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You look nicer than usual today

Head Scratcher

Regard the headline above. It is an example of a form of speech that is ubitquitous and amusing. It's called the Complisult. It is also referred to in some venues as the Insompliment, but that seems less elegant to me.

As one would guess, the Complisult is an insult masked as a compliment. "I am truly impressed by how intelligent you sounded in your presentation," is a good example. The recipient often fails to recognize the underlying dig until well after he or she has actually thanked the complisulter.

While existence of the complisult has been known for several years, it does not register in any significant manner on Google (GOOG), with most references of import dating back several years. Many believe it was invented in Los Angeles, where the distinction between beloved friend and hated competitor is often wafer thin, and people often say exactly what they don't mean for a living.

I believe it may be time to consider the complisult as a major tool in corporate communication. "You're doing a great job as CEO, Jack," one might say to the new chief executive. "People used to under-estimate you, but now they just fear you."

Obvious applications exist in the political realm as well. "It's incredible how you stand tall with so many people who disrespect you, sir," might be the kind of thing that would make Mr. Bush feel good for a while... but not really.

In addition to being useful, complisults are fun. The trick, I think, to being a great complisulter lies in the ability to befuddle. Masters of the genre can actually complisult someone in a manner that doesn't truly register for hours afterward. The complisultee knows something is slightly awry about the statement that has been made to him, and worries away at it the way that a dog will gnaw on a wounded paw until, after some time, the insult beneath the compliment emerges.

That is the art at its highest level, of course. Most are far less adroit. "Have you lost weight?" to a person extruding out of his or her jeans is a blunt instrument that's hard to dodge. But "You're not as evil as everybody says!" might take a McKinsey consultant days to decipher.

I offer this in full humility as a tool for all of us to consider as we move forward down the road to success and power. I know you guys will appreciate it. A lot of you are not as dumb as you look.

29 Comments Add Comment

You wrote this article much better than I expected. How was that?

They all said you weren't fit to lay down with pigs, but I told you certainly were!

Stupid blog. The writers and contributors should get a life and join the rest of us in the real world. Btw, this is a direct, not vailed, insult!

my favorite one I tell people

"I don't care what they all say, you are doing a great job"

If you cannot say something nice, do not say anything at all. What is this "How to make enemies 101"?

Unbelievable.

PS: This kind of talk must have been conceived by people with Napoleonic traits.

As a college professor, I often receive requests for employment recommendations from former students. Sometimes these students were among the worst performers; why they seek recommendations from a professor who gave them a poor grade is a mystery. I have a few complisults that I developed for these situations: I can't recommend this person too highly. You would be truly fortunate if you can get this person to work for you.

uhh. try googling `backhanded compliment.'

...`been known for several years'? uhh. the english word asteism has been around since the 1500s, and comes from ancient Athens.

backhanded compliments have been around as long as b*tch slaps, which have been around as long as intercourse.

That said, this article is the most interesting one you've written so far..

I am interested in the kind of comment offered by Robert in Port Washington, since they make up, say, 1% of the incoming traffic to this site but occupy 97% of associated aggravation. I'm not even going to mention the bad spelling here, just ask a question. What the hey do these people mean when they refer to "the real world"? I live in the real world. In the real world, there is much that is serious, but that serious stuff is often overlaid, underlaid or just plain laid side by side with things that are silly, stupid or just plain ridiculous. The line between a howl and a laugh is often very thin. So things that are funny or outrageous are very often as close to the bone as all the darker stuff. Take the complisult, for instance. Why is it interesting? Because it's just one way of many by which people in organizational life express hostility, humor or competitiveness. It's subtle at times. It's rude, too. And it's real. I have always resented people who have a desire to exile anything that doesn't meet a certain standard of seriousness from the so-called real world. Their "real world" is all around us, gray and somber and, underneath, just as arbitrary and irrational as a banana peel on the sidewalk or a pie in the face. Just look at all those residents of the "real world" who cooked up our current sub-prime situation. Most of those had doctorates from Ivy League institutions. I guess, in the end, I'm just saying that the "real world" is a lot bigger than the supposedly "serious" people might think. It contains us all.

In the South (where I grew up), a female can deal out and simultaneously nullify any insult by adding "bless [your/his/her] heart" at the end.

"You just can't do anything right, bless your heart."

"What a no-talent excuse for a human being, bless his heart."

"The boss always comes around with pictures of his daughter, and she looks like a lazy-eyed bulldog, bless her heart."

I like "insulpliment" better -- "complisult" sounds too much like "CompuServe," which is never a good word to associate with anything.

My guess is that Robert in Port Washington was peeking out from under his covers expecting to find your blog offering him directly applicable advice about how to cope in his [obviously miserable] "real world," and wasn't able to find humor when he didn't find what he needed. Too bad, Robert: many of us who live in the same "real world" can find humor in the ironic, the ridiculous, and the moronic without striking out against others who don't spoon feed our egos. Your spelling is much better than it used to be, though!

Not bad for a blog article.

You guys have really done an amazing job on these comments today, bless your hearts.

Bing, you have done it once again. Written a truly amazing blog which totally reflects todays Corporate world. Although I must say, most morons at work do not have the where-with-all to make a complisult. Keep up the good work!

Bing.
The real power in these complisults is that you can deliver them in a public setting and if done properly the only person who typically continues to think about the comment and eventually detect the insult is the complisultee. Everyone else can go on thinking you are a decent and kind person. You can drive the dagger without others even sensing your inhumanity.

For those of you in the “real world” continue on your merry way and don’t think to hard about those comments your peer made to you the other day. I am sure she didn’t mean anything by them.

How about this one? "It shows a great deal of respect by your editors having your columns posted in the forums that they are most deserved... and not on the front page of CNN Money like normal."

Does that work?

What I like about complisults is that they are especially effective when targeted at complisluts -- those people who practically beg for compliments. Give 'em a complisult and they are so pleased with the compli that they never catch on to the sult.

Spoken when holding the door open for someone: Age before beauty. Pearls before swine.

It's kind of like how there's this co-worker I have who, when I talk to her over the phone, we get along just fine, spouting pleases and thank yous right and left. But then if either one of us make the one-floor trek and find the other in the flesh, no matter how publicly, the knives come out. Anymore, I treat it like dealing with two different people.

Awfully Clever

Not exactly Chandler Bing, but funny nevertheless

Oh, I have the best. Several years ago, and perhaps not at my ideal weight, but generally healthy, I went for a routine doctor's visit.

The nurse had me get on the scale, and remarked, "Wow, you don't look like you weigh that much!"

Um, thanks?

I also think people like these because people always like a clever play on words. And the "backhanded compliment" or "complisult" goes hand in hand with the political practice of "over complimenting" a person you are introducing.

Anyway, as for your blog, I couldn't have writtin it better myself.

I once worked with a woman who had a very high opinion of herself, yet also possessed a long history of flaky, ignorant and/or blatantly stupid behaviors. One day she emerged from a client encounter and exclaimed that she did not like Asians. I am of Japanese descent and stared at her in disbelief. Another co-wroker pointed out to Ditz that her comment was inappropriate, espcially given present company. Later, Ditz came to me and explained that she excluded me from her bigotry because I'm "not like them." I told her, "That's OK, it would take a lot more to change my opinion of you." Like, you'd have to figure out my true meaning!

Read Jane Austin - the old english version - talk about insults designed as compliments. A complete joy to read.

My favorite, which I have used at more than one office "going away" parties (read "I quit, morons"), is to stand before everyone and say, "I'd rather work with all of you than the smartest people in the world."

Cake laced with poison, but one that doesn't kill. Great blog. Great ideas. Keep on writing!

Suprisingly well written.

Gee, I'm embarassed. I get backhanded compliments more frequently than I'd like from people who I assumed were bright enough to recognize that I recognize exactly what they meant. I'm not so sure now.

As far as Robert of Port Washington, NY goes: the real world is that place that only exists in his unique life. Not only is his glass empty, but he's standing on the shards of it broken under his feet.

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