You look nicer than usual today

December 6, 2007: 11:14 AM ET

300px-janus-vatican.jpgRegard the headline above. It is an example of a form of speech that is ubitquitous and amusing. It's called the Complisult. It is also referred to in some venues as the Insompliment, but that seems less elegant to me.

As one would guess, the Complisult is an insult masked as a compliment. "I am truly impressed by how intelligent you sounded in your presentation," is a good example. The recipient often fails to recognize the underlying dig until well after he or she has actually thanked the complisulter.

While existence of the complisult has been known for several years, it does not register in any significant manner on Google (GOOG), with most references of import dating back several years. Many believe it was invented in Los Angeles, where the distinction between beloved friend and hated competitor is often wafer thin, and people often say exactly what they don't mean for a living.

I believe it may be time to consider the complisult as a major tool in corporate communication. "You're doing a great job as CEO, Jack," one might say to the new chief executive. "People used to under-estimate you, but now they just fear you." 

Obvious applications exist in the political realm as well. "It's incredible how you stand tall with so many people who disrespect you, sir," might be the kind of thing that would make Mr. Bush feel good for a while... but not really.  

In addition to being useful, complisults are fun. The trick, I think, to being a great complisulter lies in the ability to befuddle. Masters of the genre can actually complisult someone in a manner that doesn't truly register for hours afterward. The complisultee knows something is slightly awry about the statement that has been made to him, and worries away at it the way that a dog will gnaw on a wounded paw until, after some time, the insult beneath the compliment emerges.

That is the art at its highest level, of course. Most are far less adroit. "Have you lost weight?" to a person extruding out of his or her jeans is a blunt instrument that's hard to dodge. But "You're not as evil as everybody says!" might take a McKinsey consultant days to decipher.

I offer this in full humility as a tool for all of us to consider as we move forward down the road to success and power. I know you guys will appreciate it. A lot of you are not as dumb as you look.

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