10 "Polite" Compliments You're Giving That Are Actually Offensive
You may think you're praising someone, but your statements could hurt their feelings.
Receiving a compliment is a nice little boost of serotonin, and that kind of praise from others can sometimes be enough to make your day. Most of us also like to give compliments and let others know we admire or appreciate them, so they can have that great feeling, too. But while we sometimes have the best intentions when doling out kind words, some statements or compliments that we think are polite are secretly offensive.
"Compliments that are actually rude are most often referred to as backhanded compliments," Beth Ribarsky, PhD, professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Illinois Springfield explains, noting that these sometimes stem from jealousy. And when directed at marginalized groups, they can also take the form of microaggressions.
However, most people aren't out to be malicious—and they may not realize their compliments are backhanded, according to Ribarsky.
"Instead, some are said with good, but ultimately ignorant, intent," she says. "No matter whether intentionally hurtful or not, what matters is whether the compliment makes you feel bad about yourself."
You might not realize something you believe to be kind could also be hurtful, which is why it's important to step back and think about how the other person might perceive your words. In fact, experts say there are several common "polite" compliments people give that can be offensive to others. Read on to find out what you might want to avoid saying in conversation.
"You look like you've lost weight!"
Commenting on others' physical appearance—and especially their weight—has become a bit taboo. You don't know what the other person might be going through, and saying something like, "You look like you've lost weight," can be a knock to their self-image.
"While this may have kind motives, it implies that the person should have lost weight, or that they were less beautiful at a different weight," Carrie Rose, life coach and founder of SunUp Coaching, tells Best Life.
"When we use the power of empathy to step into someone else's shoes, we can often imagine how a compliment might be perceived. All too often, however, we offer 'compliments' without realizing that they may not feel as kind to the receiver as the intention behind them," Manly says. "For example, you might feel that you're complimenting a friend who has shed a few pounds by saying, 'You look great now that you've lost weight.' However, the friend might infer that they didn't look great before they lost a bit of weight."
Kristi Spencer, etiquette expert and founder of The Polite Company, recommends speaking to someone's overall well-being, as opposed to focusing on their weight.
"When someone undergoes a change in weight, be considerate in your response," she says. "Weight fluctuations can be due to medical conditions. Unless someone has shared their intention to lose weight with you, it's best to focus on their overall well-being."
"You look good for your age."
Commenting on age is another dicey area where your compliments may otherwise be perceived as offensive.
Ribarsky says you might mean well by saying, "You look good for your age," but it may not be interpreted that way.
"While it may be meant as a compliment, its qualifier implies that one only looks good when compared to others their age," she says. "Simply removing the 'for your age' can turn this hurtful statement into a positive one."
Sue May, menopause and mid-life coach, adds that this also insinuates when we do eventually "look our age," things will go downhill. This is particularly relevant for women, who "are constantly scrutinized for how we look," May says.
"We need to start normalizing looking our age, that it's not only a privilege to get older but that there is beauty in our faces and bodies that hold the wisdom and experience of our years," May, who is also the founder of Midlife Evolved, explains. "How about just, 'You look great,' and leaving out the part about age? I think that's a better approach!"
"You're so [blank] for a man/woman."
Ribarsky also cautions against "compliments" that are qualified by sex and gender, like saying, "You're so smart for a woman," or, "You're so fashionable for a man."
"This is one I personally encounter quite often. Although I've heard it in many contexts and with many characteristics, I most often hear it when it comes to my physicality," she shares. "I've worked hard over the past few years to lift heavier weights at the gym, so I often hear, 'You're really strong for a woman.' The qualifier ultimately discredits my strength."
Spencer also cautions that this doesn't have to be specific to men and women, as you may also give an unintentionally rude compliment using another qualifier.
"Saying, 'You're so funny/athletic/intelligent for a [blank],' implies that you have preconceived expectations based on stereotypes," she says. "It's essential to appreciate someone's qualities without making assumptions about their background or characteristics."
"You are so good-looking—why are you still single?"
This one is another comment that you might not immediately recognize as backhanded. However, asking someone why they're single is never appropriate, even if you're cushioning it by complimenting their appearance.
"Saying, 'You are so good-looking, why are you still single?' is not a compliment," Spencer says. "It's best to refrain from commenting on someone's marital status unless they choose to bring it up."
"You deserve better than him/her/them."
Telling someone that they "deserve better" than a former partner is almost a reflex when comforting someone who's going through a divorce or breakup. But Rose warns that you should think of what that phrase really implies before you say it.
"While that might feel sort of good to hear, at one point they wanted to and loved being with that person! So saying that they deserve better could imply that the relationship was a dumb choice in the first place," Rose says.
She continues, "Relationships change, even to two good people. Don't put the ex or former partner down unless the person you're speaking with gives you permission to do so. Divorce is grief, and bashing another human is not always helpful."
"You clean up well."
You've definitely heard this phrase thrown around, but if it's something you often say to others, you might want to reconsider.
"'You clean up well' is a phrase that can come off as kind, but it actually is implying they normally do not look as good, which can be very hurtful to the person you're talking to!" Daniel Rinaldi, therapist, life coach, and founder of Live Your F'N Life coaching, tells Best Life. "Saying that they 'clean up well' suggests that their usual appearance is less than desirable and that their effort to look better is a surprise or out of the ordinary. Essentially, it undermines the individual's self-esteem and self-image by implying that their everyday appearance is subpar."
Instead of using this potentially harmful phrase, Rinaldi suggests focusing on the positive aspects "without implying a negative comparison to their usual state."
"I don't know how you do it all!"
When a friend or family member has a lot on their plate and manages it well, you want to let them know how much you admire them. But saying, "I don't know how you do it all," can come off as insensitive, especially if you're addressing a single parent, Ann Runkle, divorce and career coach and founder of Forward With Ann, says.
"In the divorce world, single parents (especially single moms) will often hear someone say, 'I don't know how you do it all!'" Runkle says. "[It's] usually said with well-meaning intent attempting to acknowledge the heavy burden a single parent carries, but it is one of the most frustrating 'compliments' for a single mom to hear."
She explains, "If we didn't have to do it all, we wouldn't. We don't have a choice. If we don't do it, no one else will. The response to, 'I don't know how you do it all,' is simply, 'Because I have to.'"
"You resemble [blank]."
This one is particularly tough because telling someone they look like a celebrity or famous person might be your form of high praise. Complicating things further, when you tell someone they look like a person you perceive as good-looking, you probably assume the person on the receiving end will have the same opinion. But in reality, you don't know if your doppelgänger suggestion will offend them.
"Avoid telling someone that they look like someone else," Spencer says. "You never know how the receiver will take that message."
"You look great now!"
Telling someone that they look great is a perfect compliment, but the problem here is the addition of the word "now." Similar to comments on weight loss, this word insinuates that someone didn't look "great" before.
"As an esthetician, people will tell me the comments they get from others after they receive skincare treatment, and though these comments are meant to be nice, they can often feel rude to the recipient. One comment people get a lot is, 'Your skin looks great now!'" Buldini explains.
She notes that you may get this "compliment" following any change in your physical appearance—and it often comes across as judgmental and critical.
"It can make the person feel self-conscious or as if their past appearance was somehow unacceptable," Buldini explains. "In general, it's more polite and considerate to offer compliments without any implied comparisons to the person's previous state."
You're so brave to wear that!"
When it comes to clothing and style, we all have our own preferences. So it may be perceived as offensive if you tell someone they're "brave" for making certain fashion choices.
"While this sounds like a compliment, and maybe you do mean it as one, telling someone they're brave implies that they need to be brave. So the question on the person's mind may be, 'I am just wearing something I like, why does that make me brave? It wasn't hard for me to put this on,'" Genevieve Dreizen, modern-day etiquette expert and co-founder of Fresh Starts Registry, says.
Dreizen notes this phrase is "used as a coded way of telling someone their clothes are inappropriate, unflattering, or socially unacceptable."
Alternatively, she suggests saying something along the lines of, "I just love this on you!" This statement communicates genuine admiration—without any caveats.
RELATED: 17 Things Polite People Never Do.
You'll know if you've hurt someone's feelings.
Of course, there are other statements beyond those listed above that could come off as rude or insensitive—even if that's not your intention. But Manly says that in these situations, you'll probably know if you offend someone.
"If you see a crestfallen look on someone's face after making a compliment, you can often set things right quickly," she says. "For example, you might say, 'That didn't come out quite right. What I meant to say is that you look great.'"
But before you have to backtrack, it's probably easier to choose appropriate compliments that focus on the person rather than a specific feature or physical quality.
"When someone's energy is very kind or gentle, I tend to compliment those traits, and if someone is glowing with positivity or soulfulness, I'll simply say, 'You're radiating such great energy,'" Manly shares. "Another tip for avoiding compliment missteps is to comment globally rather than personally. For example, instead of commenting on how an outfit looks on a person, you might compliment the clothing itself by saying, 'That's a great style—what terrific colors!'"
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