Are Your Compliments Laced with Insults?

“You got skinny while I was gone!” said an acquaintance I haven’t seen in three months. Her tone was critical. Judgmental at best.

I got skinny while you were gone? Nice to see you, too. And by the way, what does that even MEAN?

Was I fat before?

Am I gaunt now? Haggard, maybe?

I replied, “Well, when I last saw you I had been eating a LOT of Chick-fil-A. And singlehandedly keeping Duncan Hines in business.” (It’s true. When I’m stressed I like to eat chocolate icing straight from the container with a spoon. A little habit I picked up while pregnant.)

Ok. I didn’t really say that.

But seriously how do you respond? Um, thanks…I think? It made me mad. It hurt.

Words matter. They affect people deeply. The fact is, that “compliment” was laced with an insult.

People may not intentionally criticize, but they certainly don’t put much thought into choosing their words wisely. It’s all too common for our comments to have implied insults or hidden agendas.

Here are some ways to improve conventional messages:

  • Replace “Wow, you look tired!” with “What can I do to help you today?”
  • Instead of “You haven’t completed the project?!?” ask “What obstacles are you facing?”
  • Rather than “I haven’t heard from you in forever!” say “It’s wonderful to hear your voice!”
  • Refrain from commenting on your friend’s weight. A simple, “You look fantastic!” is the best compliment.

What are some other words you often hear that have an underlying tone of criticism? How can they be rephrased in order to build people up?



  1. Kristi Rhodes says:

    Great post, Tracy! 🙂

  2. One of my favorites from my college days… “You’re such a great girl. Why are you still single?” They could have just stopped at ‘You’re such a great girl.’ If I’d be clever in the moment I would have said, “It’s actually my goal in life to die alone mourned only by my 12 cats.”

    Love your posts!

  3. “It must be so hard to manage all that and keep it all together.” Yes, it must. Does that mean I have become your poster-woman for “all together” or for for “nearly falling apart”?

    You’re right, Tracy. Tone is such a powerful communicator. Thanks for this timely reminder to think both about what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.

    • That’s a great addition to the list, Heidi. It reminds me of a friend who has triplets. She can’t stand it when people say “Wow, you’ve certainly got your hands full!”

  4. I’m on a second marriage and we decide to have a baby. (my other kids are grown, and one has a child of his own.). My most often heard “compliment” is : “wow, you had your kids grown, and decided to start all over again. You must be crazy.. But hey, to each his own!….Congratulations!”

    Yep. I might just be crazy, but I’m a happy crazy woman!

  5. “You’re in a good mood today” has been heard in the Sharpe house on more than one occasion and probably fits into this category all too well… something for us to think about here in South FL!!

  6. My husband will say to our dog, “Do you need Dad to play with you?” Which means I should drop everything that I’m currently doing to play with the dog. I should mention that I call my dog my four-legged child and he is incredibly spoiled!

  7. Great reminder to be careful of our words, our tone, and even our motivation in the first place. My personal favorite is, “Oh you’re a stay at home mom? What do you do all day?” I always want to say absolutely nothing, I’m a lazy slob just like you suspect!

    • I’ve had three people say that to me in the last month. I usually tell them that I eat bon bons all day. Then I throw in the fact that I can usually be found doing several loads of laundry at midnight. (that part is true!)

  8. Robert Taylor says:

    This is great on a couple of notes:
    1. I, unfortunately, do not always think about the phrasing of the comments that I spew forth, and I can completely blind-side my wife with a statement that I mean to be nice, but she takes in another way. The concept of “Think, THEN speak” is hard for me. =P This just reminds me that I need to keep that as the goal (as unattainable as it is, for me).
    2. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this many comments on one topic. You appear to have struck a nerve with your readers. I LOVE seeing all of the comments! =)

  9. Renata Lechner says:

    Hi there! Nice to meet you!
    Just found your blog, Iris posted a link to your “golden medal” post on FB. I am an expat in Germany and I see a whole bunch of us each day when we bring our children to the kindergarten. I make an effort everyday to make sincere compliments, especially when I notice that someone is not having a great day. My compliments aren’t laced with insults, they are sincere and usually one-sentenced like “there comes the woman with the most adorable shoe collection ever!”. It makes me feel good and usually makes them feel good also. What I really need to work on though is saying just a “thank you” after I hear a praise. I tend to say “you are exaggerating” or “these costed me close to nothing”. Why do we tend to deflect praise as if we were not worth receiving it? 

    • Welcome, Renata! It’s great having you here. I deflect compliments all the time, especially at dinner parties. When people say my food is good I always remark on something I messed up, like “I overcooked the chicken!” Why do I do that? Working on it. 🙂

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