People often say things that sound like a compliment, but really is an insult. “Oh, you cut your hair. It looks SO much better.” Translation: Your hair looked like crap. I’m so glad you did something about it.
How about this one: “Oh, those pants are so flattering.” Translation: Normally, you look like a fat cow. Today, less so.
My favorite version of the backhanded compliment came on our cruise. We were wandering around Brindisi following a walking tour when we ran into a couple, about 35 years our senior, on the street. The conversation went like this:
Fellow Passengers: Oh, are you lost, too?
Me: No. Where are you trying to go?
(They point it out on the map)
Me: You are here (pointing to the map). You need to go this way and then that way (pointing to the street).
FP: Oh, great. Thank you.
Later that morning, we run into them again. Once again they are lost. Once again they are amazed that we are not. We point them in the direction they want to go and this time the conversation goes like this:
FP: You’re very good with directions.
FP: You know, for a southerner (read: American) you have a very good sense of direction. I would have thought you wouldn’t be able to find your way out of your own state.
Me: Thanks, I think.
So, was it a compliment on my excellent map reading ability? Or an insult to all Americans? I think it was a little of both.