13

This is no longer a problem, as he has moved on and I have retired, but I still don't know how it could/should have been handled. I'll write it in the present tense, though.

My employer in the Emergency Department (who is also a family friend) will give me a back-handed compliment several times a year. They seem to come out of the blue and always take me by surprise. They usually take the "I don't know why, but..." form. Examples:

I don't know why, but that patient had a lot of nice things to say about you.
I don't know why, but they really want you to volunteer there again.
I don't know why, but they were very impressed with you and want you to go back (when I did a stint for the hospital filling in for a doctor in one of their satellite offices.)

His daughter was our babysitter. Out of the blue, he said,

I don't know why, but Alice really respects you, and looks up to you as a role model.

These comments hurt me personally and leave me confused. In my defense, I am considered to be a very good doctor; the nurses ask for me when they or their family members are sick, and the Nursing Supervisor told my boss - I don't know under what circumstances - that she thought I was an outstanding clinician and made the most challenging diagnoses. I don't get many complaints of any kind. We have monthly meetings for quality assurance feedback (missed diagnoses, inappropriate treatment, patient complaints, etc.) and semi-annual one-on-one evaluations which go well.

He also does praise my work occasionally, though, and often asks my opinion on difficult cases when we happen to have overlapping shifts.

I don't know what to say. Usually my responses are,

-Thank you?
-Why are you saying that?
-Is there something I should know?

I did tell him that phrasing things that way puzzled me and that I thought it was hurtful. He doesn't seem to understand what the problem is. He denies that the phrasing is awkward or subject to a negative interpretation.

What is the best way to handle a boss's back-handed compliment that hurts?

  • 1
    I assume he wasn't being silly when he said "I don't know why"? – Catija Sep 11 '17 at 22:55
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    Did you ever ask for an explanation more directly (but still politely)? Something about why he is surprised and, specifically, "why he doesn't know"? Maybe even more directly "You mean, you can't think of a reason, why a patient should say something positive about me? Are you not satisfied with my work and, if not, why is that the case, so I can try to improve?" – Anne Daunted Sep 12 '17 at 9:43
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    @MonicaCellio - We share the same culture, the same circle of friends, and his son is my son's best friend (still.) – anongoodnurse Sep 12 '17 at 12:44
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    So his answer was that everything was perfectly fine and that "I don't know why, [...]" had no meaning (at least neither funny, nor a negative interpretation)? Did you notice this behaviour when he spoke to other people, or did he only give backhand compliments to you, or didn't you have a chance to witness it elsewhere? A third interpretation (different from yours and Maxims 2nd) is, that it's just a personal way of saying things, not necessarily with bad intentions and possibly without him knowing the exact reason himself (unreflecting), a bit like "you know" being interspersed everywhere. – Anne Daunted Sep 12 '17 at 13:53
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    @AnneDaunted - My husband worked in the same ED, and he never got such a compliment, nor did anyone I spoke to about it. My husband and others got straight negative comments, not a lot of positives. I didn't get a lot of positives, but enough. And these awkward comments. His answer (for example, to "is there something I need to know?" or "did you receive a complaint?) would be "No", not, "no, not at all!" In other words, not reversing the effect of the first part. Then I would ask why he phrased it that way, which he would then question why I was questioning him. – anongoodnurse Sep 12 '17 at 13:58
11

(It seems I'm very late to the party, but the party was over before this began, so I'll take a shot anyway.)

To my seasoned eyes, this feels unlikely to be malicious. I think the hurt you feel is genuine, mind you, because in the absence of solid information, you can really only make your best guess, and your best guess suggested possible malice, so it's reasonable to be upset. But maybe you needn't be, in retrospect.

As your boss, he had all the ability in the world to criticize you directly, to discipline you, even to fire you. Why would he bother with subtle insults via back-handed compliments when he was officially, and quite decidedly, in a position to make you unhappy in very direct, substantial ways?

I personally wonder if your boss was indeed reluctant to offer praise, but not due to disrespect. Some people are reluctant to offer praise in the same way people are reluctant to say, "I like you, let's be best friends!" to a newfound pal. It's too much, too forward, leaving you vulnerable to rejection, not to mention possibly scaring the other person away. Some people are very self-conscious about being forward or vulnerable. It can be due to fear of rejection, or of being too familiar with someone when it would not be appropriate, due to social or business circumstances.

I hate to suggest it, because I don't wish to plant what may be an unpleasant seed, but is it possible that your boss may have secretly liked you much more than you suspected? It's not unheard-of for someone to deliberately keep another person at arm's length because they have unintentionally grown fond of them in a situation where it's not okay to express that fondness. Many people develop crushes on their co-workers, and then have to be extremely careful not to act inappropriately.

Our natural instinct when we fear that the discovery of our interest may lead to rejection or embarrassment is to overtly pretend that we're not interested. I'm sure we can all think back to primary school and remember some time when a boy was terribly rude to the girl he secretly longed for because he didn't want anyone to find out and make fun of him.

I realize it's far-fetched, but given that your boss didn't seem to show any other signs of cruelty or anger towards you, it does seem very strange that, when he was offering you direct, unmistakable praise, he would always couch it in terms that made it clear he was just the messenger; that it was definitely not his praise.

Think about it... if he didn't like you, why would he even pass on the praise in the first place? If he didn't like you, wouldn't he just keep it to himself and leave you never knowing that someone had appreciated you?

If you ever have the opportunity to do so, I think you should consider asking him directly if he once fancied you. I realize you may each be married, or, even aside from that, you may not be remotely interested, but the thought of a missed opportunity suddenly re-appearing years later is so straight-out-of-a-romance-novel that I simply can't resist encouraging it. :) I'm really sorry if it's distressing instead, though.

If nothing else, I hope this notion might at least give you a brief giggle and a more flattering possible reason for his strange behavior. At the very least, I think it may be safe to say you were never truly being criticized. That has to be worth something.

Late edit for anyone curious: In comments which some mod has probably moved over to chat because they were conversational, rather than editing suggestions, OP indicated that this was likely the case.

  • 3
    Pretty sure you described a tsundere or something close to it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsundere – YetAnotherRandomUser Aug 4 '18 at 20:55
  • @YetAnotherRandomUser Disagree. Tsunderes are usually guarded for internal/neurotic reasons, e.g. fear of rejection or a wish to appear independent. My theory here was that this fellow was guarded for a valid external reason, e.g. fear of being inappropriate with someone he fancied in a professional setting or being inappropriate when both were married, etc. That being said, I think it's useful for people outside of the anime fandom to understand the psychology of the tsundere trope, because it does happen in real life, and recognizing it could lead to better outcomes in some relationships. – Aiken Drum Aug 20 '18 at 14:12
22

Without hearing the actual intonation it's hard to know, but it is possible that the "I don't know why" has two interpretations: one is the offensive one that you're thinking of, but it could also mean "I don't know what awesome thing that you did for X, but they were really impressed with you". Is it possible that the boss actually means it in the second way? After all, as you say you are good at your job and he asks you opinion, so it seems like he does respect you at least somewhat.

In any case one thing to try is respond to with a quick suggestion as to "why".

Boss: I don't know why, but Alice really respects you, and looks up to you as a role model.

You: Oh well, I did help her out with [THING], I'm glad she found my efforts valuable

At least it would give you the apportunity to make him more aware of the good things that you do, that would hopefully offset the negative feelings that the phrasing causes

  • 1
    I disagree, saying "I don't know why," is just turdy even if it's a joke, because that's a passive aggressive dig disguised as a joke – Ahmed Masud Sep 12 '17 at 17:56
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    Or it is just expressing the fact that he genuinely doesn’t know the reason why someone was impressed with her because he wasn’t there to watch it. You can get yourself into all kinds of unnecessary trouble if you misinterpret what was meant as a genuine compliment as a “passive aggressive dig disguised as a joke” – gnasher729 May 21 '18 at 9:30
7

1. A back-handed compliment is still a compliment (although with some sort of qualification that makes it less than a proper compliment) -- please remember that some people and some cultures are not very comfortable with expressing or receiving fulsome praise and prefer to express approval through understatement or back-handed compliments. Example (typically British, I should think):

Employee A does a brilliant and crucial job for his employer B.

Later B says: "not bad, old chap -- though I feel you could improve on that presentation a fair bit. I don't know why but they all thought you were jolly good..."

Now actually A has pulled the business out of the fire and B really appreciates it but this is how he chooses to express it. This is good communication only if B knows for sure that A can understand the cultural context and will be sure to interpret it as a fulsome compliment.

2. Another interpretation of the type of back-handed compliment you cited could be:

Oh well I can't see it so much myself but they think you did very well there/ you have these qualities

where "but they think" is a grudging admission of legitimacy as conferred by other people's valid opinions.

The 'I don't know why' can also be interpreted as self-reflexive irony (as in, I am the only one who doesn't know why) but your actual impression will depend on tone of voice, inflexion and facial expression as already suggested by the earlier answer.


So what to do if someone keeps giving you back-handed compliments?

Accept, resent or ignore.

These are your options.

A back-handed compliment is not nearly as bad as outright, cutting disagreement/ criticism/ slander which creates a hostile and anxious interpersonal equation.

I learned to look at all criticism objectively after the initial hurt and confusion.

Is the criticism valid and can I improve?

If yes it is constructive criticism. We can take it in good faith and try to improve.

If the criticism is not valid, just ignore.

If the person is being inversely affectionate, bear with it.

If the person is being unknowingly hurtful, ignore and pray for them to get better sense.

If the person is being deliberately hurtful, then you can still ignore if possible, but you have every right to resent such a 'backhanded compliment.'

Again in that last case I wouldn't say anything about it (and provide them that satisfaction) but simply give them the big freeze.

With due respect to whoever, you don't need their approval.


Update for clarification of that last statement, based on OP's comment:

I would much rather be told I did something wrong so I can work on it. With this method, he doesn't tell me [...] so this is especially disturbing. But of course I need his approval; he's my boss. He's going to be writing my letter of recommendation if I look for another job. – anongoodnurse

This was my response from personal experience:

The problem @anongoodnurse is we don't control or even influence the way another person expresses themself. I had a horrid boss who was most hostile, vulgar and spiteful while criticizing me in public and private. I resented it a lot and left the job for fear of being 'set up' for a disastrous fall. Later I was able to see much of her criticism was prompted by her own stress and valid from her perspectives. But I couldn't have satisfied her under the circumstances and was right to get out before she punished me for it. You dont want to be dependent on the approval of any boss is what I mean.

If their approval matters to your prospects professionally, then surely you should try to make yourself less dependent (professionally) on their opinion, by doing whatever is technically required to improve your professional options, but I was making the more philosophical point here that my mind is my own independent domain:

"you don't need their approval" means that nobody else shall determine how you feel about your own abilities and about yourself.

  • Thank you for the answer. I would much rather be told I did something wrong so I can work on it. With this method, he doesn't tell me what I did wrong (if anything.) I'm a person who thinks I can always improve (read: I don't have a lot of confidence) so this is especially disturbing. But of course I need his approval; he's my boss. He's going to be writing my letter of recommendation if I look for another job. – anongoodnurse Sep 12 '17 at 13:04
  • The problem @anongoodnurse is we don't control or even influence the way another person expresses themself. I had a horrid boss who was most hostile, vulgar and spiteful while criticizing me in public and private. I resented it a lot and left the job for fear of being 'set up' for a disastrous fall. Later I was able to see much of her criticism was prompted by her own stress and valid from her perspectives. But I couldn't have satisfied her under the circumstances and was right to get out before she punished me for it. You dont want to be dependent on the approval of any boss is what I mean. – English Student Sep 12 '17 at 15:46
  • Please note @anongoodnurse I expanded my answer with a lengthy new first part and added my above comment into it for clarification at the finish, quoting from your first comment for context. I am a doctor too (very humble and unwilling to work on the cutting edge of modern medicine) but the aggressive boss I referred to was a non-medical political bureaucrat. – English Student Sep 12 '17 at 21:06
  • "typically British... old chap... jolly good" It's like your study of English has focused exclusively on usage from the year 1920. I am British. Guess how many people I know would actually say "jolly" or "old chap"? One. Maybe two. It's a dated stereotype to the point of absurdity and irritation. – inappropriateCode Jan 5 '18 at 13:35
2

What someone thinks and what they say is not the same thing. What they say and what we hear is not the same thing either.

I could say to you: "I don't know how you managed to do this, but customer X just called to say that you did an excellent job, and X has never done that before". That clearly says that I'm impressed with your job, and so is customer X.

I would assume that is what your boss thought as well, but what he said was "I don't know why, but customer X just called to say that you did an excellent job". Well, that came out wrong. Maybe we should send him to interpersonal training, to express himself clearer. Still the message is that your boss and customer X are impressed by you, just the message came through a bit muddled.

And then unfortunately what you heard is not the same as what he said. What you heard was "Customer X just called to say that you did an excellent job, but I can't see why they said that because you are not very good at your job at all". Which wouldn't be a nice thing to say and would have rightfully annoyed you, if he had actually said that - which he didn't.

In hindsight, when he said this, you should have confirmed that the positive view is correct. For example "So you think I did a good job at X". Now it is very hard for him to give an answer that can be misunderstood. Instead you asked for negatives like "is there something I need to know?" or "did you receive a complaint?". If what he said was indeed meant as praise, as I suspect, these questions would have just confused him.

0

If you don't get gigged for it on your evaluation, and you get raises, then it doesn't matter. It's like saying,

I like you Sally, I don't care what Alice says about you.

That is best when Alice is in the room.

I find it incredibly difficult to believe he is not kidding, despite you asking him. He has to know, unless he is incredibly wooden and has a disorder, to not know what he said would be an insult.

0

You note his greater than average (for him) praise of your work as well as that others viewed your skills favourably. You're presumably on generally good terms with him as your sons are best friends. Also, he doesn't seem to understand the issue you have with the backhanded compliments.

Some people (try to) use contrast to heighten compliments or induce levity in the process. Since your boss tended to give out more negative than positive comments, the earlier observations suggest that he was simply less adept at delivery when it came to compliments.

Smile and thank him, and if he gives you a genuine smile back, chalk the "I don't know why" up to poor delivery but good intent. If he doesn't, just walk away; he either doesn't recognise what he's doing even when told, or doesn't want to admit to it. I'd like to think he'd smile back.

0

If it were me, I think I would quickly and flatly come back with: "Why wouldn't they?"

This is a quick and easy rhetorical response that's jokingly cool and confidant. This response would not typically be seen as provocative or defensive. However, there is a small chance that your boss may want to defend their passive aggressive jab. In that case, you may enter into a conversation about their negative viewpoint.

  • Hey, thanks for the answer! Can you please explain exactly what's behind the reasoning of this answer? We require that answers provide some sort of backup, such as personal experience or an external source, for why they are suggesting this solution, and unfortunately, at the moment this answer doesn't appear to do that. – Arwen Undómiel Aug 6 '18 at 9:45
0

The fact that this is such a consistent pattern and the statement doesn't make sense in context suggests to me that the preface "I don't know why, but..." is merely said out of habit and the speaker doesn't intend it to indicate a negative. Compare to "To be honest..." and other such crutch phrases. They are said to fill a space, with no thought as to how they modify the meaning of the sentence.

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The fact seems to be that no harm besides your own hurt feeling--perhaps because you "feel" you should feel hurt--should have allayed your concern at some point.

You have ascribed the characterization, backhanded compliment, without any indication that such comments by your superior on the job is not simply being friendly owing to his own propensity for understatement and camaraderie.

In all of the instances you described, the compliment seemed genuine, but attributed to someone other than the one passing along the information to you. For some people there is a predilection for passing along information abstrusely for fear of being held to account for same. Your friendly "employer" could be such a person; and the fact of his superior (i.e., circumspect) position (within the fish bowl and under constant observation, so to speak) makes it more likely that he would communicate compliments in such a fashion if for no other reason than to distance himself from whatever consequence might arise from the complimentary information getting back to its source; or to a rival of the source.

Remember that any "employer" has to contend not only with how you might respond to information, but also how everyone else might respond...or react. My guess is that your "employer's" 'light-hearted-but' way of interacting with you was also influenced by a perceived need, and ingrained habit thereof, not to overstep fraternization prohibitions, actual or implicit.

  • Please break it up into readable paragraphs.. – NVZ Jan 4 '18 at 19:01

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