In praise of praise

More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need gentleness and kindness.” — Charlie Chaplin

smilefacePlacing my order in the drive-thru line of a fast-food restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised by the woman who responded on the speaker. Upbeat and professional, her Diane Sawyer-like delivery changed my perception of the restaurant — so much so, in fact, that I mentioned it when I pulled up to the window for my onion rings.

“Wow, thanks for the compliment!” she answered, as stunned as she was pleased. “Nobodys ever said that before.”

I shared this little episode with an editor who agreed that few of us are used to hearing praise or applause these days. (Journalists, after all, endure more public scolding on a daily basis than any other profession.)

And you dont have to read the viewpoint pages to realize there are an awful lot of folks out there whove managed to turn griping and nitpicking into a full-time hobby. Maybe its human nature to derive pleasure from pointing out everything thats wrong in the world, from errors of grammar to fashion mistakes. Or maybe its symptomatic of a clinically crabby culture. Either way, lately Ive noticed that people would just as soon flip you the bird from behind a car window as say something nice to you in person. How sad is that?

Not that we shouldnt be held accountable for errors or asked to repair what we’ve damaged. Criticism often paves the road to improvement. But if negative criticism is all we hear, well, its just plain demoralizing.

Thats why Ive made it my mission to practice a new approach: I catch others doing something right, and then I tell them so. It really isnt as radical as it sounds, since paying a compliment neednt be such a big deal. Praise shouldnt be confused with flattery, nor should it be saved for special occasions like award banquets, retirement parties, and funerals.

If the dinner special is outstanding, for example, I ask the waiter to share my review with the chef. If my new haircut is especially flattering, Im just as generous with my kudos as I am with my stylists tip. If my son takes extra care with his household chores, I tell him that his effort didnt go unnoticed. And if a girlfriend shows up in a sharp new outfit, I tell her how terrific she looks.

As corny as it sounds, I really do feel better when I make others feel good. Even Mark Twain, our greatest American cynic, once admitted that he could “live for two months on a good compliment.” I also believe that every piece of mean-spirited criticism we hurl, whether its a spiteful comment about a coworkers promotion or a lethal letter to the editor, will eventually fly back in our faces like a pie in a Three Stooges film.

Karma can be a bitch, after all.

An impressive body of medical research indicates that chronic complainers and negative thinkers are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, including cancer. Negativity is highly contagious, which is why nobody likes to hang around people who make a habit of it.

This summer, I finished two books by an author whose elegant prose lifted me higher and made me feel like a better person for having read his work. At the end of each book, he extended this invitation: “I always enjoy hearing from readers and fellow pilgrims, and sincerely hope youll write and tell me what you think.”

Someday, when Ive finished grumbling about my lack of free time, Im going to sit down and write that guy a nice letter.

This essay is excerpted from my story collection, Writing Home, available from in print and Kindle editions. Ordering info is included at the top of this Web site. 

Artwork at top is a mixed-media assemblage in progress, by Cindy La Ferle