Recently, during a conversation with a coworker, I described a mutual friend as “charming.” I’d meant it as a compliment, describing how adept this person was at getting along with people, making them feel valued and at ease, but my coworker reacted as if I’d fired shots. “Wow, you really think that?” she said, aghast. I was surprised at first, but quickly realized that I’d made a mistake: I’d used a word frequently deployed as a backhanded compliment as a, well, compliment.
Negging may be the province of pick-up artists and MRAs, but we all trade in not-so-complimentary compliments from time to time. While there’s nothing quite like the whiplash effect of a negging pick-up artist in action, negs can crop up in perfectly normal conversation, and sometimes it’s as simple as choosing the right, cutting word.
Want to subtly imply that someone’s reputation far exceeds their actual qualities, without directly insulting them? Try calling them “charismatic,” “pleasant,” or “clever.” Notice they don’t have the same ring as “great leader,” “fascinating,” or “intelligent” -- without denying that they’re any of those highly admirable things, you’ve suggested that what they actually are is something more trivial.
These words have positive meanings, at least on the surface. Probably you’ve used at least some of them with nothing in your heart but affection and sincerity. And yet… there’s an undertone of snide disdain just underneath. Perhaps it’s because they praise traits or behaviors that are perceived as more shallow or easily faked; if you call a prospective suitor “charming,” you’re stating that he’s capable of easily winning people over, but by using that word instead of calling him “a wonderful guy,” you’re implying that he doesn’t necessarily deserve such approval. Charm is something to treat with suspicion, like PR campaigns or Bill Clinton.
If you’ve ever been graced with one of these adjectives, only to find you feel unsure whether you’ve just been complimented or coolly insulted, you’re not alone.
charming: See above -- though sometimes sincerely complimentary, it can make a person’s likability sound calculated and even a bit unsavory.
charismatic: Charisma is an intangible quality that draws people in, so it’s often applied to people who seem to attract people despite clear flaws. When someone says “He’s so charismatic!” it seems like they may as well be saying “Everyone seems to love him, but I don’t know why!”
clever: The word suggests smarts, but not wisdom or depth of understanding. It can be deployed to minimize intelligence by suggesting it’s no more than a surface-level quickness. An ironic “Well, how clever of you” is a great way to deflate someone who’s overly impressed with their own insight or ingenuity.
creative: Sure, we all want to be “creative.” But if your new necklace, hairstyle, use of punctuation, or reading of the instruction manual is in question, creative starts to sound more like “bizarre.” For example: “Are those new earrings from the folk art museum? They’re so ... creative.”
well-meaning: It’s good to mean well! But if someone has to point out that you’re well-meaning, it’s probably because your good intentions paved a road to hell.
intense: If people frequently call you “intense,” consider that they may simply be afraid to call you “terrifying” or “high-strung.”
capable: It’s wonderful to be perceived as capable at your job, but it’s no “talented” or “brilliant.” “She’s capable” can sound a bit like a dismissive pat on the head at times, implying that higher accolades simply aren’t merited.
pleasant: Is there any more tepid compliment than “pleasant”? It’s not “fun.” It’s not “fantastic.” It’s just ... pleasant. Enjoyable enough, but not exciting or noteworthy. Saying someone is pleasant carries a whiff of lukewarm approval, if not slight disdain.