Backhanded compliments. That’s what we’ll be discussing today. Or, as I like to call them: “Trojan Horse Insults,” because you let them past your defenses thinking they’re some kind of gift, but then the Greeks pour out of a little trap door with their sandals and they slaughter you. A Trojan Horse Insult (THI) could be something simple like, “Hey Johnny, I actually like your new shoes!” At first Johnny might feel he’d been complimented, but then, later on in the day, he’ll be like, “What did he mean he ‘actually liked’ my shoes? As if he’d hated all of my previous shoes, and the coolness of my new shoes was a pleasant surprise worthy of mention. Screw him!”
Another example? “Hey Johnny, you clean up real nice!” Hah. At first Johnny, sporting his crisp, clean dress shirt and slacks, will think he’d been complimented. But then, later on while he’s walking back to his car, he’ll be like, “What did he mean I ‘clean up real nice?’ As if I look like some kind of slob the rest of the time? Because, until now, I’ve always felt that I generally do a pretty decent job grooming myself. Apparently this is not true.”
The most common THI is when you tell your friend s/he looks exactly like such and such a celebrity. The Trojan Horse Compliment being that the person looks like somebody famous. Good for them! But the secret insult is that the famous person might not be somebody your friend wants to look like. Even if the celebrity in question is generally regarded to be good-looking, it can still be an insult because it runs contrary to the victim’s carefully curated self image.
Unless you’re talking about George Clooney or somebody like that, most likely your supposed compliment is bursting your friend’s bubble. Everybody has his or her own little fantasy version of what they look like to other people. It gives them a little boost of confidence in an otherwise merciless, unforgiving world. Guess what, Jerk. Your Trojan Horse Insult just popped your friend’s safety bubble, probably forever. They are now weaker and sadder than ever before. What a pal you are!
The Celebrity Lookalike THI is barely a real THI though. Most of the time, the victim never really gets to enjoy a false moment of happiness. It’s pretty much an insult from the get-go, though the attacker may not intend it that way. The attacker might actually be that insensitive and unobservant and cro-magnon.
The real deal, the genuine no nonsense THI, is more of a slow burner. It usually takes you a full minute or two before you register that you’ve been subtly insulted. I’ve been properly THI’d many times. To avoid dredging up bad memories, I’ll only bring up one example. A long time ago I was watching some television with a friend, and some little-known actor showed up in the scene. Without batting an eyelash, I summoned my encyclopedic, Rain Man-esque command of Hollywood trivia and robotically announced who the actor was and which other popular movies he’d appeared in.
At first my friend shooed this off a just another example of meaningless prattle on my part. But then I saw the detective work in his face. I saw wheels spinning. Minutes later he was like, “You know what? You know what? I think you’re actually right!!!” He said it like it was some kind of history-changing world event.
As you may have have guessed, the THI is all in the stressed word. In this case my friend stressed the word “right” when maybe he should have stressed no word at all. Nor should he have said the word “actually.” Probably what he should have said—in order to avoid potentially Trojan Horsing me—was something more along the lines of “You’re totally right, bro!” or “I stand corrected!” No italics whatsoever.
As it was, he said it as if I were Lassie and I just led him to the little boy who fell in well. For a brief moment I was happy to have my flawless Rain Man powers acknowledged. But a minute later I was like, “Wait a minute. Why does this have to be such a mega event that I’m ‘actually right.’ Am I always wrong all the rest of the time? At least in my friend’s eyes? Did he just indirectly call me a dumbass?”
I’d been Trojan Horsed. And it’s not that my friend had meant to insult me, either. A proper THI is usually due to insensitivity and thoughtlessness on the part of the attacker. It stems from a general failure of empathy. It’s less of a strategic strike and more of a revelation into what the attacker really thinks about you (and this doesn’t mean it’s true. in fact, it’s probably not true—your Trojan Horser doesn’t sound all that intelligent). The attacker has no knowledge of all those jam-packed Greek soldiers w/short swords clustered inside the gifted Trojan Horse. And that’s what makes Trojan Horse Insults so dangerous. Nobody sees them coming.
Next time you want to applaud your friend for getting a haircut that actually looks pretty good, or for saying something that actually made sense, or for looking exactly like Danny DeVito, stop and take a deep breath and really think about what you’re about to say. Some people don’t take well to compliments.
This post was based on a Daily Post writing prompt asking for the most backhanded compliment the writer had ever received.