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Backhanded compliments a wolf in sheep's clothing

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Lynne D. Schwabe Lynne D. Schwabe
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Lynne D. Schwabe was owner of Schwabe-May of Charleston, ran her own marketing consulting firm and is a nationally recognized motivational speaker. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Women's Wear Daily, and has appeared on CNBC's Power Lunch. She is now director of development for the National Youth Science Foundation. She can be reached at schwabestatejournal@gmail.com.

We have all gotten one. A backhanded compliment: "That dress doesn't look that bad on you." Or the foot-in-mouth compliment: "Good job. You got just about all traces of the sweat stains out of that blouse." Sometimes, we mean to be covertly insulting, but a lot of the time, we are not even aware that we are being obnoxious, giving compliments that mean something other than the actual words spoken:

"You're so lucky you're creative. I can't even draw a stick man."

Meaning, it's lucky you're creative because you have the IQ of a mung bean.

"Is that your other half? Wow! He/she is gorgeous."

Meaning, I'm surprised your significant other isn't ugly or blind, because you have a face only a mother could love.

Recently a friend said, "I had a terrible nightmare last night. I dreamed I was older than you." That was insulting on so many levels, I was speechless.

Then there was a recent companion, who was barely enthusiastic most of the time, but a master of the backhanded compliment (or of being passive aggressive). The only time he raised his voice in glee was after four glasses of wine. But in terms of the day-to-day, he was in lukewarm mode most of the time.

I learned to translate his flabby compliments. For instance, when I served a new recipe that contained rice, chicken, sherry and a Campbell's soup product, I knew I was in trouble when the conversation went something along these lines:

Me: "I got this recipe from a website called ‘2000 Ways to Make Chicken in the Crock Pot.' What do you think?" (hopeful, smiling)

Him: "It's nice." (His eyes never leave the mass of creamy stuff on his plate)

Me: "You think it's bland."

Him: "Well, yes. But bland in a tasty way."

The same thing, only much worse, happened when I modeled my new casual wear that I got on sale.

Me: "Look! I got these corduroy jeans for $13.99! What a deal!"

Him: "Uh huh. Great." (He looks up from his laptop at me for a nanosecond)

Me: "Great? OK. What color are they?"

Him: "I would guess brown?"

The pants were gray. Brown was his default color. My eyes (luckily) are brown. He thought my nail polish was "brown?" The cashmere pashmina in avocado: "Nice brown scarf. Aren't you going to wear a coat?" The cats, two of which had stripes: "Hey, the brown one just barfed." When asked if he thought the Siamese (just brown around the edges) wasn't just the most adorable thing, he answered, "He's nice."

When he said, "Boy, you certainly can put it away," that meant that I was eating too much (and thus could gain weight — horrors). When he said he wanted to simplify our lives, I knew he meant I was spending too much money. When he began cataloging my flaws, an exercise that grew tiresome in about 30 seconds, he said, "I'm not being critical; I'm trying to help you." It took 15 seconds to bid him adios, quietly saying that I'd lived to this certain age (let's just say way over 50) without his help and I would continue to do so, starting that minute.

I am going to go on record here, and say that my grandmother was absolutely right:

If you can't say something really good (and here I mean something that uses colorful adjectives and an action verb, coupled with at least one endearment and minus the word nice), you should just keep your trap shut. But if you choose the silent route, be sure to go to the jewelry store for items made out of 18 karat gold or platinum at least three times a year.

However, it's cheaper to say something really good … and mean it.