We all like to receive a compliment. Praise can make us feel good and improve our day. In many cases, they help to shorten the distance between two strangers and make the meeting more pleasant and closer. Other times they tell the other that we are there and that he or she is important to us. In fact, it is estimated that we need to give and receive five compliments for every criticism. However, we are often sparing when it comes to praising someone.
Why don’t we give more praise?
Giving and receiving compliments is an art that not everyone masters. An interesting study conducted at the universities of Pennsylvania and Cornell revealed the complex psychological web behind a simple compliment.
These psychologists asked the participants to approach a stranger and praise him or her. In some cases the compliment was prepared and in others they had to create it themselves.
The researchers analyzed how participants felt before praising other people and what emotional effect they thought their comment would have. They also evaluated the emotional effect the compliment actually had on the person who received it.
The results reveal that we usually avoid praising someone because we misjudge how others will react. In practice, we underestimate the importance of praise. Not only we are not fully aware of the benefits of giving praise, but we are even concerned about the response of the others.
In fact, these researchers found that, even after praising someone, the emotional effect we think we had does not accurately reflect how the person being praised feels. And, in a general sense, people appreciated compliments and felt better after receiving them. But we are not fully aware of it.
Why do we underestimate the importance of praise?
This study reveals that we often feel nervous and doubt our ability to praise someone, causing us to underestimate the positive effect of our words on the person in question. In other words, we hide ourselves behind insecurity and fear.
In fact, people who only had to guess how someone would react to a compliment – but did not have to give or receive any and acted as mere observers – judged better how those who received compliments would feel compared to the people who gave them. Obviously, these people were not nervous, so their emotions did not affect their ability to assess the positive impact and importance of praise.
The moral of this research is that compliments often make us feel good, and when they are genuine they become a powerful tool for connecting with other people and brightening their day.
How should a compliment be?
For a compliment to hit the target and generate positive experiences, it must meet some basic conditions:
• Express something positive that we really feel, so that our words sound genuine. It is not worth flattering the other person. Saying for saying spoils all the magic. The compliments must be genuine.
• Be natural, so that our words do not sound forced or circumstantial. As a general rule of thumb, the more natural and authentic a compliment is, the better received it will be and the more positive its impact will be.
• Speak in the first person to show our involvement. An impersonal compliment will sound forced. It is not the same to say a cold and impersonal “good job” than “I really liked your work yesterday”. Expressing our opinion speaking in the first person sounds closer and has a more positive emotional effect.
• Be specific, as overblown and unsubstantiated praise often sound bogus. Instead of using terms like “exceptional” or “perfect”, it is better to focus on the action or quality that we want to praise. In fact, psychologists at the University of Utrecht found that even as children, we often feel uncomfortable with excessive praise and prefer a more specific compliment.
In any case, it is important to remember that a compliment can not only do good to the recipient, but also says a lot about whoever does it. A person who resorts to genuine compliments is an observant, empathetic and affectionate person with the others, who cares about connecting and finds what is positive in others. Praise allows us to get out of our self-centeredness to focus on the others.
So the next time you appreciate someone’s kindness, a job well done, or a positive quality, try to make your mark with praise. That person will receive it in a much more positive way than you think and you can even make his or her day. A compliment costs very little but makes a lot.
Boothby, E.J. & Bohns, V.K. (2021) Why a simple act of kindness is not as simple as it seems: Underestimating the positive impact of our compliments on others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin; 47: 826-840.
Brummelman, E. et. Al. (2014) “That’s Not Just Beautiful – That’s Incredibly Beautiful!” The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children With Low Self-Esteem. Psychological Science; 25(3): 728-735.