When I saw Advisor a couple of weeks ago, we had an amusing exchange that has provoked two very different reactions among those I've told the story to.
Guy is typical of one response. "Oh, man," he said after I'd narrated the episode to him. "I'm sorry."*
"Huh?" I said.
"I'm really sorry. That sounds awful."
"Oh!" I said. "No no no no no. It was good! I mean, those were totally left-handed compliments she was giving me, but it was--I don't know--playful? Not, like, mean."
I know Advisor pretty well, but as I found myself trying to explain to Guy and several others why I didn't read the interaction negatively, it struck me that another reason for my interpretation may be that I myself give a lot of left-handed compliments.
Now, I give a lot of genuine compliments, and I believe that, on the whole, I'm good at letting people know when I admire their work, appreciate their efforts, or totally love their outfit. But every now and again it's brought to my attention that people consider me--oh, how to say this?--excessively judgmental.
(This shocks you, I know.)
The first time I was aware of this perception came in my senior year of high school. I was chatting with my friend Andy, and during the course of the conversation I commented that, hey, I liked his shirt. He broke off whatever he was saying, gave me a nasty look, and said, "Oh, thanks a lot! You know, Flavia, you could just not have said anything." It took me a full five seconds to register that he thought I was being sarcastic. I reassured him that actually I just thought it was a pretty cool shirt--and chose not to let myself contemplate what it meant that even my friends assumed no compliment I might give could be sincere.
Yes, I was a teenager, and probably one who laid on the sarcasm more heavily than most; I have neither the tone nor the attitude now that I had then. But I do give an awful lot of mock faint praise and left-handed compliments. (An easy example might be my saying to someone I've recently started dating something like, "Hey. You know? I think I like you! Or at least, more than I dislike you.")
I don't consider the meaning behind such remarks to be ambiguous. It should be obvious to my friends and intimates that I like them--I wouldn't waste time on them if I didn't. Giving them a hard time is just a way of playing around.
Indeed, until I started thinking about that interaction with my advisor, it never occurred to me that any reasonable person might interpret my teasing as otherwise than affectionate, but I guess there is something aggressive there: not unplayful or unaffectionate, to be sure, but implicitly about asserting oneself while keeping the other person firmly in his place.
All of which is to say? Maybe we get the advisors we deserve and/or resemble.
*The other interpretation was basically my own: that Advisor was communicating her pleasure at seeing me and with my progress.