He meant well.
"You're really pretty," he said, "because you look Eurasian. You don't have a fat, round face like a lot of Japanese women."
"Gee, thanks," I replied. "I had my face squashed by a giant vice because I'd do absolutely anything to look like a Caucasian model."
I didn't really say that. Not only was I too dumbfounded to speak, but I spent five months thinking of an appropriate response to such a backhanded compliment.
The "compliment" was more insulting than complimentary. It implied that most Japanese women are ugly, that women should feel consummately gratified when men approve of their looks, and that men rate a woman's features roughly like a farmer selecting a pig (cow, horse) at auction.
Backhanded compliments may not only reflect racist and sexist attitudes, they're usually plain irrelevant to the discussion at hand.
Consider: a woman discussing a controversial issue with a man. "You're really," he interrupts, "pretty."
This is a linguistic technique to obscure the issue, claims Janet G. Elsea, president and owner of Communication Skills, Inc., and an assertiveness instructor at the World Bank.
"Women shouldn't indicate they've been thrown," she says. "And they should remember the issue is not prettiness, but the inappropriateness of the comment."
Consider: the case of Susan V. Hunt, 25, managing editor for a professional association, as she lunched with a middle-aged executive. "Your predecessor asked very tough questions," he said. "But I can tell by looking at you that you're a nice, sweet Italian girl who couldn't do that."
Howard University counselor Reginald Nettles says Hunt could have countered, "You seem to be telling me not to ask you pointed questions in the course of working together. I'll keep this in mind, but won't make any promises." By sounding businesslike, Hunt could have reinforced the assertive-colleague identity, rather than the little-girl image.
Consider: the line, "What's a pretty, young thing like you doing in a place like this?"
Elsea, who has been the recipient of such backhanded compliments herself, is apt to counter with humor, mirroring, if she can, the speaker's bantering tone and facial expression. "I'm here," she'll say, "to give a big handsome man like you some real expertise.
"I think humor is a wonderfully therapeutic and powerful tool that can make the point in a gentle way without depriving the other person of his dignity."
Humorous -- rather than heavy-handed comebacks -- allow a person to laugh at his error instead of recoiling in embarrassment, or retaliating in anger, says sociology professor Sharon Mayes, University of California in San Diego.
When she was once told by a man, "You couldn't be a feminist; you smile too much," she "went into my Southern slave routine, and I told him, "Well Massah, that's cuz I's so happy.'"
Mayes who teaches a class called "Sociology of Men," says women can reveal -- subtly -- the sexism in a compliment by simply reversing it.
Example: If a man tells a woman, "You should have been a stewardess; you certainly have the looks for it," the woman could reply, "You should have been a trapeze artist/sumo wrestler/warehouse turckloader; you sure have the build for it."
But if the man lacks humor, Mayes suggests countering with something like, "I enjoy getting jobs according to my interests and skills."
Patronizing racial compliments, however, may be more difficult to reverse.
"I think many white people have no idea what minorities find offensive," says Carolyn R. Payton, a Howard University psychologist and dean for counseling and career development.
Consider: an Asian woman walks into a Minneapolis bar and a young man approaches her to tell her that he had known Japanese people when his father was stationed in Japan. "Those people," he says, "are so clean, and quiet and polite."
"This type in ingratiating compliment," says Payton, "reflects the speaker's uneasiness with a novel situation and not any feelings of malice. The person gives a compliment to make you feel comfortable. Then he hopes that you in turn will make him feel comfortable."
If the speaker appears sincere, suggests assertiveness instructor Elsea, he could be told, "I'd like to be regarded as an individual person, whatever your stereotypes might be."
Consider: a black woman being told by a white man, "You're really brave to come to a white party. How do you feel being the only black person here?"
Her reply: "I really wasn't noticing anyone's skin color."
People who give such compliments, says Prof. Mayes, are telling themselves, "I really like the racial characteristics that make you look different from me. Therefore, I couldn't be a racist."
Consider: Pamela Perkins, 28, a black administrative assistant for a public relations firm, who says men often compliment her light skin and Asian-looking features.
"Some men say I should be thankful for my looks because I'll go further in the world than my girlfriends. I feel guilty about being singled out, so I'll ask the man, 'Can't I be a beautiful black woman, or do I have to look Oriental to be beautiful?' Usually it turns out to be a great, great conversation."
Consider: a man telling a woman, "You'd be flawless if you weren't so bowlegged." (Implied message? You're not all that pretty.)
Or, as a man told a woman acquaintance, "You're pretty for a Korean." (Implied message? You're not the best, but you'll do.)
Women, says Mayes, can respond to such compliments by "at least communicating to the man that her self-esteem is high enough to forgive, overlook or deal with the comment. If the woman gets defensive, or puts on old, ratty clothes to look as ugly as possible then she's diminished herself as a woman."
To "gently correct" a male colleague's behavior, Elsea suggests meeting him in a comfortable setting and describing the unappreciated behavior -- and the feeling it elicits -- in neutral terms.
"For women," she says, "this is a constructive, healthy way to release tension, anxiety and anger. I think women worry too much about being liked or disliked, and that's irrelevant. They should be concerned about how people respond to what they do."
Says Mayes, "Men are taught that the cognitive realm, including intellect, is their territory. And women are taught that the realm of feeling is theirs. i
"I think men are threatened by intellectual women, especially when these women are pretty. Men think this type of woman has it all and doesn't need men. Also, if a woman is functioning in both the realm of feeling and of intellect, the man feels deficient. He thinks he's one down."
But this is not to say that backhanded compliments are the domain, solely, of men.
Consider the 30-year-old male reporter who was told by his date, "Handsome men can be so arrogant. . . . That's why being out with you has been so refreshing."