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Passive-Aggressive Example

The Perfect Backhanded Compliment

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The following is an example from website readers of passive-aggressive encounters they have experienced. Keep in mind that the suggested responses are not personal advice as a full evaluation of the situation is not available. As such, the suggestions may not work in every situation but are to give you an idea of possible ways to respond. Read: Crazy-Makers: Passive-Aggressive People and 7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People

Question:How can I respond to "I wish I could be like you and not care about the latest fashion trends."

Response: Although I've addressed backhanded compliments before, this one is particularly difficult. A backhanded compliment is an insult disguised as a compliment. Often, the "compliment" is delivered with a sarcastic tone and can be easily identified as an insult: "You're making a fashion statement today." Or, the word choice gives it away: "You're fashionably dressed for a change." In such cases, the insult can be ignored by focusing on the compliment. A simple "thank you" can prevent the PA person from obtaining satisfaction. Or, in some circumstances, the insult can be more directly addressed. See my response to Handling a Backhanded Compliment.

But the statement "I wish I could be like you and not care about the latest fashion trends" delivered with a tone of sincerity can be a perfect backhanded compliment. The reason that I consider it "perfect" is because unless it is a pattern of behavior it can be very difficult to determine whether it is a genuine compliment indicating that the person admires your nonconformity and individuality or if it is a backhanded compliment. In such a circumstance, simply saying "thank you" may be inadvertently agreeing with an insult. So, we need to have a better way when a statement is so ambiguous.

If we look at my article 7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People several rules apply to addressing this behavior:

1) Determine the person's reward. Usually the reward for a backhanded compliment is to make you feel uncomfortable and without a way to confront. If you confronted this person, it can be easily turned to make you look bad, "I was just paying you a compliment that you don't worry about what others think. But maybe I'm wrong--you're so sensitive!"

2) Choose your goal. Most likely your goal is to stop this person from being rewarded and to not have to take a hit to your self-esteem.

3) Always remain calm. If this is truly a PA "compliment", then the purpose is to get you upset. The more you remain calm, the less the PA person achieves the desired response, and thus, is not rewarded for the PA behavior.

4) Be assertive. In this case, being assertive means controlling your non-verbals. In other words, you do not want to look like you've been hurt by this statement. Keep your head up, keep a positive focus, and maintain a smile and eye contact. By doing so, it lets the PA person know that the desired outcome of making you feel uncomfortable has not been achieved.

As for the methods to use:

1) Laugh and agree technique. Although this technique could be used in this situation, unfortunately it means accepting an insult which could be the desired outcome of the PA person. However, if you are skilled enough and this is not a pattern of behavior from the PA person, you could respond with a joking agreement, "Yeah, but it takes a lot of effort to be a fashion rebel." But if you are dealing with person who frequently undermines you in this way, it is best not to agree, even jokingly, as it could reward the behavior.

2) Questioning technique. A person could use a direct question in this situation such as "What do you mean?" with a very puzzled tone. But, that could show the PA person that you are uncomfortable which means they achieved their purpose. Instead, I think a quizzical look indicating that you didn't comprehend the statement may be the most effective approach because it leaves the PA person confused about whether their purpose was achieved. Of course, you need to have good acting skills to pull this off. If the person responds to the look, it may be to further clarify which could lead to an opportunity to more directly address the insult.

3) Be passive-aggressive. A PA response is usually not the best method but can sometimes be quite effective. However, in this situation, such a response may be an option as the PA person has created a perfect trap. As I indicated in the article a person needs to be fairly skilled to use this technique but if you can respond with sincerity "Yes, I imagine it can be quite tiresome to be controlled by fashion demands" it could be a good response. As you can see, it reflects the insult back to the PA person by suggesting a negative characteristic of being "controlled." If you can consistently challenge the PA person in this way, he or she may stop the behavior as it is backfiring on them.

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