Snappy comebacks are certain to leave the uncomplimentors squirming just a bit

Janet's world

February 11, 2007|By janet gilbert

Today's topic is the uncompliment, and how best to respond to it.

Admit it - you have experienced the uncompliment. It's the kind of statement that starts out like a compliment, sounds suspiciously like a compliment, but ends up in a place that's definitely not positive.

The Janet's World staff of social scientists with nothing better to do has determined that the best way to identify the uncompliment is by timing the awkward pause that hangs in the air after the recipient's response. This is because the recipient generally replies with an automatic "thanks" to the uncompliment, only to realize it sounds "off" or "odd." This inappropriate response will be followed by a pause of five seconds that feels like five minutes, and a rapid subject change by the uncomplimentor.

Here is a common example of the uncompliment. You walk into a social situation and a person declares: "You got a haircut."

"Thank you," you say, but somehow, that doesn't sound right. You suddenly realize that the person did not say, "Your new haircut looks nice."

Sometimes the uncomplimentor will attempt to gloss over the uncompliment with an accompanying compliment, but in this case let us quote renowned 1970s pop artist Carole King: "It's too late, baby, now, it's too late." In the aforementioned example, "It looks nice," rings hollow: the uncomplimentor might just as well have continued on his path with the simple, accurate: "It looks ... shorter."

I prefer the out-and-out, brutally honest negative appraisal to the uncompliment. Children are excellent at delivering this type of message, until they have been trained in the subtle sabotage of the uncompliment.

Once I got a most unfortunate perm. People with my type of hair - which is fine and kind of wispy and really much more suited to a puppet than a person - should never get a perm. But I briefly suffered an irrational reaction to the film Flashdance in the 1980s and believed I could look lush and sensuous if I only had a head of hair like Jennifer Beals. Little did I realize that - just a few short weeks after the perm - I would end up with a head of hair like Kojak.

At any rate, I remember spending three hours at the hairdresser and returning to my home with my glorious new voluminous perm-head, and finding the high-school baby sitter coloring at the kitchen table with my then 2-year-old son. He looked up at me, screamed and ran upstairs to his room

But at least I knew exactly how he felt about my new persona: "Jennifer Squeals."

With the uncompliment, you are left floundering; yes, you are a feckless flounder flapping on the floor, flung out of the tank of social graces. Thanks to Janet's World, though, you will now have some snappy rejoinders to the uncompliment - comments that leave the uncomplimentor squirming; yes, a squirming worm writhing on the road in the rain of remorse.

It's simple: Just try following up the uncompliment by disputing the statement with a straight face, delivering a flat statement of fact or responding with an open-ended question. All of these methods for dealing with the uncompliment will move the conversation into a truly weird place for the uncomplimentor, which will be much more fun for you.

Here are some scenarios from my real-life experience. In each case, the "U" is the uncomplimentor, and the "You" is you. Practice in front of a mirror until you no longer automatically say "thank you," or until your family calls in professional help.

U: Wow, your son is so much taller than you.

You: No, he is not. (Dispute method)

U: I read your column this week.

You: I wrote it. (Flat fact method)

U: I tried your chicken dish.

You: Why? (Open-ended question method)

You are now ready to face the uncompliment. You might even be eager to do so. So go ahead, get yourself a perm.

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