Overcoming the negative complement

Everyday communication takes place between us, an aspect of that communication is dealing with compliments and criticism.

A colleague and I had an encounter that confused us, and I’m thinking the expression Negative Compliment (on the surface) seems to describe the situation.

It goes like this as two people conversing: Person 1 – Crikey what a shocker this day is turned out to be issues everywhere, how bad was that? But, gosh you did well. Person 2 – Responds in polite down tones.

As person 2 shared later; they were feeling puzzled and did not know how to respond to the remark.

On the surface it seems a compliment, after all person 2 was praised. There is a juxtaposed kicker and it lays with the ‘but’ (or similar) that really seems to make the emphasis of the statement on the negative first part of the comment.

As I write this I realise I too have had moments of delivering remarks like this this, and it was not until another noticed it that the idea of it being puzzling came into light.

A negative compliment (aka a Neg) slang term used in dating typically – A light insult wrapped in the package of a complement. i.e. Those pants are so unfashionable and ugly, however on you they look fantastic.

Notice a similarity? hence why outside of dating this type of comment could be considered a negative compliment.

Thinking about the feelings and thoughts associated with these comments, there are several reasons for it.

Person 1’s perspective:

  • Trying to be positive in a difficult situation.
  • Focus on the negative situation while appearing positive (diplomacy).
  • Keep the focus of conversation on the negative while not casting blame on the other person.
  • Keep focus on self and those thoughts of how bad the day was. (sympathy seeking and/or authority seeking through validation)

Person 2’s perspective:

  • Receive the positive and feel great.
  • Receive the negative and feel guilt of their contribution to it.
  • Interact on the positive.
  • Interact on the negative (Possibly leading to gossip and slander).
  • Feel confused (mixed motives).

And possibly many more reasons.

It is this last point (feeling confused) that my colleague reflected to me. They felt confused as they felt there were so many reasons for the comment and they did not feel confident they understood the context (to reciprocate) and participate in a conversation or what to take from the remark. The conversation died shortly after.

A little wider research of types of criticism and voila there is a name for this. Foolish Criticism.

Foolish criticism is unclear about what the motive or purpose of the criticism is, or about what the consequence or effect of the criticism is. Usually it connotes lack of self-insight or a good understanding of the motives or issue involved. The foolish critic often mistakes what his target should be, and therefore, his criticism is really “at the wrong address”, it is in some sense misplaced, disingenuous or misjudged (“clutching at straws”, “tilting at windmills”, “Red herring”). Cited Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varieties_of_criticism (Sep27 2017)

So, what do we do about it?

To be clear we’re not calling anyone a fool here.

A wise few words that a business leader once shared with me. For the most part (there are always exceptions to the rule) people are interacting with each other for the good of themselves, other people, and the community. We need to strive to recognise this and seek clarity when we’re unsure.

  • Work in ourselves to be ever improving at being clear in communication towards others.
  • Get to know this type of communication (and others too, there are lots) and their impacts.
  • Ask for clarity (Reflect understanding). Asking more questions of a person helps develop clarity and helps them feel valued and listened to as clarity is sought.
  • Focus conversation on the positive (since we know that for the most part people are trying to be positive)

We live in a great community with a complicated language (English – there, their, they’re ‘wink’), and there is always room for us every day to improve and to nurture great communication and positive relationships.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *