An example to clarify:

Say John made a drunken fool of himself at the office party, which not everyone attended. On Monday, at the company lunch, Mike says publicly, with feigned sincerity, "John, I just want to let you know, we've all been there, and there's no reason to be embarrassed today." With this, even the absentees will inquire what happened, and the story will be retold.

There ingredients here are:

  1. Mike's intention was to highlight the episode with the aim of further humiliating John
  2. Mike's literal statement is the opposite of his intention, since intentionally embarrassing John would make him look bad
  3. Merely saying the thing is enough to accomplish goal 1. That is, what's important is directing people's attention to the subject.

Is there a word to describe this specific type of underhanded statement? Either a verb as in "Mike ____ John by pretending to comfort him at lunch". Or a noun as in "Mike's comforting John at lunch was an expertly executed ____"

Some clarifying notes

I'm after something far more specific than irony or misdirection. I'm really looking to name a specific social tactic for "innocently" directing attention to damaging information

  • How about misdirected? – Steve Lovell Jun 21 '17 at 19:05
  • while that could be used here, I am looking for something more specific – Jonah Jun 21 '17 at 19:08
  • Another possibility is undermined. – Steve Lovell Jun 21 '17 at 19:10
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    The guise of innocence suggests 'disingenuous' to me, although it's a little bit of a stretch. – user888379 Jun 21 '17 at 19:55
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    Seems to me the concept of passive-aggression is also nearby. – Steve Lovell Jun 21 '17 at 21:41

Although I'm not entirely sure it fits your example, this sounds similar to me to the concept of "paralipsis": drawing attention to something by saying that you will not mention it. The Wikipedia article on "Apophasis" mentions a few synonyms, and also gives various examples which show that depending on the context, the actual intention of the speaker may be fairly transparent (that is, someone employing paralipsis is not always trying to be perceived as sincere; the goal might just be to establish some minimum level of "plausible deniability").

Specifically, I think that saying "there's no reason to be embarrassed" could be interpreted as a "paraliptic" way of communicating that there is reason for John to be embarrassed.

"Paralipsis" has been mentioned in the answers to various other questions on this site, such as "I'm happy to see that you are sober as a judge" Is this a rhetorical device?


It's close to a 'back-handed' compliment -

an insult that is disguised as, or accompanied by, a compliment, especially in situations where the belittling or condescension is intentional.

  • This is the best answer so far. Although in this case it's back-handed charity, or just a back-handed statement. – Jonah Jun 21 '17 at 19:35
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    @Jonah It's also just a synonym of the word within your question, that is, underhanded (statement). – NVZ Jun 21 '17 at 19:36
  • True. And that's a fine word for it. I posted with the hope of finding a truly specific word for this situation, though. – Jonah Jun 21 '17 at 19:37

Without a source to quote, I'd suggest the phrase poisonously sweet, except that I've only seen the phrase applied to women.

It is not, exactly, ironic, since Mike's statement is not intended directly to convey the opposite of its surface meaning, but rather to provoke a social response which is intended to embarrass John despite the professed intent.

  • I like it. Other variations like "poisonously helpful" could answer the concern about typically attaching to women. – Jonah Jun 21 '17 at 21:29

I can think of schadenfreude, which, according to Merriam-Webster, is a noun that means "enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others".

  • this does not at all meet the requirements i listed. indeed, you can feel shadenfreude without saying anything – Jonah Jun 21 '17 at 19:14
  • Perhaps "taunt" would be appropriate. – Jonas Jun 21 '17 at 19:16
  • quite the opposite. when taunting, you publicly embrace your intention to humiliate. here you are cloaking it – Jonah Jun 21 '17 at 19:19
  • Insinuate, perhaps. As in "an insinuating smile". – Jonas Jun 21 '17 at 20:24

In general it is irony ("The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning." American Heritage).

If said with intention to hurt, it becomes sarcasm ("A cutting, often ironic remark intended to express contempt or ridicule" Ibid.).

See also What are the similarities and differences between "irony" and "sarcasm"?

  • These words are related to, but are much broader than, what I'm looking for. Also, importantly, when you are being ironic you (nearly always, at least for part of the audience) intend for others to apprehend your irony. In this situation, Mike wants to be perceived as sincere. I'm really looking to name a certain kind of specific social tactic for "innocently" directing attention to damaging information. – Jonah Jun 21 '17 at 19:28
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    Do you mean that person appears to be sincere but they aren't? That would definitely be an insidious manoeuver ("Working or spreading harmfully in a subtle or stealthy manner" American Heritage) – fralau Jun 21 '17 at 19:37

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