16 Compliments You Didn’t Realize Are Actually Pretty Insulting
You may have the best of intentions, but you need to check yourself before uttering any of these sentences.
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The vast majority of the time, giving a compliment is harmless and, indeed, boosts the recipient’s mood. But certain compliments can have implications that are…far from complimentary. For instance, if you react with surprise at someone’s “good” quality or behavior, make them feel uncomfortable, or even perpetuate a racial or gender stereotype, then that “compliment” is now insulting. These are the things you should think twice before you say—no matter how good your intentions. Plus, learn the questions polite people never ask.
“Hey, you’re on time!”
When you congratulate chronically late friends on making it on time you may think you’re rewarding good behavior but your “compliment” will likely have the opposite effect. “You’re just pointing out that lateness is their norm and calling attention to that,” says Laura MacLeod, a licensed social worker and founder of From The Inside Out Project. “This also can come across as condescending.” Think twice before starting a sentence with any of these 10 phrases.
“Your new hairstyle makes you look so much younger!”
People love getting compliments on a new look but when you add on anything extra you run the risk of pointing out that they looked worse before—in this scenario, you’re saying their old hairstyle made them look old, says Wyatt Fisher, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Colorado. Just stick to the compliment; there’s no need to elaborate, he adds. Watch out for these other phrases smart people never say.
“I’m so impressed that you are handling the kids so well!”
Telling your spouse you’re so impressed with how they parent in a general way can make it seem like you’re surprised they’re managing at all, Fisher says. This is especially true when it’s the primary parent (often the mom), “complimenting” the other parent (often the dad). It’s fine to compliment specific things—for example, “That was great how you handled that tantrum so patiently”—but steer clear of general platitudes. Add this to your list of 10 things you shouldn’t bring up at family get-togethers.
“You are such a strong person!”
When someone is going through something tough we want to express our support and our confidence in their ability to handle it. Unfortunately saying this just calls attention to the fact that their life really stinks right now without adding anything helpful, says Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. Moreover, sometimes people don’t want to be “strong” or they don’t feel like they can handle their challenges and this comment can make them feel even less adequate because they’re not doing what they’re “supposed” to do. Here are some better things to say to someone who’s grieving.
“You’re a really good driver… for a woman!”
This “compliment” has many nauseating variations and is often used as a subtle form of racism, sexism, or other problematic biases, says Irina Baechle, licensed social worker, a relationship therapist and coach. “You’re so articulate…for a Black person.” “You’re in such good shape…for a mom.” “You’re so smart…for someone who’s never been to college.” You never need whatever follows the “for”; just stop with “You’re so well-spoken/fit/intelligent/etc.” Phrases like these are more than just “insulting compliments”; they can also be microaggressions you need to stop saying.
“You did a fantastic job handling that project on your own!”
You may be trying to give someone their hard-earned credit but this can also be a backhanded way of saying they’re not a team player. In addition, this is only considered a compliment at all for people living in societies that put a high importance on the individual, like the United States. For someone that is from a culture that values group or family success over individual achievement, this may not only feel insulting but also humiliating, explains Jason Sackett, an executive coach and author of [email protected]: Creating Workplaces that Engage the Human Spirit. Find out the things you should never say at work.
“You’re so gorgeous!”
Who doesn’t like to hear that you find them attractive? A lot of people, it turns out. Commenting on someone’s appearance when you don’t have a close personal relationship with them—like a coworker, casual acquaintance, or a stranger—can make them feel uncomfortable or even harassed, depending on the context, Sackett says. Plus, it’s kind of a lazy compliment. “The most powerful (and safest) compliments are those that you know the recipient will feel connected to before you offer it,” he adds. Not sure what to say? Start with these 37 conversation starters that make you instantly interesting.
“Great job getting that A! You’re so smart!”
Complimenting your child for doing something well is parenting 101, right? Turns out, complimenting their achievements can seriously backfire, making them think that’s all you care about, says Amy McManus, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “It’s more important to compliment your children on the actions that reflect your family’s values, like persistence in the face of discouragement, helping others, or working hard toward a goal.” Instead, use one of these 50 tiny, but powerful, ways to encourage your kid every day.
“I’m so proud of you for getting a raise this year honey!”
Just like complimenting kids only for their straight-A report card or soccer goal makes them believe that is what you value in them, complimenting your partner only on their achievements can make them feel more like a paycheck than a person, McManus says. “Plus, they may or may not feel they earned it, or are remembering when they didn’t get it before, and a compliment can stir up complicated feelings like guilt or embarrassment,” she adds. Instead, here are 12 things you should tell your spouse every day for a happier marriage.
“You look great for your age!”
When you tell someone they look great for their age, the subtext is they don’t look pretty or handsome in general, just in comparison to wizened crones. Instead of subtly insulting their looks, just leave off the qualifier—”for your age”—and tell them they look great, says Travis Chapman, author of The Unconditional Truth. Besides, age is beautiful. Instead, find out the things polite people always say.
“You’re so pretty, how are you still single?”
There’s nothing single people love more than being publicly and repeatedly reminded of their single status, right? Of course not. Add in a bewildering “but you’re so pretty” and you’re implying that not only are they sad spinsters but that there must be something else wrong with them keeping them that way, Chapman explains. As a rule, don’t comment on someone else’s relationship status unless she brings up the topic first. Learn the “polite” habits most people secretly dislike.
“You are a saint for having so many kids!”
This “compliment” reads both as an insult to their reproductive choices—”You have too many kids”—and to their children, implying they must be a saint to deal with them. “It is common for people to hide judgments on life choices in compliments,” says Susan Henney, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown. “We want to be polite but we also want our opinion to be heard.” Check out our list of 11 words and phrases that used to be insults and are now compliments.
“You have a pretty face, you should smile more.”
What you’re really saying is, “Buck up, you grump. I’m in a good mood, so you should be too” which assumes that everyone is just like you or is having exactly the same kind of day as you, Henney says. “Since it is often said from men to women, it can also be interpreted as the female not pleasing the male by being charming and agreeable at all times.” Bottom line: You are not in charge of other people’s moods. Want someone to smile? Pay them a genuine compliment or tell them a joke. Find out the expressions you didn’t know were sexist.
“Wow, you’ve lost so much weight, you’re not fat anymore!”
Weight is such a sensitive topic for so many people that you really shouldn’t give unsolicited comments about a person’s shape or size, even if you think you’re being kind, says John Moore, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist in Chicago. “I’ve had clients, both women and men, cry in my office because they were told something just like this, it can be devastating,” he explains. Not sure what to say? Follow the other person’s cues. If they want to talk about their weight loss, they will bring it up.
“Look at that, your girlfriend is smoking hot!”
“The second part of this sentence is ‘and what on earth is she doing with you?'” explains Backe. Complimenting the looks of someone’s significant other never ends well because you’re obviously checking that person out and comparing them to others. You can, however, tell your friend that they seem to have found someone really special or compliment the relationship. For something better to say, use one of these 56 secrets life coaches won’t tell you for free.
“You look so pretty with makeup on!”
Do you mean to say that they don’t look attractive to you unless they paint over their natural features? Because that is what this can come across as saying. There’s nothing wrong with wearing makeup or complimenting someone’s makeup, just don’t imply that they’re hideous without it, says Shira Taylor Gura, well-being coach, author, and host of the podcast Getting unSTUCK. Also, don’t start that sentence with “with all due respect” or any of these annoying phrases and words in the English language.
- Laura MacLeod, licensed social worker and founder of From The Inside Out Project
- Wyatt Fisher, PhD, licensed psychologist in Colorado
- Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics
- Irina Baechle, licensed social worker, a relationship therapist and coach
- Jason Sackett, executive coach and author
- Amy McManus, licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles
- Travis Chapman, author
- Susan Henney, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown
- John Moore, PhD, licensed psychotherapist in Chicago
- Shira Taylor Gura, well-being coach, author, and host of the podcast Getting unSTUCK