THE BACKHANDED COMPLIMENT

When does flattery become a weapon?  When it is doled out conditionally with the intention of causing harm to the recipient.

Consider the case of the repentent husband.  He is sorry for his behavior and wishes to make amends with his wife.  Knowing she’s a little blue and drifting away emotionally, he decides to appeal to her vanity and offer up a compliment that’s sure to please.  After taking her out for a lovely evening, he proudly announces that she was one of the best looking women he had seen that night, bested only by a sultry brunette with long legs and a plunging neckline.

He is dismayed when the compliment does not have the desired effect.  His dismay turns to anger when he realizes his error.  But instead of backpedaling, he tries to save face by blaming her for misunderstanding him.  He tells her that she is incapable of handling honesty and behaving like a pal.  The blame is shunted to the wife and the husband feels vindicated . . .  and entitled to keep girlwatching since he’s misunderstood and underappreciated at home.

A very common scenario, no?   It’s the classic Well-meaning-but-Dim Husband versus the Hard-to-Please Wife.  But upon examination, a case could be made against the husband’s professed intention, or indeed against anyone who bestows a compliment designed to wound.

Everyone has felt the sting.  “You’re doing a great job here at the office, but you need to increase productivity.”   “Mmmm, that soup is delicious, but it could use a little salt.”  “Those jeans are fabulous on you, but they make your ass look fat.”  What is the real intention here?  To soften up the target before smackdown?

More importantly, how does one defend against this form of passive aggression?  Polite tolerance?  Calling them out?  Sneaky folks do not take kindly to being busted.  But, better they learn now that we are wise to their games, rather than later when they are alone and friendless.

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