‘We are motivated by a keen desire for praise, and the better a man is the more he is inspired by glory. The very philosophers themselves, even in those books in which they write in contempt of glory, inscribe their names.’
–Marcus Tullius Cicero
Though this was inspired by the daily prompt, I find that there are too many aspects to praise worth discussing that rather than create one mammoth post, I will break them into parts of a series which I will write over the next few days.
Praise is often much too scarce in our daily lives. There could be cultural, economical, personal, or relational reasons for this but the fact remains that praise, when genuine, sincere, and deserved, is necessary both as the giver and the receiver. Honest praise is a powerful motivator and an effective way to recognize achievement and accomplishment. It strengthens and lionizes positive traits and behaviors both for the giver and the receiver of praise.
Why We Don’t Praise as Often or as Freely
Yet for as beneficial as they may be for everyone involved we are oft stingy with giving praise and struggle with receiving it. In general, reasons for this could vary.
For one there are often cultural differences when it comes to viewing compliments. For example I have found that people with Asian backgrounds such as myself often struggle with accepting compliments from others. We may be more generous in giving praise, but often times we are trained very early on never to accept any we receive. We preclude any of our efforts with a downplay of our skills and abilities. ‘Oh I cooked but I’m sorry it’s not very good’ or ‘Please come into my house but I’m sorry it’s such a mess and so uncomfortable’. Naturally most guests would feel inclined to then rebuff these comments with positive praise but again we are conditioned to argue and deflect these efforts. This can come off poorly for those who are not accustomed to these cultural differences and it makes those of us raised in this manner very uncomfortable receiving praise even when deserved because we were never taught how to, only how to reject it.
In terms of economics, praise can be seen as a commodity whose value is only directly related to its scarcity. Therefore we may be inclined to give less praise because we do not wish to devalue our opinion. Praise is often also equated to power and position, and in an effort not to put others above us, or at the very least preserve balance, we fear that praising others will ‘value’ them greater than ourselves.
There could also be personal reasons. Aside from my background I am also naturally a very shy person. I do not particularly enjoy social situations and if I already struggle with just the simple timing and delivery of a small ‘hello’, how am I supposed to be skilled enough to deliver an honest and earnest compliment?
There are also natural psychological barriers to praise. Our brains are designed to focus on the negative and place more weight on negative experiences as opposed to positive ones. This is an evolutionary necessity that helps us identify and isolate negative experiences so as not to repeat them. Fire bad, sharp edges hurt, wild animals don’t like to be petted, etc. This unfortunately means in our not-so-survival centered world, we are still more focused on the negative. We tell 10 people of negative experiences versus the 1 person we tell of our positive. We are more comfortable complaining to management than we are to call them over to thank them for a wonderful experience.
Honestly, we may not give praise as often as we should simply because we’ve lost the practice in our relationships as well. This is especially true in long-term relationships when we become so comfortable and so used to our partners that we forget to recognize the extra effort they put in every single day. The act of praise, like anything else, is a skill that can be sharpened or dulled depending on the frequency and extent of use.
Why Genuine, Deserved Praise is Necessary in our Interactions
Compliments and praise, more than insult and criticism, get results. Studies have shown that both as a motivator and as an educational tool, positive praise is more effective and more valuable when it comes to encouragement and incentive. This is particularly true for the young and for the novice. While the more experienced and more mature can claim to have moved on beyond the need for praise and/or recognition, the young and the inexperienced crave this as an acknowledgement and affirmation that they are indeed on the right track. Experts are primarily concerned with measuring progress and results. They have already done something and want to know how to improve and gauge if their progress is satisfactory in terms of size, scope, and timescale. Novices on the other hand have nothing to compare themselves to and are more concerned with their commitment and suitability. Can I do this, do I want to do this, am I suited to do this. As such compliments are a more effective way to affirm their decisions and choices to encourage and motivate them to continue on. If you are ever in a position to help someone who is feeling discouraged or unmotivated, remember that sometimes an honest word of praise can be all that it takes to fill the gap and allow them to bridge the space between failure and success. And as a parent remember that it can often be much more valuable to focus on catching them doing something good for once.
Praise is a great way to soften otherwise antagonistic relationships. It will come to no surprise for people who actually know me in real life to say that I have an oftentimes contentious relationship with my father. This stems from having two very stubborn very headstrong individuals in one house who believe that they know best and most. But that’s beside the point. I remember that growing up, the majority of our interactions were my father telling me what I was doing wrong and how to do it better. This may have been valuable advice but I was too naïve, too proud, and too resistant to change to really absorb and appreciate it. Because of this, my perspective of my father has always been as more of a detractor than one who would support or encourage me. I’m not saying I need daddy’s approval. I haven’t grown up with that much of a crippling insecurity. I just mean that praise is an effective way to equalize relationships in a way in which I could probably accept more of my father’s advice because I didn’t feel so far below him. This understanding can apply to all relationships. Perhaps you find that with those you are less than close with you are more likely to criticize them, which further strengthens a negative association between the two of you. A simple act of praise can at the very least, thaw an otherwise icy relationship.
Similarly, the act of giving praise can strengthen and increase relationships as well. Compliments reflect respect, and relationships are built on respect. It is simple mathematics. Though we value the constructive criticism of our peers, especially those close to us, I believe it stands to say that most people get close to begin with because of positivity and recognition. It is through that shared act of respecting each other and each other’s works that allows us to enter a relationship where we can be otherwise critical. Praise implies humility, which is a trait we often admire in others, especially people we would like to follow. So a good leader should be comfortable giving praise and recognizing others without fearing for their own power or position. It is also a great way to attract more people and attention. I know that I have built strong, genuine connections through this blog, for example, because of a mutual exchange of encouraging and positive praise. But it is those same people whose opinions I now trust and respect should I ever seek or receive constructive criticism because I know that we have already established a positive rapport.
‘We pay too much tribute to a few human insects when we let their wrong-doing paralyze our faith in humanity. It is a lie of the cynics that says ‘all men are ungrateful’, a companion lie to ‘all men have their price’. We must trust humanity if we would get good from humanity. He who thinks all mankind is vile is a pessimist who mistakes his introspection for observation; he looks into his own heart and thinks he sees the world.’
– William Geroge Jordan
Praise tempers our own natural cynicism. As I mentioned previously, we are biologically programmed to focus on the negative. While this was an important trait for our survival yesterday, it can be a detriment to our relationships today. If we only ever focus on the negatives of the people around us we can feel burdened and heavy, with little to no hope in any redemption. Actively seeking things to praise others with keeps us in a positive mindset that can then carry over into our daily lives and help us appreciate more those around us.
When practiced frequently and with honesty, integrity, and enthusiasm, the act of giving praise can elevate our relationships and our own self-awareness and identity. Furthermore when we can be specific about the positive traits we admire and therefore seek in others, when we recognize these traits we elevate our praise to a celebration of that which we find admirable and noble, versus simple and forgettable flattery.
In tomorrow’s continuation of the series we will discuss how to give praise with integrity and purpose.
Man: 77 Loneliness: 20