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Miss Manners by Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin

Backhanded Compliments Are Best Met With Understated Contempt

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My sister-in-law is a master at giving backhanded compliments. While I have been dealing with it for decades now, I still find myself having the perfect response at around 3 a.m. the next day and being irritated with myself that it still bothers me. It seems to be something she is unaware of or thinks is harmless.

I've tried a blank look in response, as well as my most blithe smile or a puzzled expression with the question, "What makes you say that?" What is most irritating when she (or anyone) does this is that the statements usually have a grain of truth but gross inaccuracies.

I do not wish to reward people with a response when they deliver a veiled insult, nor do I want to encourage further discussion by asking for clarification of what's been said. But I would ask you if there's a polite way to shut down a person when they seem to think it's OK to speak this way?

GENTLE READER: Not having specific examples to work with, Miss Manners has invented her own to clarify the different degrees of insult, which require different answers. Without asserting that backhanded compliments are distinct from veiled insults, the choice of one term over the other implies to Miss Manners a level of escalation.

"You look so good without your glasses," may imply that you look terrible with them on, but leaves too much doubt to justify retaliation. The compliment could be genuine, albeit awkward. "At least these glasses are an improvement on the old ones," makes the insult plain. A "thank you" delivered in such a chilly tone as to contradict the literal words, perhaps followed by moving to another part of the room, is fully justified.

Note that Miss Manners almost never allows the 3 a.m. response. It is invariably nastier and less witty than it sounds in the pre-dawn hours, and it rewards the offender by demonstrating anger, when understated contempt would be more effective in dissuading future repetition.