One of the more difficult comeback challenges occurs when people embed an insult in an otherwise seemingly pleasant conversation. It’s more common in cultures where directness is socially discouraged. You’re speaking with someone who appears to be pleased to see you and offers a few compliments before slamming you with a direct insult or attempting to undercut your “face” (as Erving Goffman would refer to it).
What do you do? Preferable is a comeback indicating that you haven’t missed their intention. “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone, I always say” is one option. There’s also, “And to think we were having such a pleasant, mutually supportive conversation,” is another. “Whoa, I didn’t see that one coming” might serve.
As we wrote in Comebacks at Work, if people intend to humiliate you, especially in front of others, it’s important to let them know you’re not going to crawl into a corner. That only encourages them to strike at you again. “Well done insertion of an insult there” might be too strong, but it’s an option if the person clearly intended to get your defenses down with pleasantness and then slap you.
Hopefully this happens rarely in your life. Most of us don’t totally escape. There will always be people who raise themselves up in their minds by putting others down. If there is an element of truth to the the hit or you can see that they’re not well informed, then “You’re not entirely wrong there” or “I can see why you’d think that not knowing the whole story” might work. There’s also, “Sometimes a little bit of knowledge about someone else’s life is worse than none at all.”
If it was just mean, then “Next time I’ll know to duck earlier when I think you’re being kind” or “You would know as you’ve been in my shoes” could prove useful as you turn to leave. That should keep them thinking for a while.
Some days it’s tough out there.