What She Wants

Backhanded, Condescending Remarks You May Not Realize You're Making

 “You look great for your age” is not a compliment.

I finally had that inevitable run-in with my Legendary Ex and, because we live in a polite world, I found myself shaking hands with My Replacement. I thought she was inoffensive enough (a leggy thing with youthful hair and a bright smile) until she opened her mouth and said the most awful thing I’ve ever heard: “Si-si, I am so glad to meet you! Can I just say that you look great for your age?”

I was speechless for a moment. I did a mental review of what I was wearing: a white funnel-neck Lemaire shirt, my favorite rust-colored ankle-length Narciso trousers, and sensible mules. There was nothing on my face save for layers of moisturizer and sunscreen, and my hair was brushed into a low ponytail. I thought I looked great for flower shopping, but as it turned out I only looked great… for an old booger.

Was this baby-woman being condescending? Or am I being condescending by thinking she is a baby-woman? I recovered right away due in part to my many years of experience in small talk. I told her that it was also a pleasure to meet her (it was not) and excused myself. “These Coral Charm peonies need a large vase filled with water. Have a good day.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines condescension as “characterized by a patronizing or superior attitude toward others.” Cambridge says it is “treating someone as if you are more important or more intelligent than them.” Collins shares it is “[behaving] in a way which shows that they think they are superior to other people” or “...stooping to the level of one's inferiors, especially in a patronizing way.”


Genuine compliments (like apologies) are naked. When you add a condition to your compliment you are criticizing.

I am going to give My Replacement the benefit of the doubt because sometimes people do not realize that what they’re saying is rude and hurtful until it is too late. I am sure it was not her intention to weigh the glory of her youth against my older age. She was just being warm. I know because I felt hot under my funnel collar.

Truly Rich Readers, to help you avoid the pitfalls of unknowing condescension, let us first identify the different kinds that exist in today’s social circles. Do not engage in the following.

The Qualified Compliment

 “You look great for your age.”

“You look beautiful today.”

“You’re smart for your age.”

“You throw well for a woman.”


Genuine compliments (like apologies) are naked. When you add a condition to your compliment you are criticizing. This becomes even worse when the receiver of your non-compliment does not get the cues right away. And when she realizes later on that what you really mean is that she is old, ugly, dumb, or weak, she will feel awful. When giving out compliments, do it in full. Just say: “You look great.”


The Nitpicky Remark

No one likes being corrected. Interrupting a friend because she misattributed the line, “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart,” to Robert Frost (it was William Woodsworth), or misremembered that you had porchetta on Sunday (we had it on Saturday), or spelled every day as one word (it’s two words unless used as an adjective) makes her feel inadequate. When this is done in the company of other people, it also humiliates.

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When can you correct? It's tricky. I always weigh the situation. Are my intentions good? If I genuinely want to help Gretchen, and not just make me feel like the better person who knows Frost from Woodsworth, then I would proceed to advise her. Also, is the oversight serious? I mean, will it kill Gretchen if she keeps calling her favorite actress Char-leezThuh-RON (it’s Shar-leez Thrown)? If an error is insignificant, I keep mum. But if a remark can cause serious trouble (she declares that butter is a carb!), then correct—gently and in private.


The Disingenuous Dears

I have to confess that I’m guilty of this. Sometimes when I ask a sales associate for help, I refer to her as “Dear.” As in: “Dear, can you help me find these items on my flower list?” This term of endearment, along with “Sweetie” or “Hun,” when used by a person in power to address someone else can be read as patronizing and very fake. It rubs people the wrong way because, one, you are not at a level of relationship to throw around pet names and, two, you might just be using flattery to grease service. Interestingly, my Truly Rich Grandmother also finds the terms repugnant. When strangers call her, “Dear,” she is only reminded of her advanced age.


Being Creatively Mean

“This looks like it’s a little big for me so you can have it.”

Oh, I see you're into thrift shopping!

“I am so glad you bought new shoes.”


“I know a really good hairstylist you may want to visit.”

“Let me recommend a foundation with good coverage for you.”

Sometimes posturing is unavoidable. When another party is being hostile, the creative use of words is sword and shield. But though it is advisable to use veiled remarks to take down foes (you will not come off as mean—at least, not right away), employ them sparingly. Remember, it’s always best to play nice. For example, I could have told My Replacement, “Your makeup looks great,” but instead I chose to walk away.

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C.C. Coo
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