In our last video we looked at six different ways to pay someone a compliment and you can see that video here:
In this video we’re looking how NOT to give compliments. We’ll show you examples of things that can go wrong, and suggest ways to avoid them.
For example:

  • Complimenting a woman on her appearance in the workplace could be seen as a sexual advance or even sexual harassment.
    There are gender differences in how we give compliments and we’ll pass on some research.
  • If compliments aren’t sincere, they can be seen as flattery and that can be a problem.
  • And finally, you want to avoid backhanded or left-handed compliments. These are compliments that are half insult and half compliment and nobody likes them. We’ll show you a variety of back and left-handed compliment examples so you can see if you can the spot what’s wrong with them.

Click here to see our video on how to give a compliment.
Click here to learn how we might respond to compliments differently in the US and UK.
Click here to learn more everyday English expressions.

How NOT to pay a compliment in English

Have you had your hair cut?
Yes, I’ve got a new barber. What do you think?
Oh it’s very smart. It’s so much better than it looked before.
Oh great.
Let me see the back. See! I like what he’s done with your bald spot.

Hi I’m Vicki and I’m British.
And I’m Jay and I’m American.
Our last video was about compliments and when I posted it, Jay was a bit worried.
Well you didn’t tell everyone what we DON’T say if we’re giving a compliment.
I didn’t want the video to be too long. I’ll put a link here if you haven’t seen it yet. And we’re going to talk about compliments that don’t work now.
So what was your problem?
Well there are compliments that guys can’t give. I might compliment you on your appearance because we’re married, but I’d be very careful about complimenting the appearance of another woman, especially at work.
But I could compliment a female colleague on her appearance – if she looked nice.

Hi everyone.
Hi Geri. Your hair’s looking very pretty today.
Thank you. I just had it cut.
It’s gorgeous. And you have such beautiful brown eyes.

That was creepy.
Yes, men have to be careful. If we compliment a woman on her appearance we could make her uncomfortable.
We could think you’re trying to make a move on us.
Exactly! And it’s sexual harassment if we do it in the workplace in the united States. We could lose our jobs.
So it’s serious.
Yes, don’t do it guys! Not in the US.
There’s a lot of linguistic research on compliments and they’ve found the kinds of compliments that men and women give are often different. Men are more likely to say things like ‘Good job’ or ‘Nice work’. Their compliments are more impersonal.
That sounds right to me.
And women give more compliments to other women than men give to other men.
That makes sense too.
Well women are very nice.
I think another important thing with compliments is that you can’t lie. You have to tell the truth.

Oh officer. Is there a problem?
Yes, you can’t park here.
I’m just going to move it.
You’re too late. You should not have parked here.
Oh officer. Oh my, what beautiful brown eyes you have.
Flattery will get you nowhere.
You know, I’ve got some doughnuts in the car. Perhaps I could give you the doughnuts and you could throw away that ticket?
That’s not flattery. That’s bribery.

Well that didn’t work. I tried flattery but you saw through me.
Yes, flattery is praise that we don’t really mean.
When we flatter someone, we try to persuade them to do something by saying nice things about them.
But flattery isn’t sincere. It’s just a show.
Yes. And what about bribery?
Oh well, that’s when we give someone something to do what we want and it breaks the rules.
So it’s something dishonest
Or illegal.
OK, there’s another thing we have to do right to give a good compliment, and it’s very important.
What’s that?
We have to be totally positive. You can’t mix in any negative things.

Oh nice jacket. Is it new?
Yes, I bought it last week.
I love the way you go your own way instead of following the fashions.
Oh, well.
And it hides your belly well too.

That was not a compliment!
I know. I said something nice because I said you go your own way, so you’re independent.
But you also suggested I’m not fashionable.
Yeah. That’s not nice.
And then you drew attention to my belly!
Yeah. Definitely not nice!
So it was a compliment and an insult at the same time.
We have a term for this. In British English we call it a backhanded compliment. But you have a different name for it in American English.
Yes, we call it a left-handed compliment. It’s when it’s half compliment and half insult.
We had a request to talk about backhanded compliments from a viewer called Nick. Great idea Nick!
Then let’s look at another one.
Yeah. Watch another example and see if you can recognize the compliments and the insults.
Yes, try to spot what’s nice and what’s rude here?

Well, that was an interesting meeting.
Mmm. Where do you get the energy to talk so much?
Oh thanks. Do you think I talked too much?
Oh no, I love listening to your ideas Jay.
Oh good.
Listening to you makes me feel so intelligent.

So I said ‘Where do you get the energy to talk so much?’ That could be a compliment because it means I think you’re energetic.
Yes that’s positive, but you also said I talk so much. Maybe you meant too much.
And then there was another. I said I liked listening to your ideas. That’s positive. But then you said they make you feel intelligent. I was drawing a comparison between your ideas and my ideas
And suggesting yours are more intelligent than mine.
I was being a smart-arse there.
A smart-ass is someone who behaves as if they know everything.
Yes, we say smart-arse in British English.
Smart-ass in American English.
Your arse – or ass- is a slang word for your bottom. If you want to be more polite you could say smart aleck
A smart aleck thinks their very clever and they’re very annoying.
Let’s have another example.

Oh and here’s a picture of me and my brother.
Oh wow. Is that handsome guy you?
You look great. I nearly didn’t recognize you.
Yeah, it doesn’t look like you at all.

So I said two nice things here. ‘You look great’ and I called you handsome.
Yes, but the problem was you also said the guy in the photo didn’t look like me, so that implies that I don’t normally look great or handsome.
Yes. So it’s really important. If you’re paying someone a compliment, you have to stay 100% positive. You can’t add negative stuff.
If someone pays you a left-handed compliment, what should you say?
I’ve no idea. How should you reply?
I don’t know either. But if anyone has any ideas about that, please write and tell us in the comments.
Perhaps you should say nothing.
And then go and find some new friends.
I find responding to normal compliments hard sometimes too.
A lot of people do.
Let’s make another video about that.
OK. Next year perhaps. If you liked this video please share it with a friend.
And don’t forget to subscribe to our channel so you don’t miss our future videos.
Bye everyone.

Click here to see our video on how to give a compliment.
Click here to learn how we might respond to compliments differently in the US and UK.
Click here to learn more everyday English expressions.



2 thoughts on “How NOT to pay a compliment in English (back & left-handed compliments)”

  1. How many times has someone given you a compliment and you just know they re trying to get something from you? Compliments can easily veer into flattery and feel insincere , leaving the recipient wondering about the giver s hidden agenda.

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