Social Question

JLeslie's avatar

What are words and sayings that are compliments to some people, but disparaging to others?

Asked by JLeslie (58423points) 1 month ago from iPhone

I just asked a Q about how using “articulate” or “well spoken” as a compliment can be offensive to some people.

It seems to me this is very different than words that are well accepted and known as derogatory to all groups, and so it’s more tricky to have sayings that are compliments to some people, but derogatory to others.

Can you think of other examples, or tell us about an instance where you said something that you thought was complimentary and it was taken completely incorrectly.

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36 Answers

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

“You’re a good democrat.”

JLeslie's avatar

^^You reminded me of when my husband says I’m such a Capricorn. As far as I knew, that was a compliment, but his tone says differently.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@JLeslie -Lol! Tone is everything.

Zaku's avatar

Who was offended by being called “articulate” or “well-spoken”?

I can think of a few social contexts for some people:

Anti-intellectual Americans:

Anti-“left” Americans:

Anti-“right” Americans:

Vegans & Anti-Vegans:

Pro & Anti-SJW and/or Feminist
“SJW / Social Justice Warrior”

Queer or Homophobic:

Conformists and xenophobes:

“cat lady”


Cupcake's avatar

The use of the phrases “well-spoken” and “articulate” are generally offensive to African-Americans, with the foundational belief that people of color do not usually speak well or are uneducated.

Here is a link to an article from the Root.

kritiper's avatar

“You eat like a bird.” An insult.
“You walk like an elephant.” A compliment.

Cupcake's avatar

I don’t know if this is what you’re looking for, but I don’t like when people exaggerate or use big, fluffy, complimentary words for regular stuff. I’ll hand my husband a glass of water and he calls me amazing. I hate it. Not amazing… I actually suck in a lot of ways. I just handed you a glass of water, like a normal human.

rebbel's avatar

“You smell like coconut.”
“You look like a coconut.”

JLeslie's avatar

@Cupcake As I’ve noticed in previous articles, no citation in the article of articulate actually being used as an insult though. It’s more that the minority person feels it’s an insult. I think that shows one of two things. One, there is history of the group being treated badly, so that’s valid, and/or two, insecurity.

When I tell my SIL I think we miscommunicated about something she immediately jumps to I’m saying her English isn’t good enough, or she’s stupid. I mean nothing of the sort. I’ve stopped saying it to her. It’s impossible. There is no way I can say we didn’t communicate well without her getting defensive. I can’t say, I must have said it poorly, or she misunderstood what I meant, or I can’t even try to explain whatever it was another way. No matter what I say she feels I’m being condescending.

When I was told I was very well spoken by a peer of my dad’s I took that as a compliment. He knows my dad, my dad has a PhD and has an incredible vocabulary (much superior to my own) so I don’t think this gentleman expected me to not speak well, so it is used simply as a compliment sometimes. I’m not trying to say black people shouldn’t feel how they feel about it, I’m just saying that same compliment is given to white people.

I remember a speaker who came to an event I did at Bloomingdale’s having such a way with words that my counterpart and I commented on the skill to each other. The woman was white, and her accent sounded northeast upper class, old money. Her use of the English language was like an art form. How she interacted with people, it was beautiful.

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

@JLeslie -Your sister in law might just be looking to be offended. I wouldn’t bother explaining anything to her anymore and let the chips fall where they may.most likely on her shoulder

JLeslie's avatar

^^Exactly right. It took me a while, but I’m on that page for several years now.

ucme's avatar

Nice, as in “you look nice tonight darling”
Sorry, but nice is not going to cut it, far too twee & kind of sitting on the fence.
Better to say beautiful or gorgeous or lovely, something of that order.

Sagacious's avatar

You can generally tell the difference. I have no time for people looking for something about which to be offended.

KNOWITALL's avatar

The respectful ‘ma’am’. I was told here and once in Florida, ladies apparently dont see it as respectful. Not sure what the think it means tbh.

JLeslie's avatar

@KNOWITALL Good one.

Ma’am just sounds very odd to them. I wouldn’t say they don’t understand you are wanting to be respectful, it’s just uncomfortable, they prefer to be addressed a different way, especially if their name is known. We wouldn’t substitute ma’am for using someone’s name. If they’re name is unknown then Miss could be used, or nothing. Often times the ma’am is added as extra. It’s just as easy to answer “yes” without the ma’am tacked on.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie The lady in Florida was a coworker, on IM, so I just said “Yes ma’am” about something.
Don’t call me ma’am, please, my name is Janice. I was like, yikes, wonder what she thought I was saying or calling her? :) Frankly seemed pretty bitchy to me, since I was there to help during a hurricane. lol

Cupcake's avatar

@KNOWITALL It’s funny to me (as a northerner) how offensive Ma’am is to other northerners. It’s like you’re calling them an old lady to their face.

Now that we live in the south, my little ones say ma’am and sir at home and I think it’s respectful and adorable. My little southern gentlemen. :)

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Cupcake I’m rather partial to it, too, especially with the littles. He sounds adorable.

I guess I could start using ‘Miss’ Joyce, that’s the only other acceptable respectful way to address elders in our area.

Cupcake's avatar

@JLeslie I, personally, don’t think it’s a insecurity. I know many very well-educated individuals who are not insecure and who would be fully offended by being called articulate or well-spoken. I don’t think people who didn’t grow up as a person of color in America even need to understand it, or can. It’s ok. Just that we know those phrases can have a racial undertone or are perceived as having offensive racial undertones to certain groups of people is enough. It is offensive, we should seek to make our complements in other ways.

I fully understand that some people really are exceptional orators. They are a joy to listen to. Say that. “You are an absolute joy to listen to.” “I feel elevated when I hear you speak.” “Your tone of voice is so comforting/inspiring/etc.” “It is such an absolute pleasure to hear you speak.” “I aspire to have such command of an audience as you.” “You eloquently weave words together – your speech was like poetry to my ears.”

I wouldn’t assume that you were being racist by telling someone they were a good speaker, etc. I’ve interacted with you for years. I’m sorry about your SIL… that sounds exhausting.

@KNOWITALL If someone requests that you use their first name, is that still unacceptable to use if they are an elder? I think that is a difference in the North… the way people want you to refer to them goes, whether it’s a title, a first name, last name, nickname, etc. People generally are called what they want to be called. I like to ask people how they would like for me to refer to them and use that. Even in my class, I put nicknames on the attendance sheet. I think it shows my students that I see them and value how they want to be called.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@Cupcake For me, yes, it would be very uncomfortable-as a kid especially. If you asked me to call you Joyce, I would say Miss Joyce. We don’t use our elders names without the respectful title. That’s a big no-no, at least here.

For example, I went to church with the same people until I was around 14 yrs old or so, they watched me grow up and I knew them very well. I was never allowed to call them by their first names alone. They were Mr & Mrs Baker, or Miss Joyce and Mister Sam -which is a way of showing affection or a closer relationship (not a stranger or new acquaintance.)

JLeslie's avatar

@Cupcake I didn’t mean it’s always an insecurity, like I said, a group that has been oppressed historically has a legitimate reason to perceive it as an insult. I care that it’s hurtful, believe me. I consider myself a minority. I grew up with some of the same fears black peoples have, although, I would never say it’s exactly the same experience. I have the luxury of being white, but I also have the burden of knowing people like to kill and blow up my people, even here in America. Synagogues never have felt totally safe to me, but rather like we are sitting ducks in there.

I was only saying one reason can be insecurity, that’s what I think it is with my SIL.

I don’t question that minority groups knows best if they are offended, I don’t try to tell them don’t be offended, but I think it’s worth pointing out what the intention was by the person speaking. The TV program I was watching was 4 women of color, 3 were black, and they said white people never say it about other white people, and that simply is false. Maybe they don’t realize it because they aren’t white, but they are making a false assumption. That belief furthers their thinking that it’s only said as an insult, and I think that’s harmful too. Maybe you disagree.

This isn’t a word like WOP, wetback, kike, or the n-word, where it is clearly a bad word, and I think should not be said or written except when discussing literature or historical meaning. This is a word that is positive to one group, but offensive to another, and people ignorant to the fact that it can be offensive, who hand it out as a compliment to their colleagues and peers, aren’t trying to cause harm, but the opposite.

Still, as I said, if it’s hurtful it’s hurtful, I accept that. My fear though is today hurt and anger is being manufactured. Examples I would give are the reaction to taking a knee was in my opinion a manufactured outrage. It’s been argued that Russian bots used that nonviolent display of protest and turned it into being offensive against veterans, and the republicans ate it up. Now, I see upset that Bloomberg said his girlfriend would be defacto First Lady, and I have Republicans on my social media freaking out that she cannot be called the First Lady. He never said that she should be from what I’ve read. She would just be taking on the responsibilities of First Lady.

JLeslie's avatar

@KNOWITALL In your example she said just what I said, to use her name.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie Nope, we don’t use a strangers first name. I’d call you Miss Jen…lol

JLeslie's avatar

@KNOWITALL You wrote: Don’t call me ma’am, please, my name is Janice. So, she was offering her name and preference. How can offering ones name be bitchy? She’s giving you her first name so you will be on a more familiar basis. Ma’am sounds formal and like she is higher in the hierarchy. She was leveling the field a bit, giving you more equality.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie My hackles went up, I was doing her a work favor voluntarily when no one else did. I havent talked to her since actually. Misunderstanding I guess.

JLeslie's avatar

^^I didn’t hear here tone, it’s very possible it sounded disapproving, but usually it’s said to be nice. If you had called her Mrs. Smith (if you had known her name) and she said please call me Janice, then would you have taken it as you don’t need to be so formal with her in a nice way? It’s usually just that when a northerner is giving their name. It’s seen as good etiquette to introduce yourself.

When I call a help line and they ask for my name I tell them my full name and quickly say, “but you can call me Leslie.” My last name is difficult, especially if you add the Ms. or Mrs. in front of it, it’s a lot of syllables and difficult for some people to say.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie Yes, exactly….I was asking how I could help and that’s all she says, don’t call me that, my name is Janice. Rude. Any words like “Thanks for helping, please feel free to call me Janice”, that would have been just fine. :)

JLeslie's avatar

@KNOWITALL The one tricky thing is Southerners often don’t just use the first name when someone asks. They put Miss in front of it, or they still use the ma’am out of habit. I can say, “please call me Leslie,” and the next sentence will be, “ok, thank you Miss Leslie.” That’s not what I said, I said to please call me Leslie. So, then I can bother to say, “just Leslie is fine,” and it’s a 50/50 toss up if they will honor my request. I usually just leave it alone. It’s so engrained in Southerners I guess it’s difficult for them. I know you’re not in the South, but still in a part of the country that has much of the same rules for addressing people as the South.

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie See, you get it then. It’s ingrained in us from birth.

Technically no, but since Mo was on both sides of the war, a lot of us consider ourselves southerners. I do more so, since it reflects my values.

RabidWolf's avatar

True story, thanks for the question this one always makes me laugh:
My then-wife and I were having an argument, she bursts out with: “You’re such an Asshole.”
Without missing a beat I replied: “Don’t try making up.” There was total silence then we both busted up laughing, we never finished the argument, and could never remember what the argument was about.

JLeslie's avatar

@KNOWITALL I get that it’s engrained, I get that in the South that’s the standard respectful way to address someone, especially if they are strangers. I appreciate the act of respect when using it Although, I kind of don’t understand not addressing someone what they have asked to be called. Southerners seem to think their idea of the respectful way to address someone is better, and northerners are rude, because it’s not their custom.

I never put Miss in front of a first name automatically, but if a Southern woman, especially a woman older than me, asked me to address her that way I would, and I wouldn’t judge her for it. It’s simply what she’s accustomed to and prefers. Out of respect I would address her as she asks, even if it’s unnatural to me. I’d get used to it after interacting with her for a while.

Question: If I called you Mrs. Lastname, and you prefer Miss Firstname, how would you let me know? Would you say call me Firstnane” or, “call me Miss Firstname.” Would you be clear to include the Miss as part of your direction?

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie If we’re at that point in our friendship, we’d be completely informal. I’ve know people decades I still say Miss Nancy at a restaurant, or out.

Besties and family are fine for first names, so I suppose it just naturally occurs. Hadnt really thought about a conversation haha.

JLeslie's avatar

I’m still curious about my question. How does the person ask? How do they word it? Do they say, “you can call me Miss Leslie.”

KNOWITALL's avatar

@JLeslie I dont recall anyone asking me to call them by their first name, here, that was my elder. Maybe someone deeper south would know.

NoMoreY_Aagain's avatar

I don’t care what they call me. Just call me on payday.

NoMoreY_Aagain's avatar

My wife apparently is offended by “sensuous”. All I said is, you’re looking very sensuous tonite. And sensuous up, would you bring me a beer?

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