How To Deal with Backhanded Compliments, Negging, and Other Verbal Vindictiveness

How To Deal with Backhanded Compliments, Negging, and Other Verbal Vindictiveness

#1 ? Knowledge is power, especially for women

Image for postPhoto by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

Last summer, I was out with a guy I?ve known for a while. He?s smart, savvy, and super successful ? he suffers no lack of self-esteem, but he?s not arrogant either. We had spent enough evenings sipping Pinot, ordering dinner, and bantering to get past that awkward ?Let?s get to know each other? phase. I felt comfortable with him. More importantly, I felt safe ? something that?s not always easy for a woman to feel in the wacky world of modern dating.

We found a cozy spot at the bistro. A bottle of wine appeared, and a cheese plate. We had a few sips of wine. We chatted about this and that: kids, work, small towns. He said something funny, and I laughed. Loudly. I was having fun. And then he said:

?I enjoy you. You?re a sophisticated lady?but you have a very strong personality.?

Huh? Immediately, I felt myself shrink back into my body. I felt off-balance. Self-conscious. I took a gulp of wine to restore my equilibrium.

Successful Man switched the subject, but his comment stayed with me. It niggled at the back of my brain all night. I woke with it the next morning, long after I?d wished him good-bye.


He?d speared me with a backhanded compliment. It felt a bit like being slapped across the face.

And it stung.

Backhanded compliments, defined

Backhanded compliments sting more than straight insults because they are covert. They?re sandwiched between compliments. When you take that first bite, you don?t immediately notice the off-flavor. It looks appetizing but leaves you with a bitter aftertaste ? like pickles and onions on rye.

Backhanded compliments are sneaky. They?re not offered as simple and direct criticism. Nope: they?re couched in subterfuge. They don?t smack you with an open palm, but with the back of the hand.

Really, they are insults masquerading as compliments. They?re meant to take you down a notch. They are nonchalant derision. They are nuanced disdain.

In the dating realm, they can be assiduously intentional ? though spoken with pretend pleasantry:

How are you still single?


You look amazing for your age!

Backhanded comments like these are meant to subtly sting. Really, they are veiled insinuations that you are not enough, too much, or just all wrong. They are also cowardly. They lack compassion. They kill connection.

They?re also incredibly powerful. These stealth insults linger in the backs of our minds. They throw us off guard: did he really say that? They make us question ourselves: can he be right? They roll us into the deep darkness of doubt: does he even like me? And worse: do I like myself?

Backhanded insults are false narrators of interpersonal fiction. They can also lead us down dark pathways.

Negging 101

In the shadier shadows of pick up artists, narcissists, and creeps, backhand compliments are used as weaponry: negging.

These charmers are not always out for blood. They just want to see you injured ? wounded prey is easier to take down, after all.

When you?re being negged, your predator tries to throw you off balance with a negative comment, a hurtful observation, or a veiled insult. These characters want to undermine your confidence. Confuse you. Shake you up a bit. They say things that seem superficially nice. In reality, they frost their words with manipulation and menace.

You?re really cultured. But you may be a bit high maintenance for me.

You?d look great if you got in shape.

You?re smart. I bet you have a hard time dating. You must intimidate a lot of men.

Not every woman could pull off that outfit.

Negging works. It?s insidious. It?s subtle. It panders to our psychological need to be loved, admired and included. When we?re insulted, we usually try to regain favor with the party who insulted us. This makes us vulnerable to their machinations.

Ultimately, negging is a mechanism that tries to assert control over our minds ? -and hearts.

So how can you resist?

Use the 5 R?s when you realize you are being negged.

Step 1:

Recognize: Know you?re being negged.

Step 2:

Resist. Call the perpetrator out. Repeat the insult and dissect it aloud. Ignore. Laugh. Neg back.

Step 3:

Remember. Remember the insult. Remember the insulter. If it happens again (and again), take action.

Step 4:

React. Choose an action. End the conversation. Forgive and forget. Discuss negging. Observe and withhold judgment. The beauty is: you get to choose.

Step 5:

Refuse. Reject the negging. Don?t get sucked in. CAll out the guy negging you. Let him/her know you know you?re being negged.

Verbal Takeouts

There are so many ways others use their words and wits to waylay us. Whether you?re just getting to know someone or know them all too well, it?s wise to watch how they verbalize their thoughts, feelings, and comments ? while keeping an eye on how they like to play with power, control, and dominance.

Ask yourself two vital questions:

1. Are they actively or passive-aggressively using words to harm you?

2. How often are they doing this?

Pay attention to some of the ways that people cast aspersions on you, your reputation, your qualities, your habits, your family and friendships, etc.

Do they:

  • Interrupt you, especially during a key point or in the height of a story you are telling?
  • Continually redirect the conversation back to themselves?
  • Make insinuations that they?d rather not elaborate on?
  • Tell you what other people supposedly said about you behind your back?
  • Insult people (or topics or interests) they know you respect, admire, or love?
  • Say: ?I?m just trying to help you out so you can work on your weaknesses??
  • Start out with a string of compliments that lead to a collection of complaints?
  • Try to ?correct? your thinking?
  • Lie, misrepresent, or gaslight you (?I said that? I don?t recall??).
  • Gossip about others, especially your close companions?
  • Try to get you to agree with their negative opinions about you ? or about others?
  • Listen or speak in a condescending manner?
  • Tell you they are telling you something ?For your own good??

Beginning to attune yourself to verbal manipulation can help you refuse to participate in it. Recognizing it is the first step in refusing to fall prey to its negative intent.

Empowering your response to verbal aggression

Dealing with any type of backhanded compliment, negging, or other subtle verbal viciousness is helped by your considered and careful approach.

Here are 5 concepts to help you stay centered in your power, defy those who would steal it, and reclaim your strength.

#1 ? Knowledge is power

Arm yourself. Read about the psychology of manipulation. Scan a few sites on pick-up artistry (just try not to get too disgusted). Take a class in rhetoric or communication. Understand the power of persuasion ? and know persuasive techniques as well as how people use them.

#2 ? The beauty of observation

Become an interested observer in human interaction. Learn to study others in conversation. Know and understand your own verbal cues and responses.

#3 ? Net neutrality

Try to remain studiously neutral, especially when meeting others for the first time. Withhold judgment. Try to maintain composure ? don?t get too passionately involved in matters of opinion or emotion or action when meeting someone new. This colors your impression. Manipulators know this.

#4 ? Low tolerance boot camp

Learn to become less tolerant of verbal shenanigans. Women are especially at risk of being manipulated. Culturally and socially, women are accustomed to being silenced, spoken down to, ignored, superseded, convinced, talked over, condescended to, and ignored. We often say nothing to keep the peace. We prize relationships. We emphasize peace-keeping. We sacrifice ourselves to our better angels ? and demons. Learn and practice low tolerance for verbal manipulation.

#5 ? Use your words

Speak up. Speak out. Speak your mind. Proffer your opinion. Rebut. Call out verbal misbehavior. Use your words as a power for good in the presence of bad. Give abuse a name. Label it. Tell your manipulator you won?t accept his negging, veiled insults, or wicked witticisms. Use those beautiful words inside you to assert, value, and honor your beautiful self.

Back where we started

A week later, I met Mr. Success Story for lunch. We ordered, shared some laughs, got caught up.

He commented on a political thing in the news. I countered with my opposing opinion.

?A bossy woman like you could walk all over me,? he said, laughing.

I bristled. On the surface, it sounded like a compliment, but underneath surged the gray current of indirect insult. On its own, his comment seemed only mildly offensive. But coupled with his covert insult the week prior, a pattern began to emerge.

A small voice whispered in my ear: He?s calling you domineering. Rude. Dominant. Manlike.

?Really?? I asked, looking straight at him, ?What does that mean, exactly? Because to me, it sounds like a backhanded compliment.?

He seemed surprised. He hemmed and hawed a bit, and tried to brush it off.

I stayed silent, watching him. Listening hard.

In the end, I decided I didn?t much like what I heard. I haven?t seen him since.


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