Mixed Messages

Jim Vanden Bosh, a former professor and colleague of mine, once told me he was tempted to write on a student’s recommendation form, “I cannot recommend him too highly,” just for the beautiful ambiguity of the statement. Inspired by his masterful wit, I’ve been trying to come up with a list of other backhanded compliments, or mixed messages, or accidental insults—some of which I recall hearing others use and some that I’ve just made up on my own. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • We’re all impressed with the progress you’ve been making here. (This one works only if the person has been doing just fine all along.)
  • Never mind what everyone else says. You’re okay in my book.
  • It’s great to see that you have the self-confidence to wear that outfit.
  • You’re not even close to being the worst employee here!
  • I admire your ability to stick it out. (Works best if person thinks everything is going well.)
  • You seem much smarter in person.

Of course I would never seriously say any of them to anyone, but it has been fun testing them on a couple friends at work. Can you think of any to add to the list? Just for fun.

Update: I got an email the other day from Jim Vanden Bosch himself. He said that the “can’t recommend too highly” quip didn’t originate with him, but with Robert Thornton, a professor at Lehigh University. He has a collection of what he calls a Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations, or LIAR.

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4 Responses to Mixed Messages

  1. your wife says:

    normally I respond to Karl’s posting verbally, as I don’t care to share my thoughts with anyone else out there. however, this benefits a public airing. i have been the lucky recipient of just such a back-handed comment. i bought a grey fleece hat at goodwill last year. it was, i knew, not tremendously flattering, but very cozy and only 99cents! On my very first wearing, someone said “I’m glad you have the confidence to wear that hat.” The crafter of that witty statement? My dear husband. Darling, I’m glad you are so well-rested that you have the mental energy to create this fabulous blog. Love, your adoring wife.

  2. Nicole says:

    Hi Karl..
    I too have been the recepient of such “compliments,” especially upon meeting my American Idol fans. Many of them will say, “Wow, you’re so much prettier in person!” or “Wow, you’re so much tinier than you seem on tv.”
    The subtext to these comments are of course, “Gosh you looked like Courtney Love on crack on tv, but not so in the flesh!”
    Oh well, such is the life as The Artist formerly known as Scooter Girl.
    All the best,
    Nicole

  3. Diane Reckless says:

    I just cut my hair very short (a Jamie Lee Curtis phase i guess) (better than my Madonna phase, when i got my cavities filled with flashy gold fillings). Everyone commented, naturally. My favorite, which i heard repeatedly, was “wow you look 10 years younger!” at 35, i need to look 10 years younger???? i hope i find the right hair cut at 45 that makes me look 20 years younger!

  4. I just got a wonderful birthday card from Sara, in honor of this blog entry. On the front it says: Wow! Other people your age look like crap!

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