In Praise of Praise
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In Praise of Praise

At home, at work, or in love, why compliments both big and small help us all.

Support & Sincerity

Kris, 33, of Laramie, Wyoming, recently got back in touch with an old friend. "She's been showering me with praise about what kind of friend I was and person I am, and every time I read her e-mails, I am brought to tears," says Kris. "We hear that kind of stuff so rarely."

It's true. We might get a blip in what-you-mean-to-me around the holidays, but at other times, it's easy to feel as if people -- including ourselves -- really do tend to withhold applause. Why? Because people, especially women, are weird about praise. We often think it but don't give it, crave it but then don't buy it when we hear it.

Still, praise -- real praise, or what some experts call "recognition," to distinguish it from compliments that are either emptily polite or fawningly insincere -- can be more than just "nice"; it fuels motivation and inspires lasting good will. "Praise builds community," says Bonnie Jacobson, PhD, professor of psychology at New York University. "The more you tell someone you like what they've done, the more they feel warmly toward you, and the more you're aware of your warm feelings toward them. You create an 'all in this together' feeling of support and enjoyment."

If praise is so positive, why is giving and receiving it a challenge for some? What kind of praise is most important at home, at work, and with friends? How can you make giving and receiving praise -- real praise -- a practice?

Practice What You Praise

Not everyone finds it hard to offer praise, of course. For Alexis, 30, of New York City, it's a "no-brainer," she says. "I like to give credit and appreciation wherever it's due." But others find that offering praise that goes deeper than, "Hey, cute shoes," makes them feel "vulnerable," says Jacobson. "Praise can expose that you have a need. If you tell your husband you love it when he scratches your back, it can feel like you're giving him the power to decide whether he'll do it or not." Fundamentally, praise exposes emotion -- a challenge for many, says Shelly Gable, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA. "People who aren't adept at expressing their feelings overall are not likely to share in someone else's good fortune," she says.

Likewise, not everyone finds praise hard to take. "Praise drives me, motivates me to do more -- for more praise!" says Lynn, 40, of Austin, Texas. For some, of course, it's more than a motivator, it's a requirement; they feel that they can't function without it. "People like that," says Jacobson, "are not entirely comfortable with who they are."

But you likely know someone -- could it be you? -- who "can't take a compliment," who blushes, diminishes, or even dismisses ("Are you kidding? I look totally fat!"). Why? "Accepting a compliment can feel like a big responsibility," says Jacobson. "If someone says 'You're so organized!' you feel like you have to be as organized as they think you are, and like a 'fraud' if you're really not."

Accepting praise can be especially tough for women. "Girls and women find it hard to solicit and accept recognition because part of our cultural notion of femininity is that females are supposed to relinquish valued resources -- including recognition -- to others," says psychiatrist Anna Fels, MD, author of Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives (Pantheon, 2004). Other research underscores our love/hate relationship with praise: women in a study at Sonoma State University in California performed better when told that their work promised great success in the future -- but also felt more anxious in the process. The same researchers believe that women may experience encouragement both as positive feedback and as pressure to do even better next time. (Are we hard on ourselves, or what?)

Say Something

When it comes to praise in the workplace, research at Baruch College in New York City suggests that employees' chief complaint is not feeling under-praised, but rather, simply, ignored; they prefer even negative feedback to none at all. But positive, of course, is the preference. "With my former boss, the only way we knew we'd done okay was that he hadn't told us we didn't. The absence of negative comments was really not motivating," says Laurie, 38, of Larchmont, New York. Sheryl, 48, of Mundelein, Illinois, is careful not to swing too hard the opposite way with the people she manages: "You have to be careful to praise people only when you truly mean it," she says. "Otherwise, they won't believe you and they won't understand what they did right as opposed to what they could have improved upon." Baruch College psychologist Judith Komaki, PhD, who studies leadership skills, says that employees appreciate even a succinct e-mailed "Great" or "Appreciate that" from higher-ups. "The secret is to figure out how to acknowledge in a natural way, seeing the many places where you can recognize persons for ordinary things done well," she says.

Sincere -- and specific -- praise is also recommended for kids. The admiration "overpraised kids" are lavished with at home ("You're the best!") doesn't always hold provably true everywhere else, says Jacobson; the impossible expectations backfire, and the kids "feel like nothing." What works? A Columbia University study found that kids tend to perform better on schoolwork when praised for working hard and their efforts on a particular task, not for being "smart" in general.

Perhaps needless to say, love partnerships thrive on praise. In her own research, says Dr. Gable, "We found that couples who were able to praise and enjoy each other's good fortune were more satisfied, had more intimacy, love, and trust; and they were more likely to still be together later. We think this is because sharing in good times builds resources for the inevitable stressors that occur in life."

Praise can also cement friendships -- as long as it's not laid on too thick. "I have a friend who is so full of praise all the time -- 'you're gorgeous, love you madly, what you did is so incredible' -- which would be great if it didn't replace more meaningful contact," says Annabel, 36, of Brookline, Massachusetts. "I never hear how she's really doing, nor does she ask me. Seems like a weird mechanism for keeping people at a distance while appearing to welcome them in." But when praise is heartfelt, everybody wins: "My friend is working toward her dream of becoming a fashion designer. When she makes a step toward her goal, I congratulate her. When she feels off-track, I remind her of all she's accomplished," says Heather, age 35, of New York City. "I hope I inspire the people in my life to pursue their dreams, or at least that they know how great person I think they are."

Praise doesn't come naturally to you? "Practice," says Jacobson. Try giving one compliment a day, even if it's superficial ("Great tie"). Work up gradually to the more intimate stuff ("I really feel loved by you"). Says Jacobson: "The more you do it, the more you feel like doing it."

As far as learning to receive praise, consider this: when you deny or deflect, you're basically telling the other person they're wrong, which makes both of you feel more awkward. "The most humble thing you can do is accept it," says Jacobson. "You're not doing it for you, you're doing it for them." Really, all there is to say is one word: "Thanks."