Unit Ten:Profits of Praise
Are we too quick to blame and slow to praise? It seems we are.
Profits of Praise
It was the end of my exhausting first day as waitress in a busy New York restaurant. My cap had gone awry, my apron was stained, my feet ached. The loaded trays I carried felt heavier and heavier. Weary and discouraged, I didn't seem able to do anything right. As I made out a complicated check for a family with several children who had changed their ice-cream order a dozen times, I was ready to quit.
Then the father smiled at me as he handed me my tip. "Well done," he said. "You've looked after us really well."
Suddenly my tiredness vanished. I smiled back, and later, when the manager asked me how I'd liked my first day, I said, "Fine!" Those few words of praise had changed everything.
Praise is like sunlight to the human spirit; we cannot flower and grow without it. And yet, while most of us are only too ready to apply to others the cold wind of criticism, we are somehow reluctant to give our fellows the warm sunshine of praise.
Why - when one word can bring such pleasure? A friend of mine who travels widely always tries to learn a little of the language of any place she visits. She's not much of a linguist, but she does know how to say one word - "beautiful" - in several languages. She can use it to a mother holding her baby, or to lonely salesman fishing out pictures of his family. The ability has earned her friends all over the world.
It's strange how chary we are about praising. Perhaps it's because few of us know how to accept compliments gracefully. Instead, we are embarrassed and shrug off the words we are really so glad to hear. Because of this defensive reaction, direct compliments are surprisingly difficult to give. That is why some of the most valued pats on the back are those which come to us indirectly, in a letter or passed on by a friend. When one thinks of the speed with which spiteful remarks are conveyed, it seems a pity that there isn't more effort to relay pleasing and flattering comments.
It's especially rewarding to give praise in areas in which effort generally goes unnoticed or unmentioned. An artist gets complimented for a glorious picture, a cook for a perfect meal. But do you ever tell you laundry manager how pleased you are when the shirts are done just right? Do you ever praise your paper boy for getting the paper to you on time 365 days a year?
Praise is particularly appreciated by those doing routine jobs: gas-station attendants, waitresses - even housewives. Do you ever go into a house and say, "What a tidy room"? Hardly anybody does. That's why housework is considered such a dreary grind. Comment is often made about activities which are relatively easy and satisfying, like arranging flowers; but not about jobs which are hard and dirty, like scrubbing floors. Shakespeare said, "Our praises are our wages." Since so often praise is the only wage a housewife receives, surely she of all people should get her measure.
Mothers know instinctively that for children an ounce of praise is worth a pound of scolding. Still, we're not always as perceptive as we might be about applying the rule. One day I was criticizing my children for squabbling. "Can you never play peacefully?" I shouted. Susanna looked at me quizzically. "Of course we can," she said. "But you don't notice us when we do."
Teachers agree about the value of praise. One teacher writes that instead of drowning students' compositions in critical red ink, the teacher will get far more constructive results by finding one or two things which have been done better than last time, and commenting favorably on them. "I believe that a student knows when he has handed in something above his usual standard," writes the teacher, "and that he waits hungrily for a brief comment in the margin to show him that the teacher is aware of it, too."
Behavioral scientists have done countless experiments to prove that any human being tends to repeat an act which has been immediately followed by a pleasant result. In one such experiment, a number of schoolchildren were divided into three groups and given arithmetic tests daily for five days. One group was consistently praised for its previous performance; another group was criticized; the third was ignored.
Not surprisingly, those who were praised improved dramatically. Those who were criticized improved also, bus not so much. And the scores of the children who were ignored hardly improved at all. Interestingly the brightest children were helped just as much by criticism as by praise, but the less able children reacted badly to criticism, needed praise the most. Yet the latter are the very youngsters who, in most schools, fail to get the pat on the back.
To give praise costs the giver nothing but a moment's thought and a moment's effort - perhaps a quick phone call to pass on a compliment, or five minutes spent writing an appreciative letter. It is such a small investment - and yet consider the results it may produce. "I can live for two months on a good compliment," said Mark Twain.
So, let's be alert to the small excellences around us - and comment on them. We will not only bring joy into other people's lives, but also, very often, added happiness into out own.
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