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North Hills

When a compliment stings, you've been backhanded

Dave McElhinny
| Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, 9:00 p.m.

An obnoxious, inebriated woman recently told me in a loud, slurring tone “you're a lot smarter than you look.”

That ranks right up there with “I like what you've done with your bald spot,” and “You wear your weight well.”

The backhanded compliment is one of those undesirable exchanges that we've all dealt with. Sometimes they are accidental, while other times they are a direct assault. Either way, you never go away from one of these conversations feeling particularly good about yourself.

“That outfit makes you look thin,” “Your hairdo is ... interesting,” and “What a great photo, I didn't even recognize that it was of you” are all passive-aggressive ways of putting somebody down in a polite way.

So why do people do it? What makes somebody think that another person is actually going to appreciate these negative comments?

I think people do it when they are insecure and therefore, even when they might want to give a true compliment, they can't quite follow through with it. As if giving a genuine compliment will in some way diminish their own status in this world.

“I like that you're not obsessed with your appearance,” can be construed as “you're a slob.” “You're unconventionally handsome” kind of comes off as “you are a moose-faced uggo.”

Throughout our lives, all of us will be subjected to this at one time or another, it's how you respond to it that really defines you. Are you petty or are you above that kind of nonsense?

The woman who told me I'm smarter than I look was so hammered that she had creepy, bloodshot eyes that couldn't focus making her look like a drunk tree frog. I could have said “Your eyes remind me of the stars — different sizes, hard to focus on and really far apart.” Or I might've been inclined to ask her, “Are you slurring your words or are you just trying to speak in cursive?”

But that would've been mean and even though I had those in the holster, ready to fire, I chose to give her a polite laugh.

After all, I like to think I've grown up over the years and mature people shouldn't get caught up in such trivial displays of one-ups-manship. So I simply smiled at this woman, looked her in one of her bleary, goopy eyes and paid her this compliment.

“Somebody as talented and smart as you are is going to go really far in this world — and I truly hope you are able to stay there forever.”

It feels good to act like an adult sometimes.

Dave McElhinny is the North Bureau Chief for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at

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