definition of ambiguous compliment

an original definition by J. E. Brown

ambiguous compliment
  1. A weak or vague compliment possibly intended to hide disapproval. {Source: “Definition of ambiguous compliment” by J. E. Brown.}
  2. Any comment about someone’s looks that is not a clear, obvious compliment.

ambiguous compliments
plural n.
  1. Value judgments which neglect to mention whether they approve or disapprove, like or dislike.
  2. Compliments which have unfortunate second meanings.
  3. Unclear compliments which leave the recipient wondering if an insult was intended.
  4. Remarks and utterances which occur where a compliment would normally occur (e.g. in response to a person’s performance or appearance) but which are noncommittally neutral.
            Woman:   How do you like this dress? 
            Her Mom: … I’ve seen worse. 
{You’re reading “Definition of ambiguous compliment” by J. E. Brown.}
  • insincere compliments


Related Concepts: {Read this comp1ete article at .}
  • aspersions; awkwardness; backhanded compliments; damning with faint praise; equivocation; implied insults; innuendo; insinuations; mixed messages; personal remarks; pulling a punch; thoughtlessness.

Not to be confused with: {Read this comp1ete article at .}
  • Mixed messages, which are compliments followed by the word “but” and a criticism. Mixed messages are criticisms in disguise. No compliment is intended.
  • Sarcastic compliments are insults and clearly phrased as such.

Excerpts from my book (in progress)

Bad Examples of Bad Compliments.

“What an interesting hairdo you have!”

“It’s a start!”

“That’s a theory.”

“You ... do NOT look forty.”

“You’re a complex person.”

“Wow.” (Said with no emotion, positive or otherwise.)

“Good.” (Said softly, and without enthusiasm.)

“This is a stunning book.”

“It’s … unique!”

“Well that’s different.”

“Interesting.” “Thought provoking.” “Remarkable.”

“You’re one of a kind!”

“He was an original.”

“I think your work is just incredible.”

“Not bad!”

Add the word “most” or “mostly” to a perfectly good compliment: “I agree with most of what you’ve said!”

Staring at something without comment is the original ambiguous compliment.

“Your ____ is very unusual.”

— J. E. Brown


Statement Meaning
“Your house is so eclectic.” “Maybe you should hire a seeing-eye decorator.”

— J. E. Brown


The following are recognized as not exactly compliments:

If someone tells you: Your correct response is:
“Oh my. You sing as well as you play.” “… Thank you … I think.”
“That’s memorable.” “So was the Hindenburg. What’s your point?”
“You have a really curious look.” “Um.... Thank you. So do you.”
“You’re so thin.” “… What a curious thing to say.
… I’m not sure how you mean that.
… In a good way or a bad way?
… Is that a compliment or a disapproval?”
“You look nice today.” “You’re very kind today.”
Any ambiguous, possibly judgmental appraisal of you or of someone you care about. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Any thoughtless value judgment. If you have to work with someone who makes rude ambiguous remarks all the time, and makes everyone self-conscious, you should remember the advice that “Turnabout is fair play.”
Try saying: “See that right there? That’s what’s unique about you. That’s why everyone talks about you.” And then don’t explain what you mean. You’ll have him thinking about it for the rest of the day.

Patronizing Compliments which Reveal Low Expectations:

If someone tells you: Your correct response is:
Any compliment which, while sincere, is offensive in other ways.
Example: A compliment more age-appropriate for a child, but given to an adult, as if to praise or reinforce him or her for reaching some important milestone in child development:
“That was very mature of you.”
“What a bizarre thing to say to an adult.”
Tell someone over age 30, “Your website looks very professional!” “It’s really not polite to sound so surprised that I’m a professional. All you’re doing is revealing that you had lower expectations.”
“Thank you for keeping your word.” (roll eyes)
How to be an annoying parent:
If you must compliment your child on a job well done, compliment him or her in such a way that it reminds him/her of the bad job that you reprimanded him or her for last time:
“Thank you for dressing quickly so I could get you to school on time.” [1]

[1] Ewww! That’s like saying “Hmm, I was sure you couldn’t do it.” It’s sufficient to say “Thank you for dressing quickly.” No need to rub salt in the wound.

— J. E. Brown

Professional Compliments.

If you’re applying to a graduate school or for a professional position and you need a letter of recommendation to get in, beware of recommendations which are weak or insincere.
The authors of one study warn us to watch out for:

  • letters which leave out basic information
  • letters of minimal assurance
  • doubt raisers in apparent commendation
  • negative language
  • faint praise
  • irrelevancies

For examples, see Frances Trix and Carolyn Psenka, “Exploring the color of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty”.

This is especially a problem for female applicants, who may find themselves recommended for being “polite, quiet, gentle, friendly, and cooperative” while their real skills and qualifications and accomplishments get overlooked. They get recommended for their ladylike qualities, not their professional ones.
The authors note:

What is most important is not that these terms are negative in themselves, but that they take the place of more substantive comments about academic characteristics. … But further, one of the most challenging features of letters of recommendation for medical faculty is the growing tendency not to state the negative, but merely to fail to state the positive.

My advice: If you ever need a letter of recommendation, and you’re given the option to read the letter, always choose that option, and quietly reject letters with these issues.

• If you’re writing a compliment or recommendation for anyone, consider using the outstanding list of words in the appendix of Schmader, Whitehead, and Wysocki, “A Linguistic Comparison of Letters of Recommendation for Male and Female Chemistry and Biochemistry Job Applicants”.

— J. E. Brown

Awkward Quotes.

Sister Agatha:  It’s very easy to like Maria… except when it’s difficult. 

— The Sound of Music

We’re not going to miss her, because she’s going to be with us.

— Andrew Young, on the passing of Coretta Scott King

No one who knew Diana will ever forget her.

— Queen Elizabeth II

1st edition 01 Feb 2016

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