What’s the difference between a compliment and an insult? In many cases, it depends on who you’re talking to.
Even people with the best intentions can occasionally find themselves delivering what they think is a compliment, only to discover that what they said was interpreted otherwise—especially when those compliments are about someone else’s looks.
So, before you accidentally insult someone or make their day worse with a backhanded compliment, make sure you know these things you should never say about another person’s appearance.
“You look exhausted”
Has anyone ever felt good about being told they look tired? Unless you’re personally planning on setting up a place for your friend to nap, avoid all discussions of bedhead or dark under-eye circles. What you should say instead: “How are you doing?”
Maybe your friend is exhausted, maybe they’re sick, and maybe they just need a vacation—in any case, this question gives them an opportunity to discuss it, but doesn’t pressure them to admit everything they’ve been losing sleep over.
“When are you due?”
Nobody wants to hear that they look pregnant when they’re not. And in some cases, people who “look pregnant” are dealing with other medical issues that they’re not eager to talk about, from fibroids to cancer.
In other cases, that person you’re positive is pregnant may look that way because they’ve recently had a miscarriage or stillbirth, and the mention of pregnancy could easily spark a flood of emotions they’re not eager to open up about. What you should say instead: “Anything new with you?”
If someone wants to discuss their pregnancy with you, this gives them an opening to do so, but doesn’t make them address the subject if they don’t want to.
“You look amazing for your age”
This may seem like a great compliment, but the “for your age” tacked onto the end of it makes it sound far less genuine. What you should say instead: “You look fantastic!”
If someone looks great—and it’s appropriate to say so, of course—tell them that without making it an age-specific compliment.
“Smile! It can’t be that bad”
Telling someone to smile is kind of like telling someone to laugh—it’s not really how happiness works. Besides, asking people to look a certain way for your benefit isn’t going to make them happier, either.
Sometimes, people are having bad days and their faces reflect that.
It’s not your place to correct how they’re feeling. What you should say instead: “Is everything okay?”
“Real women have curves”
While you might think this phrase would make your curvy friend feel better about their body, it sends the message that thinner women are somehow less attractive or desirable.
And there’s no reason to tear someone down while complimenting someone else.
What you should say instead: “That looks great on you!”
Instead of making someone feel like you’re focusing on their body and its particular attributes (potentially making them or others uncomfortable in the process), give them a more general compliment that doesn’t put down someone else’s body along the way.
“You have such strong features!”
The implication here is that you’re not really giving someone a compliment, but rather pointing out what’s unusual about their looks.
It’s the reason calling someone an “unconventional beauty” doesn’t have the same positive ring to it that calling someone “beautiful” typically does.
What you should say instead: “What a beautiful [insert feature] you have!”
If someone has a particularly striking feature, tell them that, rather than just using a blanket descriptor—especially one that might be perceived as negative.
”Don’t worry, you’ll bounce back”
The idea that people need to “bounce back”—whether from having a baby, undergoing surgery, or any other appearance-altering event – can make them feel additional pressure when they’re already going through a tough time. What you should say instead: “How are you feeling?”
If you’ve noticed that your friend has gained a few pounds or looks different in another way, you can bet that they’ve noticed it too. When people have gone through life-changing events, they need your support, not your judgment.