As a 20-something still waiting to crack adult life I’ve learned some harsh lessons, but most have been just that – a lesson. Most of the times I’ve felt my cheeks redden and my pulse start to rise I understand what has happened, where I’ve gone wrong or what I could have done better.
But recently I’ve had moments where I feel the heat rise up from so deep in my belly I think I might implode. It’s something that catches me completely off guard, and the source of my frustration unfortunately most often comes from people I really care about.
This is why I’m struggling so much to digest the bevy of backhanded compliments I’ve had aimed at me lately. Why has it become so socially acceptable to sugar-coat an insult with what appears [?] to be a compliment. So often among my friends, family and seemingly innocent praise is followed with a side of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) nastiness.
I seriously began to question whether my friends might secretly hate me. Is this all part of the challenge of finally cracking adult life and growing up? Is being mean and cold and viscous the world I’m now living in? Am I too sensitive? Do the culprits realise they’re doing it? Will it stop? And how can I make it stop faster?
The emotions these unpleasant interactions stir inside me are wild and utterly confusing. Whether it’s from a friend, your partner, your mum, your nana, or maybe the guy in your office who has some generally questionable morals anyways, the options for soothing or solving these painful moment scan seem scarce.
For women, it can be particularly tricky. Navigating the world in a soft, submissive, positive, every-smiling manner is something we’ve been trained to do. It’s hard enough competing with men in a male dominated world, we don’t want to make it harder for ourselves by speaking our minds, standing up for ourselves, asserting our position, or showing our power, because we all know women like that are cold hard bitches with no soul.
Take a recent workplace interaction for example. I was going about my daily business, but it was a colleagues last day. She’s a confident, determined and super hard working person. Unfortunately some people in the office find this intimidating. During the 30-minute farewell speeches her manager told a few memorable stories and a close work friend wrote an acrostic poem about all the ways she has been invaluable. Then up pops our CEO to give his two cents, despite having zero clue what it is she actually does all day long. It starts off sort of well intentioned, a comment about her effort and passion… then he finishes with ‘and you sure knew how to make things[pauses]… interesting. Good luck at your next role.’
Here’s the moment (hopefully) you feel your nose squish up a little, like you got a whiff of something in the air. Hopefully you get your stank face going cause someone dropped a nasty one, and it was not cool. There’s that jealously and spite followed by a polite
farewell good riddance. It’s really hard to address this without seeming petty, you and everyone else in the room know what’s just happened but for some reason the backhandee is always the one who has to be the bigger person. We’re squashed into a dichotomy of either speak up and bear the storm the follows or keep quiet and let them win.
Trying to unpack the backhanded compliment uncovers and array of equally awkward and challenging solutions. The best we can do is dive in and hope for the best, and maybe help other backhandees out of the deep whole of fury and confusion they’re likely drowning in.
The first important factor when thinking about backhanded compliments is the context in which they happen. When your grandma says ‘I’m glad you got a job in real estate. That music making stuff you were doing from home wasn’t a real job’, it’s not quite on the same scale as your boss throwing you under the bus in front of the whole office. For gran a simple thank you is probably the best course of action. Forgive me for being blunt, but gran is not from our world, and she’s not going to be in it for much longer. Suck it up cause thankfully (bless her soul) those views won’t be heard too much longer.
If the comment is coming from your partner or friend, approaching the issue can seem really difficult. It’s like there’s an unwritten rule that because you love each other, the person gets a free pass to be an asshole everyone now and again. Because at the end of the day, they’re not a bad person right?! Wrong. Wong. Wrong! We’re not here for average relationships, ones where one person accepts hurt and disregard simply because they feel they should. Just because you’re together doesn’t mean you can’t also grow together, teach each other, learn about how to get better at loving each other. It’s a partnership, and partners work best when they work as as a team not in solitary.
So speak up.
I know from experience that if you let it slide, it will bubble up inside you until your so worked up it all comes out in one foul swoop so hot and unplanned you’ll be unsure if you just spoke words or set off a grenade. There will be casualties I can tell you that for sure. And you will end up looking like a complete lunatic.
So first take solace in the fact you know your not a lunatic, your feelings are valid, we hear you! Hold on to this feeling of self confidence and tackle the little sucker head on.
Amy Morin is a clinical social worker, psychotherapist and internationally recognised expert on mental strength. Morin knows backhanded compliments can seriously damage relationships and says the best method is to address the insult directly. “When you don’t want a hurtful comment to get in the way of your relationship, speak up,” she says.
Address the comment directly and show your beloved how your feeling. If your first response is that of a stunned mullet, it’s totally okay to go away and compose yourself and address the issue a little later that night. My brain doesn’t process things as fast as my heart does, and that’s OK. We don’t always have to have an answer straight away, and if we hold off for a bit it doesn’t make our response any less valid. Just don’t wait till your fuming and have steam coming out of your ears. Address the issue when you’re feeling calm and prepared. The point is, it needs addressing or you risk losing the relationship entirely.
When it’s a co-worked or boss doing the backhanding, quick wit can be helpful. If you retaliate with humour you can one-up the person without having to out-right confront them. I find the Elle Woods ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude helpful. So if a colleague says, ‘You finally got a promotion, that’s adorable!’, you could think about responding with a cool ‘almost as cute as my new pay check and company car![smug wink and laugh to follow]’ Let them know your onto them and their condescending comments, and your laughing all the way to the bank.
According to Morin, “saying nothing at all can be one of the best ways to avoid giving away your power…don’t take the bait” If you honestly just don’t want to deal with the person, ignoring them entirely can be a great way to show them how little you value their opinion. So little it doesn’t deserve to be justified with a response. Giving the cold shoulder shows where your head is at while avoiding an argument.
Silence and humour are all well and good, but if I’m being honest both solutions feel more like a band-aid than a solution. This type of subtle hostility shouldn’t be accepted in the home, the workplace, or in public. And I’m a stern believer that if we tackle it with a causal manner the response can often be just as casual. If you can hold it together enough to calmly tell them what they said was unkind, you might be surprised by how smooth the resolution can be. A hot head and harsh words can invite the same type of response. If we make these assertive behaviours part of our every day life, we become more confident using them. Just as naturally as you’d tell your partner to add milk to the shopping list, you can also tell them that you didn’t like that comment they made about your outfit. The ‘your being too sensitive’ excuse just doesn’t cut it. There is no such thing as ‘too sensitive’. If it hurt, it’s worth a conversation.
If you’re me, the approach involves a stunned face, a wrinkled up nose with one eye twitching, followed by babbling some hardly audible gibberish about not having a bar of it before you storm off red faced to figure out your next move… It’s a WIP right ¯\_(ツ)_/¯