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.