When a Compliment Turns Sour

Mario with sunglasses years ago

What happens when a compliment you are given turns sour?

Compliments are one of the best gifts that can be given. When you honestly affirm people, you acknowledge their worth and strengths. Even those of us who struggle with self-hate feel touched (if a bit embarrassed) when complimented by another person.

However, a nice comment can go horribly wrong and leave you feeling icky, frightened, and confused. PTSD can play a major factor in this, but many other mental illness or disorders (autism, bipolar, eating disorders, etc.) can complicate the situation. These brain differences might heighten the anxiety and bewilderment in how to handle the soured compliment.

This happened to me a few days ago at work. People appear to viewer servers and waitresses as subhuman sometimes. Men and women alike will take out frustration on me or order me about in a way that they would probably not do to anyone else. I am learning to breathe deeply and ignore these types of people after I help them.

However, this interaction was worse than normal. A man in his 50s at least with a woman his age and two daughters my age was in a seat that I was bringing drink to before the movie. His first comments was, “Thanks, honey.”

Right away, alarms went off in my head. Instead of letting my PTSD take over, I smiled and moved on to help the others in his party. That comment was polite if a bit condescending. I told myself that he probably just was used to calling girls or young women (like his daughters) that.

Then, he began talking loudly about his life and made it very clear that the woman ex-wife. Beginning to back away, I nodded patiently as my heart rate increased. Once again, my instincts were stuffed down because I believed I was only anxious.

Quickly, the “compliment” turned into a twisted pickup line as the man asked my age, name, and asked me to be his next wife. My cheeks flamed as I ducked my head and walked as quickly as seemed polite down the stairs.

“My name is John, but you can call me Johnny,” he called as I rounded the corner and ran out of the theater. The sound of his laughter followed me down the hall to the kitchen.

This is one instance of a compliment going bad. In that case, the man had not really been trying to affirm me in the first place but had been viewing me merely as an object. Sometimes that is the reason that a seemingly nice comment backfires; the person who gave it is only thinking of himself or herself.

Other times, you might misinterpret a well-meaning affirmation. When a guy tells me that I am pretty, my fear might flare up although he meant it kindly. Another example that is common with eating disorders are comments about weight. The person talking might honestly want to make you feel better, but you end up hurt instead.

There are many other reasons why a compliment might turn bad. Someone talks too long and ends up turning it into an insult, the comment was simply to manipulate you, the social cues in the situation slip past you, etc. This souring is not an uncommon occurrence.

I am still not totally sure what to do in these situations. If you have any ideas, please let me know in the comments. Figuring out how to respond to a normal compliment is hard enough. Dealing with these is just about impossible for me. That is why I try to make all of my affirmations genuine. When complimenting someone, I really mean what I say instead of simply spouting words. That might not get me out of each sticky situation, but it ensures that I do my part to not let my own words turn hurtful.


6 thoughts on “When a Compliment Turns Sour

  1. 80smetalman says:

    First of all, that guy was what the British call a prat. I could use stronger words here. That has been a minefield to me as well. I sometimes question whether the compliment was genuine, patronizing or like what you experience, an attempt at manipulation. I do what you do and smile and accept the compliment politely.

  2. jefairgrieve says:

    Wow, Anna Rose, I feel for you! You handled the situation as well as most people, I’m sure. I don’t have a diagnosis of Asperger’s, and I’ve lived on this planet for more than twice as long as you have, but I would not have handled the situation any better than you did, if that’s any comfort..

    I think that one reason the situation was so difficult was that the man’s behavior was so unexpected. Some women who work with the public have had to deal with the situation for so long that they have developed ways to handle the behavior. They have prepared come-backs that work for them or they simply mentally write the person off as a jerk and don’t think much about it. If you know an older woman who has been a server for a long time, it might be helpful to ask her what she does in these situations to protect herself and get through them without letting them bother her.

    It seems that no matter how long I live and no matter how much abuse I’ve dealt with over my life, I’m always surprised in situations like the one you describe. I simply don’t expect somebody to do to me what I would not do to them. I’m learning, however, that there are jerks of both genders. That’s simply a sad fact of life. They have problems, and I need not take their rude behavior personally.

    • That is great advice. I would like to find someone to talk to about how to respond. One of the managers said that I can tell someone that they are saying something inappropriate in the future. However, that is nerve-wracking because I do not want people to because unhappy.

  3. Doug Trouten says:

    Sometimes people are just stupid and inappropriate. When I encounter such a person, I try to remember that their behavior says a lot about them and nothing about me. I’ll nod, smile, and give them as little of my time and attention as the social situation allows.

    I would imagine that people in the service industry encounter this more often than people in other lines of work. As Sherlock remarked in this week’s “Elementary,” sometimes people view those who serve them as little more than “sentient furniture.” Again, this says a lot about them, and nothing about you.

    Maybe part of the trick is learning to give little weight to the opinions of rude people. It’s a variation on an observation by Frederick Douglass: “A gentleman will not insult me, and no man not a gentleman can insult me.”

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