When Compliments Aren’t Compliments

Mette Harrison
3 min readApr 30, 2023

As an adult, I’m aware that compliments aren’t always compliments, but as a kid, this was baffling to me and I was quickly confused by taunting and bullying kids who pretended they were saying nice things to me when they were actually mocking me, about my hair (your hair looks great this morning!) to my clothes (I loved that outfit when I wore it last year) to my schoolwork (you are so smart!). Sarcasm isn’t something that comes naturally to me, though I have slowly learned how to use it.

As an adult, I still sometimes struggle with when people are genuinely being nice to me and when they are actually criticizing me and gently trying to give me another message other than the one at face value. This is a little less difficult with people I know well and can generally assume are being nice (though with my kids, it can be dicey because they like to “tease” me). With anyone who isn’t a very close friend, however, I don’t know how to react to things like the following:

My, you are SO creative, always working on something.

Wow, you are so smart. I bet you know the answer to almost every question.

You are just so comfortable in yourself, aren’t you?

It’s nice that you don’t feel the pressure to wear makeup every day.

You are in such good shape. Where do you find the time to work out so much?

I suppose the reason that people use these kind of backhanded compliments is that they can refuse to acknowledge being rude if you try to point it out. “Why do you have to take it that way?” Or “You just need to learn how to take a compliment.”

And yes, it’s true that I struggle to take compliments in many areas. If I think the compliment makes sense, like if it’s about a race I did well at or a test I aced, then I can say a simple thanks. But there are a lot of category of compliments that I will argue over because I don’t think I deserve credit for them. And then there are the ones that I think are a mixed bag of things. And I’ll argue about whether or not a particular trait of mine is good or bad.

Though yes, I know, that most people have zero interest in this kind of conversation. They just wanted to give you a “nice” token and have me add it to their stack of tokens in my head so that I will think kindly of them on our next meeting. (Or at least this is the way my autistic brain often processes social interaction in general, even if NTs don’t like me making it as concrete or deliberate as this.)

Mostly I just wish that people would say what they mean and that there wasn’t so much “extra” stuff I was supposed to be able to process without anyone admitting that there was extra stuff. There is a lot of social negotiating and positioning going on, even if you’re not consciously aware of it happening. Most NT’s do notice that I’m not doing it, though, and then will criticize me for it, often in what they think of as gentle ways that I don’t understand at all — until they get very frustrated with me over a period of months and then just blurt out something rude enough that I finally get what they’ve been trying to say forever.

You can skip that part. I want to say, like Watto, in the Star Wars Universe, that doesn’t work on me. Only money. Or in my case, only words that make literal sense. If you want something, just say it. If you like me, just say that. But saying stuff about my clothes or my hair doesn’t feel like a compliment to me because those things aren’t ME. They’re my hair and my clothes and are totally separate from the person inside. Does this make any sense?

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Mette Harrison

Autist, Ironman Worlds triathlete, Writer, Right-Brained