You Call That a Compliment?
A little praise is always nice—except when it is a tad too honest!
One day, if the stars are aligned and you’ve worked hard to do the right thing, you, too, might be lucky enough to receive a lovely compliment like the one Nancy Phelan, of Baraboo, Wisconsin, got a few years back. “When I was visiting my son, his fiancée and her children,” Nancy wrote to Reader’s Digest, “I made them a specialty of mine: breakfast pizza. After eating several slices, my eight-year-old future grandson leaned back in his chair and proclaimed, ‘This is so good, it makes my tongue dance!’ ”
Alas, life isn’t always so sweet. In fact, we sometimes get treated to a more stinging kind of praise—the backhanded compliment. We compiled some of the wittiest zingers you’ve heard or endured. It’s OK to laugh. We did.
I had joined an aerobics class made up mostly of older women like me. At first, it was difficult to follow all the steps, but after a few weeks I felt that I had a good grasp of the routines. One day, a fellow classmate stopped me to say, “I’ve been noticing you. You’re very coordinated.”
I couldn’t have been prouder. “Thank you,” I said.
“Yes,” she continued, “your shirt matches your pants, and your pants match your socks.”
As a wannabe musician, I took advantage of an opportunity to play with a local recorder group. During a break in our first rehearsal, the woman sitting next to me, an accomplished musician, said, “You have a beautiful vibrato!”
I was basking in the glow of her praise when she added, “You’re not supposed to.”
—Vicki Morrison Goble
A student stopped me in the hallway to say that she’d just learnt that her mom had had me as a teacher. Then, after looking me up and down, she asked, “Did you used to be good-looking?”
When I was in my 20s, I had a streak of grey hair. One day, a complete stranger noticed and said, “I really like your grey hair. Where did you get it done?”
“Oh, thanks,” I said. “It’s natural.”
She recoiled. “Oh my, what are you going to do about it?”
When I met my brother’s new father-in-law, he took my hand and said warmly, “You look just like your brother. He has a big nose too.”
One morning shortly after we got married in our 60s, my husband and I were sitting on the bed putting on our socks and shoes. Out of the blue, he reached over and patted me on the knee, saying, “I am so glad we got married.”
He was being romantic, and I appreciated it. “Me, too,” I said.
He continued, “Do you have any idea how nice it is to open my dresser drawer and find my underwear and socks all folded nice and neat?”
—K.C. via rd.com
After I sang a solo in church, an elderly gentleman offered me his highest compliment.
“I liked your song for two reasons,” he said. “You sang it well, and you didn’t sing too long.”
Somehow, a friend and I got on the subject of age, which led him to ask how old I was.
“Thirty-seven,” I said.
He cocked his head and asked, “Is that all?”
“My gosh, you are so pretty,” gushed the receptionist at a beauty salon. Delighted by the unexpected compliment, I said thank you and asked her about the services they offered.
“Okay so you definitely need ...” and proceeded to recite a long list of treatments, including one that would peel off the skin on my face, a new hair colour, cut and style and something that promised to ‘resculpt’ my figure.
I opted to change my salon.
—Ishita Goel, New Delhi
A client was so impressed with my work, he made a point of calling to tell me that he had named his new puppy after me.
In high school, a female classmate told me I’d “make a really handsome guy.”
My grandma used to tell me, “There’s no conceit in your family. You’ve got it all.”
We adopted our daughter from China when she was nine, and we soon discovered that common American phrases and idioms didn’t come easily. Case in point, the time she tried to praise me for being outgoing and having lots of friends.
With a great big smile she declared, “When I grow up, I want to be a big mouth just like you!”
“Happy birthday! You don’t look 60, but I remember when you did!”
Among my all-time favourite movies is Babe. For years, whenever I wanted to compliment someone, I’d quote the film’s famous line: “That’ll do, Pig, that’ll do.”
Recently, I finally got my husband to watch the movie with me. When that scene came on, he turned to me, stunned. “It’s a compliment? All these years I thought you were insulting me!”
Our boss at the factory was a grizzled New Yorker with a management philosophy that harked back to the sweatshops of old. A shift without being cussed out multiple times was considered a win.
But one day, after I spotted and corrected a problem with one of the machines, he offered me the highest compliment he could think of. “Rich,” he said, “you’re stinking less at this job all the time.”
—R.P. via rd.com
From a reference letter written by my first boss: “Sarah is very lazy. When given a task she immediately figures out the easiest and quickest way to complete it. This tends to make her highly efficient.”
—S. J. Garner
I gained 22 kilos with my first pregnancy. Two weeks after delivery, I heard someone whisper, “She doesn’t look like she just delivered a baby.”—Judy Morse
My parents, my fiancée, my soon-to-be father-in-law and I, were discussing logistics for the upcoming wedding. My fiancée volunteered to pick up a legal form we needed from a government office—a process that involved possible encounters with scam artists who present themselves as gatekeepers to documents or officials, for a hefty fee.
Knowing him to be a quintessential 'nice guy', who would likely be made a meal of by experienced fraudsters, I thought of another candidate, someone I truly believed could outsmart all kinds of corrupt riff-raff.
“Why doesn’t your dad go?” I said. “He’s excellent at dealing with shady, criminal-type guys!”
—Ishani Nandi, Kolkata
My then-wife and I were going through a divorce when we sat together to watch a TV show. It was about a New York City transit cop, played by James Brolin, who was rescuing passengers trapped in a flooded subway.
To my pleasant surprise, she said, “He’s only an actor. You’re trained to do that. Scout, Army, NYPD Rescue ... You could really save them, not him.”
It was a sweet moment that ended when she remarked, “Of course, he looks much better doing it.”
Back when my daughter was an infant, I was out pushing her in the stroller when a woman stopped us on the street.
“My goodness, what a beautiful baby!” she remarked. “Does she look like her father?”
After reading a poem I’d laboured over, my mother said, “This is good. Really good!” I was beaming!
Then she felt compelled to ask, “Are you sure you wrote it?”
Years ago, I was giving a presentation at the Pentagon in order to get funding for a project.
When I finished, the general I was briefing smiled wryly and said, “You should sell used cars.”
I don’t think he meant it in a good way.