Service of Praise Glut

April 21st, 2011

Categories: Appreciation, Language, Manner of Speech, Praise


I love complimenting people and try to live by the adage “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything–but try to look for something legitimate to admire.”

I don’t think compliments happen too often after childhood when caregivers yell out “GOOD JOB” when a child turns a doorknob. I write a boss about an outstanding staffer or speedy response to my inquiry and most often get back a note that says “We appreciate your comments because most customers contact us with complaints.”

My friend Nancie Steinberg sent me Lucy Kellawy’s article, “You might be a total genius, but I wouldn’t tell you so,” in the Financial Times. Kellawy writes from London: “Last week, when a woman in our travel department booked me a flight, I sent her an e-mail: ‘That’s absolutely marvellous – thanks so much.’

congratulations“In congratulating her so warmly for doing her job, I thought I was being charming and gracious, but now I see I was actually doing something rather darker. Not only was I debasing the language, but was pushing a drug that turns people into demotivated, infantile, praise-dependent junkies.”

She goes on to tell about a colleague whose boss at his new job elaborately praised him for each and every utterance in his columns. She added: “When I said that this sounded rather nice, he gave me a scornful look. It made him think his editor stupid, which made him feel stupid by extension. To be considered a total genius for merely delivering his column on time was degrading all round.”

And she pointed out that exaggeration and overstatement is rampant in the workplace in the UK these days [American style] where all staffers are called “talent,” and an ordinary comment is referred to as “insight.”

drugs2She goes on to write: “Congratulation inflation not only damages language, it is bad for us psychologically. Praise is a Class A drug and we crave more and get upset when we don’t get any in sufficiently pure form.” She compared workers to 10 year olds in a Columbia University study where those praised for being clever gave up when given a tough task and those called diligent kept working until they met the challenge.

I disagree with Kellawy. At almost 5 pm on Friday I sent unexpected copy involving a tight deadline to Emily Moses, a junior staffer working on the New York Women in Communications account, asking her to distribute the info to two boards, expecting to see it in my email inbox on Monday. She sent it in minutes. I was elated. I thanked her then and commend her again here. Emily would move on a dime if she thought it important so why be stingy with praise?

How do you take to praise? Does it motivate or impede you? Do you dole it out generously or judiciously? Can there ever be too much?


10 Responses to “Service of Praise Glut”

  1. Martha Takayama Said:

    I agree with the idea that praise is a positive element to be offered generously and frequently whenever appropriate.

    Our prevailing culture is increasingly rude and inconsiderate. It seems that the worse our economy gets the more service declines leading to an ever increasing downward spiral. I was amazed that as I wandered with two other companions (one male, one female) through a fashionable and prominent but empty department store earlier this week not one salesperson offered any assistance. Rather they stood clustered in groups of 3 or 4 chatting among themselves or they simply whisked by us!

    Consequently it is more important than ever to recognize competent or outstanding behavior with expressions of written or oral praise. One can only hope that doing so further motivates the recipient thus contributing to further positive results. I always make a point of acknowledging polite and thorough service, administrative or professional. It seems arrogant, misanthropic, and counterproductive to withhold praise.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Something has been nagging me about Lucy Kellawy’s point of view and I wonder if it has to do with our culture versus hers. Americans are known for saying “thank you” too much according to other cultures and perhaps some of us also praise people too much. I think of Upstairs Downstairs [have you seen the update?] and typical English reserve….or is this a caricature?

    When my Dad, who was French, said, “pas mal,” meaning “not bad” when I’d show him a new outfit, the translation was that he liked it. He never raved about anything unless he disliked it and then we heard about it loud and clear!

  3. Martha Takayama Said:

    I can’t imagine at this point in time that Americans are known for being overly polite or gracious or even saying “Thank you”, too much!

    Furthermore, the act of offering praise per se is also not an indication of the level of our standards.

    I stand firm in perceiving a certain arrogance in Kellwys point of view. It doesn’t appear to be an updated evaluation of our cultural or socio- economic reality.

    We may often use elaborately misleading titles to inflate the importance of jobs. Public figures often distort language as exemplified by saying “misspeak” for “lie”. However, I am at a loss to pinpoint where excessive praise is being lavished socially or in the workplace.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    When I think of inflated titles sanitation engineer for garbage collector comes to mind.

    And the “misspeak” word misused to gloss over a lie is pathetic. Thanks for reminding me. It puts hot pepper on the sore left by the lie when a simple apology would go so far to heal.

    I fear you are right that we can’t be accused of too much praise and too many thank you’s these days, though recently a client sent me a surprise handmade hourglass to thank me for my time that I adore and makes me happy every time I see it.

    And “you’re welcome” is rarely heard in favor of “no problem.”

  5. Cynthia Hanson Said:

    I believe acknowledging someone for their thoughtful behavior or achieving success in their endeavors is a right and just element to living life to its fullest. Since we learn by example, being thankful exudes graciousness and gratitude.

  6. Lucrezia Said:

    There should be no rules about praise other than it comes with spontaneity. It’s the knee jerk stuff which turns people off and ranks with the insincere. On the other side of the coin is the ugly attitude of looking down at achievement with a degrading remark such as: “This is what is expected of you.” Instead of making the victim try harder (undoubtedly the intention) it discourages and removes motive to succeed. There’s way too much psychobabble about the way we behave these days. How about forgetting what effects such and such has upon whom, and just act normally? Everyone will be the better for it.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree with you. I see praise as acknowledgement and recognition, all good things.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The “have a nice day” version of knee jerk praise you refer to is nauseating and the insincerity you mention is eye-rolling and does more harm than good. The whole topic of motivation is interesting. I marvel at the bosses who do it well and yet I think that some people will work the best they can whether or not they hear a whisper of praise. And yet the praise might push them to do even better than they thought!

  9. Simon Carr Said:

    It think it all depends on the situation you are in.

    I worked for one boss, in two very different jobs, each for over ten years. As far as I can remember, I was never praised by either man. Nor, was my job performance ever reviewed, violating every corporate rule on the books. (The latter was reassuring because I could not have been fired without my having been formally reviewed at least once.) On the other hand, both men were generous with what they thought, and their time and counsel when I did something wrong. Although very different one from the other, one was a Colombian, the other, a Saudi, they both were wonderful to work for.

    I tend to complement excessively in certain situations, if I think doing so will get me what I want from someone of whom I have low expectations. I tend to praise less someone who knows what he or she is doing, and my expectations are likely to be met. I always praise if performance exceeds my expectations, in amounts varied to suit the personality of the receipient. I also find humor helpful in making a complement sound more sincere, as it is in most things.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Like you, many feel that their paycheck is enough praise….along with being paid attention to. They gave you the gift of time and attention so that you could do well and feel pride in your work which is the best gift.

    If I am in a nervous-making situation, like you I may over do my praise because I feel so relieved to have gotten through a tricky or uncomfortable period I’m rejoicing in a way and I’m simply babbling as I back away.

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