My Uncle John was a sweetheart, but also the king of the backhanded compliment. Every Sunday, when my extended family would get together for supper, he’d inevitably let loose one or two remarks that left the recipient with a furrowed brow. His classics included “Wow! You’re looking much thinner!” and “So glad you finally got a good job.” These comments drove my grandmother crazy, and she would spend the whole drive home enumerating them, insistent that he must have realized what he was doing. (I never thought that he did, personally.)
Eventually it became an inside joke, and Uncle John a shorthand for any “insultiment”: “Then she gave me a real Uncle John and told me I should always wear my hair straight because I look so much neater.” Given this history, I’m particularly attuned to sniffing out the backhanded compliment. And while my examples heretofore have been especially obnoxious, lately I’ve noticed a new breed of Uncle Johns so pervasive and insidious, I suspect that nearly everyone reading this—including me—is guilty of doling one out.
Picture this: You are scrolling through Facebook or Instagram and see that an acquaintance from college or high school has posted some news. We’ll call her Sheila. Sheila has made a documentary and it’s won an award at a film festival. You want to leave a note of congratulations of some kind so you quickly type out: “Amazing!!!”, or “Incredible!!,” or “Unreal!!.” And you move on with your day. Sheila looks at your comment, taps a little heart on it, smiles, and then tells the little voice in her head whispering Is it amazing? Or did I break my back on this film for years? to shut up because that kind of thinking is ungracious and you were just being nice and didn’t mean anything by it.
And you probably didn’t. Or maybe you did. Maybe you never found Sheila that impressive or smart and are shocked at the gap between your recollection of her and this accomplishment. Or maybe you personally wouldn’t have the first idea of how to embark on a career like documentary filmmaking, and are genuinely awestruck that she’d figured it out. Or maybe you hadn’t seen Sheila in your feed for a while, had no clue she even made films, and so this was shocking news … to you. Or perhaps you just couldn’t think of any other word in the very quick moment between reading Sheila’s post and needing to respond to a Slack message or a request from your children.
An incredulous compliment is a type of Uncle John, even if it stems from nothing more than laziness. It is a diminishment at best and an undermining at worst, but it is something that I think is particularly damaging when doled out to women—and women of color especially—because it reinforces the idea that our achievements result from strokes of luck or acts of beneficence, rather than hard work, sacrifice, and excellence. Even when astonishment is genuine, it is often because the achievement is rare or hard fought in the face of a long history of bias, discrimination, and erasure. An author friend of mine—an Afro-Dominicana whose book got a rave in The New York Times—recently joked on her instagram, “Thanks everyone, you can stop seeming so shocked that my book is good.”
Language is powerful and contagious. Wonder and astonishment in light of the accomplishments of women only perpetuate the awkward dance with humility women need to perform in order to celebrate their accomplishments in the first place. Another Latina writer acquaintance of mine, whose marvelous novel was selected for a major book club, recently posted a photo of her book on a billboard in Times Square with the caption “Amazing.” James Patterson’s concerns about diminishing opportunities for white men aside, the odds of her book having been published are astonishing. But that’s not what we should be celebrating here. I replied: “No, it’s fabulous. The book is amazing.”
But how many times have I personally been guilty of writing, “I can hardly believe it, but….” or, “Pinch me, I must be dreaming…” Indeed, as I was writing this very essay, someone texted me a link to a 10-best-books-of-the-year list with a very favorable write-up of my novel. As I was about to tweet the link out, I wrote, “Wow, can you believe this?”
We can all do our part by never pulling an Uncle John again. The next time a woman—or a person, period—makes a big announcement on social media or elsewhere, here are some one-word quickies that can do more heavy lifting than a wow or amazing: fabulous, marvelous, terrific, well deserved, well earned, congratulations. Or my own favorite go-to: ❤️🔥❤️🔥😻😻😻