When a Compliment Isn’t a Compliment

“Asians have great skin. That’s why they look so young! You’ll love that when you’re older.”

I became self conscious of how young I looked when I was sixteen because that was when people started to make me aware of it. Their comments were meant to make me feel good about myself. Instead, I grew uncomfortable with how I looked, wondering if my perceived immaturity affected what people thought of me. As a twenty year old today, I’m surprised when someone says I look my age without any makeup on. The comments that people thought were harmless and flattering actually made me sometimes wish I was not Asian. Then, maybe I would not be infantilized. Thinking that Asian women looked younger than other races is an example of a positive stereotype that has negative consequences for both the stereotyped person and the person perceiving it as a compliment. Positive stereotypes do more harm than good to everyone involved.


A positive stereotype is a subjective “belief that attributes a favorable characteristic to a group” and implies an advantage because of your association with that group (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Lombrozo 2015). Negative stereotypes differ in that they associate negative traits with a group. Here are some common examples of both:

Positive Stereotypes vs. Negative Stereotypes

Asians are good at math vs. Asians are socially awkward

Women are nurturing vs. Women are emotional and irrational

Positive stereotypes do not seem so bad next to explicit prejudice. But positive stereotypes categorize an entire group of individuals based on an external characteristic, showing that even with a “positive” connotation, a stereotype is still a stereotype (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015).

Being positively stereotyped can lead to various negative unintended consequences. Because your identity is reduced to racial stereotypes, positive stereotypes can lead to feelings of depersonalization (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Siy and Cheryan 2013). When you feel as if your individuality is taken away, negative emotions such as hostility, anger, and annoyance result (Siy and Cheryan 2013). Another consequence is that the stereotype target is likely to think the other person also has negative stereotypes about them, and therefore will think that person is prejudiced (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussenbaum 2013). The scary thing about positive stereotypes is that they can actually make this true.

Changing stereotypical beliefs requires knowing that they are incorrect and biased. But if you perceive positive stereotypes as compliments, you may continue to believe in them (Czopp, Kay, and Cheryan 2015; Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussenbaum 2013). Additionally, thinking about positive stereotypes triggers the brain to think of other stereotypes, including negative ones. It also contains an implicit understanding that differences between your group and another’s is biological. Basically, even though positive stereotypes seem like compliments, they can actually lead to negative judgments about the target group and even discrimination, which is why they can be so damaging to society. (Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussenbaum 2013; Medlyn 2013).

Although positive stereotypes seem relatively harmless, they have subtle, detrimental consequences. The next time you want to compliment someone on something you think is  due to their race, instead try saying something positive about their individual features. I guarantee they will appreciate that more. The bottom line is, it is always better to attribute a positive aspect of someone to who they are as an individual, rather than saying they were born with it. Hopefully, being aware of how stereotyping makes someone feel will make the next person refrain from saying that I’ll appreciate their stereotypical comment when I’m older.


3 thoughts on “When a Compliment Isn’t a Compliment”

  1. Hey Jane!

    I really enjoyed your post. I don’t think that positive stereotypes are something that many people are familiar with, and I think you did a really good job of explaining the phenomenon! As far as the technical aspects of the post go, I found your image and offset examples really effective.

    Your example of, “Women are nurturing” reminded me of something that I was thinking about during this election cycle. When Secretary Clinton came to Hamilton during my first year at the College, I won the lottery to have my picture taken with her (it’s extremely awkward because I wasn’t sure how close I could get to her). I actually met her earlier in life, when I was 10 or so, and so I briefly mentioned that to her. I don’t know what I was expecting her to do (make a coffee date? give me an affectionate arm tap?) but instead, she just smiled and moved on to the next photo op.

    At any rate, the point is that I expected Secretary Clinton to greet my attempt at friendliness with a lot more warmth/nurturing behavior. And it was only recently – one day in class – that I realized how gendered my response was. She really had no reason to do anything *but* smile and nod, like she did! Who the heck was I? I came to realize that her response was perfectly reasonable, but just not what I was expecting from a woman, quite frankly. I’m thinking now about whether or not I’d even bring up the same banter with a male politician, and furthermore, if his response was the same as hers, would I have let it cloud my opinion of him as much as I let it cloud my opinion of Hillary?
    What a cycle of judgment you bring up…like I said, these are things that most people aren’t conscious of and I know that personally I didn’t have a vocabulary for until college. I think that a quick scroll through yours and all the other posts would help a lot of people out!

  2. Hey Jane,

    Nice blog post! I agree with Anna when she says that positive stereotypes are not something most people are consciously aware of. Myself included, I never really think of positive stereotypes as particularly hurtful or detrimental, but you’re so right- any kind of stereotype generalizes large groups of people and takes away from the individual. I can imagine a lot of people using positive stereotypes as a way to impose cultural generalizations on people without realizing how it can be harmful. I agree that as a society we need to strive for a world where we do not make these large generalizations. Making an observation about a person is one thing, but taking that observation and extending it to all of these other people that may or may not have the same quality is very problematic. Especially considering what it means if that person does not have that quality. I can see it being very discouraging if people just assume that an asian person is good at math, if they actually aren’t.

    I also liked what you said about how positive stereotypes also take away from individual achievement. By saying that all asians are good at math, people are implying that if an asian excels in math they are not individually intelligent or hard-working, but are just profiting from what they were born with. That is insulting and not true! I will definitely be more conscious of positive stereotypes and how dangerous they can be in shaping how we see people and large groups of people. As a society I really hope we can learn to appreciate the ways we are different that are specific to each person and not make large generalizations about people.

    Good job!

  3. Jane,

    Thank you so much for shedding light on an issue that I feel as though I have overlooked so long. Prior to reading your post I was generally pretty unaware that positive stereotyping could manifest itself in negative ways. I think Lily made a great point when she said that any assertions that claim that Asians are good at math detracts from individual achievement, intelligence, or hard work. Obviously we cannot pretend that race is not an issue or that it doesn’t exist but it definitely is important to recognize that achievements are more a function of an individual’s hard work and innate ability rather than a function of their race. I’ll definitely keep this in mind going forward and do my best to avoid positive stereotypes, even though it might seem as though I have good intentions.

    Great post! I enjoyed it a lot,

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