put on a fake smile without their eyes. Something is off, and we just can’t seem to put our finger on it.

These three components meld together to create the psychological discomfort that is so prevalent when receiving backhanded compliments, and it’s what makes them so disconcerting for us. It’s very common for things to linger long after the conversation and cause us pain far beyond the point where we could have responded.

Why Do Backhanded Compliments Hurt Us Long After Receiving Them?

We’ve alluded to this above, but the aftertaste of a backhanded compliment is where the rubber really hits the road. In the moment, we can brush it off and accept the compliment as it is delivered. But with time, as we run over the conversation in our head, we are able to read between the lines, and the intended meaning actually reveals itself.

Backhanded Compliment President

It can feel a little bit like a betrayal if it’s coming from someone close to us, or it can cause a hit to our ego if it’s coming from a business partner, colleague, or competitor.

Either way, the fact that we don’t really have a chance to respond leaves us in a state of confusion. There is no recourse, and it can take up mental bandwidth for much longer than it should.

While we can inoculate ourselves to this to some extent, the truth is that there is always going to be some pain when it comes to backhanded compliments. But we can mitigate it with some basic strategies that we’ll discuss now.

How To Inoculate Yourself Against Backhanded Compliments

If you’re reading this right now, then you’re in a great position to mitigate the impact of receiving backhanded compliments because you now know what they are and how to spot them. When deciding how to respond, you can use either side of the spectrum:

Respond Directly

If you realize that someone has given you a backhanded compliment in the moment, you can respond directly by pointing out the insult there and then.

This will often catch the other person by surprise and show that you’re well aware of what they’re trying to do. If you do this tactfully, they’re likely to retract what they said and backpedal – giving you back control of the conversation.

For bonus points, you could even respond with a backhanded compliment of your own that shows that you understand how this game is played.

Backhanded Compliment - Respond Directly

Ignore it Completely

On the opposite side of the spectrum, ignoring the insult can also be really powerful because it shows that their mind games don’t affect you, and you aren’t offended easily.

Because the power of the insult is in the effect it has on the other person, your non-response mutes the technique completely and displays that you don’t place a lot of credence in what they think or say.

What Strategy Works Best Against Backhanded Compliments?

Both of these strategies work really well for different contexts and depending on the situation, you’ll need to apply the one that is most advantageous. The key principle is that you can’t take the insult seriously. Once you see it for what it is – a mind game – it becomes much easier to detach psychologically and not take it personally.

This mental immune system is something that you can build over time, and the more you do it, the thicker your skin will become.

Why A Thick Skin is Crucial When You’re Running a Business

It’s worth going on a little tangent here to discuss just why a thick skin is so important for entrepreneurs and business owners. Running a business is hard. And you’re going to have a lot of doubters along the way that can’t see where your vision is taking you.

These doubters are often a lot closer to us than we realize. Friends and family, colleagues, business partners, and the like might give you backhanded compliments that betray their true insecurities and fears – because you’re taking on something scary, something uncertain, something that isn’t guaranteed.

Backhanded Compliment - Resilient

Your ability to hear these doubts and march on regardless is what will dictate how far you can go. By building a thick skin for yourself, you can stick on the path even when the going gets tough. When no one else believes in what you’re trying to achieve, you can draw on that self-belief to take things to the next level.

It also makes a big difference when you’re dealing with competitors, suppliers, partners, and the like. The art of negotiation and business dealings in general often comes down to your mental strength and agility.

When you have a thick skin and a good understanding of human psychology, you can make the most out of those opportunities, and your business will thrive as a result.

All in all, the more you inoculate yourself against these mind games, the better prepared you’ll be to navigate the challenges that come with starting and scaling your own company.

Now let’s return to backhanded compliments more specifically, and let’s explore how we can use them for an offense.

How To Use Backhanded Compliments to Your Advantage in Business

You’ll know that the world of business and entrepreneurship is a school of hard knocks. And if you are to reach the upper echelons of your specific niche, you’ll need to be able to play the mind games that come with that territory.

Backhanded Compliment - Entrepreneur Lifestyle

In that vein, there are going to be times where you might need to deploy a backhanded compliment in order to gain the upper hand in a conversation or interaction.

Perhaps you’re looking to provide some candid feedback to a team member without saying it outright, or you’re looking to weaken the bargaining position of a competitor in a negotiation.

The key to delivering an effective backhanded compliment is to master the following components:

  • Tone. The compliment needs to be sincere, and it’s only when you add the twist at the end where you want to portray a slightly more sarcastic tone. If the original compliment comes across as offish from the start, then it simply won’t land as it should. Mixing these tones is a skill that you’ll get better at over time, but simply understanding the subtlety here will make a big difference.
  • Wit. The more subtle the veiled insult, the better. This is where wit and charm come into play – because you want the phrase to be ambiguous enough to cause confusion while also direct enough to make your point. Again, this is a skill that some have honed better than others, so look for examples of witty conversation to get a sense as to how you need to walk the tightrope here.
Backhanded Compliment - Wit

  • Brevity. You don’t want to linger on the backhanded compliment once you’ve given it. There is power in saying it concisely and then moving on as if nothing has happened. The moment you wait and give it extra attention, it ruins the illusion, and your actual intent can be more easily deciphered.  
  • Context. Understanding the context of the situation you’re in is a key part of this equation because it allows you to tailor the backhanded compliment according to the person who is receiving it, the social situation they find themselves in, and the objective that you’re trying to accomplish. No two backhanded compliments are alike, and you want to customize your witty remarks for maximum impact according to the circumstances.

When you get it right, this is a seriously powerful conversational tool that can translate into real business results. Think of it as a form of mental jujitsu, and you’ll find that it might just be the secret weapon that you need to unsettle those who compete with you.

Using Backhanded Compliments for Marketing Purposes

Building on the above, backhanded compliments are also a great way to subtly undermine your competitors in the public space without coming across as unnecessarily combative.

In the world of social media, where reputation is such a highly coveted commodity, you can craft nuanced messaging that uses the principles of backhanded compliments to poke at your competitors and influence those potential customers that you might want to target yourself.

From the customer’s perspective, it will look like you’re paying another company some genuine respect and admiration, but the underlying messaging is that they should rather go with your offering.

For example, you might say: “Company X provides a really comprehensive feature set if you’re looking for something complex and somewhat cluttered.”

Backhanded Compliment - Competitors

This is not a subtle example, I’ll give you that, but it makes the point that your competitor’s product has too much going on in it, while yours is much more streamlined and accessible.  

You can apply this principle to your business and find ways to subtly influence the consumer segments that you’re targeting. The best of the best will intentionally create this sort of messaging that works on human psychology and spreads the message that they want out there without anyone even realizing it. You too can use this to your advantage.

When You Should Avoid Giving Backhanded Compliments

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that there are times where you should avoid backhanded compliments altogether because they can hurt people.

Just because you have this tool in your toolbox doesn’t mean that you should be using it liberally – because you risk damaging relationships unnecessarily.

Here are some clear cases where you should avoid using backhanded compliments:

The person you’re talking to is being really vulnerable

When people are vulnerable, that is a moment for us to respect what they’re sharing and be supportive, especially if they are in our team. If you hurt someone when they’re vulnerable, they’re unlikely to ever be candid with you again – which means that you won’t be able to have raw and honest conversations in the future.

Bad Timing - Backhanded Compliment

It pokes at the insecurity of someone that you care about

As mentioned, these can damage relationships if you’re not careful. So, there’s no need to take any risks here. A little goodhearted fun is not a problem, but if it’s something that is a true insecurity – don’t cripple that person’s confidence for the hell of it.

It serves no tangible business objective

If there is no business gain to be made from these mind games, it’s probably better to stay away from them entirely. They represent a very specific tool that should be used precisely and with purpose.

You don’t have a subtle way to deliver it

If your backhanded compliment is going to come out in a brute force way, then you’re much better off swallowing it before you say it. Subtlety is everything and if that isn’t in place, rather cut your losses.

There are probably other instances where a backhanded compliment will be ineffectual and potentially harmful – so use with caution.

Be aware of the room you’re in and how it might affect people, and only use it when you’re confident that it can achieve what you’re trying to without causing too much damage.


In summary, backhanded compliments are an immensely powerful communication tool that can unsettle other people, changing the flow and control of a conversation.

As an entrepreneur, there are ways to use this technique to your advantage, helping to push your business forward in highly competitive spaces.

However, use it with caution. Backhanded compliments have consequences, and you can risk damaging relationships if you aren’t thinking carefully. Understand the context and your objective, and you’ll make sure that you maximize the impact while minimizing the collateral damage.

It’s an art, but it’s something well worth practicing.

Backhanded Compliments Everywhere

This is just one psychological principle that we cover in the Revenue Growth Mastery course. If you’re looking to take your business to the next level and leverage human psychology to increase your revenue – then this is the program for you.

Check out what’s involved here, and we can’t wait to hear from you!