I was recently playing a friendly round of golf with a gentleman for whom I have great respect for. We discuss my writing from time to time and, since he has a genuine interest in proper etiquette and protocol, he suggested a topic. In golf, we often praise others by saying, “good shot” or something equivalent. In my case, I’m happy to see the ball advancing in a forward direction, so “well, it’s getting closer” is better than “you’re still far away.” But the topic of praise and the appropriate use of it was what my friend was getting at. He suggested that instilling the idea of praising someone, whether teammate or opponent, is an essential part of good sportsmanship. And I quite agree with him. It is important to teach this to our children and those who are put in our trust. It is one of those soft skills which make it possible for us to advance as a society. It does take some effort. It is not a natural human quality, so we must teach it both at home and at school and practice it at work.
Because I enjoy watching many competitive sports both live and on television, I was excited to have had the opportunity to walk around the Algonquin Golf Course and follow some of the top amateur players competing in The Barrett Amateur, sponsored by the Barretts of Woodstock. Many of the players knew each other, but many did not. Even so, when a player hit a good shot, he was acknowledged by his fellow opponents. This sort of sportsmanship is also evident on the tennis court at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Learning this behavior at an early age is important in building character and shows a well-developed sense of self-confidence and respect for others.
In business, praise is an important way for employers to develop productive workers. Positive reinforcement has never done any harm. People like doing business with, or working for, people they like. Affirming the work someone is doing goes a long way in having them like you. It makes it far easier to give constructive criticism when necessary as well. Praise is validation. Validation is one thing that people like more than anything.
But every coin has two sides. There is something known as a backhanded or left-handed compliment. This is also known as “damning with faint praise” and linguistically is known as an asteism. By definition, this means polite irony or a genteel and ingenious manner of deriding another. Examples include referring to someone as “pleasant enough” or to a work of art as “interesting.”
Another part of the flip side is giving false praise. This can be confusing to the recipient. For example, telling someone they’ve done a good job when they haven’t. This might be an attempt to build confidence in another person, but it reinforces poor behavior and habits. For those of us who have dogs, this is evident. It is important to keep things simple, clear and consistent when training a puppy. This is conveyed with tone of voice, the look in your eye and your body language. Dogs may be more sensitive to this because it is the way they communicate; however, we as humans also react to these signals.
Too often we say things we think are clever or amusing, but which are really insulting. This seems to happen most often and most successfully in the political arena. That’s to be expected there. But it is not appropriate in polite society. We must be ever mindful of what we say.
So, to me, praise is an important way to communicate our positive feelings to another person. We should do it when it is appropriate and to seek out those opportunities. If we open our eyes to what is happening around us, we will find plenty of chances to pat someone on the back, or even give them a leg up. By validating people when they have truly done something good, which in reality is probably quite often, it makes them feel better about themselves and about you.