Flattery and Backhanded Compliments

There is a famous saying (short piece of advice or wisdom): “Flattery will get you nowhere.”

What is “flattery,” and what does this well-known saying mean?

We call saying nice things about a person praise (“What a beautiful dress you have on, dear!”). But when we give some too much praise so that it seems insincere (false; not saying what you really think), that’s called flattery.

People usually use flattery to try to get something they want.

If you want a promotion (higher-level job), you might try to flatter your boss. But if your coworker thinks that’s a bad idea, she may tell you, “Flattery will get you nowhere.”

This means that even if you say nice things about the other person, you will not get what you want from him.

If you flatter someone, you of course hope he or she will feel or be flattered. If you feel flattered, you feel pleased with the praise or respect that someone has shown you.

For example, if you asked me to sing at your wedding, I would be flattered!

Interestingly, to be flattered (or to feel flattered) doesn’t have the same negative meaning as “flattery.” It just means you feel good about what someone has said about you.

Rather than using flattery, if you genuinely (truthfully) want to say nice things about someone, you give them a compliment.

You can still have an ulterior motive (hidden reason) for complimenting someone, but a compliment by itself is not a bad thing. It’s a nice thing to say about person, without being too much or insincere.

If my wife gets a haircut, I might compliment her by saying, “Your hair looks nice!”

One thing I would never give my wife is a backhanded compliment.

You hear the term “backhand” most often in the sport of tennis (see photo). Backhand refers to hitting the ball while the back of your hand is facing where you want the ball to go — again, see the photo.

A backhanded compliment is something that sounds like a compliment, but really isn’t. It may even be an insult (something disrespectful).

Usually with a backhanded compliment, the insult is implied (not said directly).

Here are some examples:

– “I didn’t think you’d get the job. Congratulations!” (Implying that you are not qualified or good enough for the job)
– “Those pants really make you look taller.” (Implying that normally you look short)
– “It’s amazing that somebody is publishing your book.” (Implying that it’s not really a good book)
– “You look so good in the photo that I didn’t recognize you.” (Implying that you don’t normally look that good)

What do I do when I get a backhanded compliment?

I say “thank you.” Nothing is more annoying than an insult that doesn’t hit home (get the expected bad response)!

~ Jeff

P.S. For more information on how to use “compliment,” see our Daily English lesson #219 – Giving Compliments.

And for the difference between “complIment” and “complEment,” see Cultural English lesson #328.

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