Praise… Why Do I Withhold it?

Syndicated advice columnist, Ann Landers offered guidance for free to Americans for many years. And she became a legend in her day — a cultural icon — synonymous with modern-day social experts like Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura. Her popularity grew because her readers applied her suggestions and discovered what she proffered was deeper than just  “good advice” but really wisdom in day-to-day matters.

I remember reading one of her sound suggestions years ago: “Give a compliment. It will provide someone with a badly needed lift.” Immediately, I embraced those words and wanted to practice them.

The reason was simple: Compliments have impacted and encouraged me, so I wanted to do the same for others. In truth, it really jazzed me to consider that I possess the power to lift someone’s load — to change the complexion of a day for a friend.

Through that piece of good advice, I started pondering the whole idea of complimenting. It really is Christ-like; it’s what the Bible calls giving encouragement — exhorting, blessing, or breathing hope into a person for something they have achieved or done well, for good character and making right choices, even for how he or she looks or dresses. The reasons to bless another sincerely with our words are boundless…

Later, I stumbled upon a paper written by three college professors for the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, titled: “Withholding Compliments in Everyday Life and the Covert Management of Disaffiliation.”  That’s fancy words for “withholding compliments in everyday life and the undercover handling of the strained relationships it causes.” 

Wow! Relationships become strained by withholding compliments. It is a big enough deal that three professors studied and wrote about it.

It begins: “A compliment can readily enhance face and affiliation. thus the decision to withhold a deserved compliment contrasts with the fact that in everyday interactions, participants strive for the promotion and maintenance of face and affiliation.”

In other words: Compliments quickly boost a person’s sense of personal worth and strengthens  relationships. The decision to withhold a deserved compliment diminishes sense of personal worth and the relations around you. 

I read another study as well that said that if a boss gives a compliment to an employee publicly, it is as valuable as giving him a raise.

That says it all. A word of sincere encouragement publicly is worth its weight in gold… so why do we withhold compliments — publicly or privately?

The study by the three professors conducted a test to gather information. They asked a number of people to write down instances when they personally withheld compliments from others and why. They were not to manipulate or force the happening in any way, just take note of it and recreate it on paper.

They were also to write down instances when they suspected others withheld compliments from them. The situations themselves were fascinating to read. Here’s a few:

Situation: Teaching a class. Having finished a lesson, there was an opportunity for class participation/discussion. Numerous students offered opinions and/or questions. I was particularly impressed with the observations made by the fifth student to comment. I wanted to respond to this student’s observations by praising their insightfulness. However, I withheld the praise I was feeling because I thought that it might make the other students who had previously commented feel bad–in comparison, which might undermine their morale. What praise I gave this exceptional student was minimal and did not contrast from the remarks I made to the other students.

In this case, the teacher withheld a compliment in order not to demoralize other students who were working on the same project.

I work at a job that is very intense where you have to interview people on a constant basis. An applicant came in that was 23 years old with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, a Bachelor of Science in Applied Math from Yale University and will be graduating in August from USC with a Master of Arts in Industrial Economic Production. I usually commend all of my applicants on there [sic] educational achievements. I felt so envious of him because I have not achieved as much as he has. I did not say anything because it hurt so much.

This person admits that he did not compliment because he was jealous of the other person’s achievements.

A friend and myself went out to dinner. She had lost weight and looked really slim. I didn’t compliment her because I felt overweight.

Here is another instance of jealousy.

My roommates and I planned a Valentine Dinner for our boyfriends but we did not organize our plans nor decide who was in charge. We did not put out much effort, except for Sharon who did all the work. She purchased the groceries, cooked and decorated the apartment herself…That evening when we arrived everything was ready. We were all shocked and amazed, but no one really said anything to Sharon. I believe the reason for not bringing up the subject was because we were all embarrassed that Sharon had done all the work for us.

The people here withheld praise because they were embarrassed by the hard work and gift of another. In their minds, they compared themselves to the giver and came up short, so they did not offer a compliment.

A friend and I went out to lunch. I had just gotten my hair done and felt rather confident that it looked nice. My friend asked me if I had gotten a haircut, but that was all she said. I believe she did not compliment me because her hair did not look as nice.

This person did not like the person’s haircut, so withheld a compliment.

I withheld a compliment from a fellow musician with whom I was performing. He was playing very well, but I said nothing to him. I have complimented him many times in the past, but I think that I held back on this occasion because he’s a bit conceited and brags about himself sometimes. I guess I didn’t feel like feeding his ego that night.

Praise was held back because of the pride of another.

I was given an assignment recently that had a ridiculous deadline. The assignment involved intense research and analysis…I dove into the assignment as if my life depended on it…After hours of work (and unpaid overtime),I finished and placed the work on my supervisor’s desk before the deadline…That was one week ago. To this day, I have not heard one compliment…

 After gathering all the data, they came up with two reasons why people withhold compliments:

1) competitive situations

2) critical sentiments

 I can identify with all of these situations. I have been the person that has withheld rightful praise and the person that has not received it either. The situations are different but the reasons boil down to jealousy, pride, wanting to make others feel less, comparisons, and control. 

The study concludes with the notion that this is a problem in society; but because of its delicate nature, no one will bring it up. Therefore, it cannot be corrected. It is not acceptable to demand your own praise or to praise yourself. If a person does, then he/she risks not being praised in the future. This is a cultural behavior for which people remain unaccountable and do suffer in secret. It is just too touchy to broach the subject.

I found this fascinating.

I have tried to analyze why I  may hold my tongue when praise is due. I find it easy to liberally praise my husband and daughter. Maybe too much. Is there such a thing as too much praise? For certain people, I can pile on the compliments no matter what they have done or how they have acted — no matter what they will do in the future. I am rooting them on and on. Praise falls off my lips, because I love that person and accept him unconditionally.

I believe the injustices of life keep us from praising when we should. It is futile to endeavor to even the score on life’s injustices, large or small, by withholding a compliment. Even believers sometimes feel ripped off in some ways in this life, so why should we honor another or acknowledge the blessings or giftings of others?

We mistakenly feel that our acknowledgment of their goodness or beauty or achievement or character diminishes who we are.

But listen to this: Encourage each other every day while you have the opportunity. If you do this, none of you will be deceived by sin and become stubborn [Hebrew 3:13].

As believers, we must be accountable to others and God. We are to encourage or compliment the journey of each other DAILY, or we run the risk of becoming deceived by sin and stubborn. This shows how important it is to bless our family, friends, and acquaintances on life’s journey.

Society at large may be unaccountable for withholding praise, but as believers we are not. The Bible is clear, if we do not encourage one another daily there will be those who become deceived and stubborn. So we are accountable in reality. We just can’t let each other down.

I have found that being liberal with praise helps knock off the sharp edges of selfishness, jealousy, and pride. There are times when I want to withhold  compliments for pure jealousy and nothing else. If I break through to genuine praise, it opens my heart to others and to God. And it is amazing, it is possible to find many things to sincerely praise in others — in my enemies even.

Life and death are in the power of the tongue. My words can bring healing and hope on the simplest level from noticing a haircut to becoming a Ph.D. to being a firefighter during 9/11. The accomplishments, efforts, generosity, and actions of others are vast. They deserve praise.

Expressing sincere praise is the smallest of efforts compared to the selflessness of Jesus, who gave all.

Here’s the study for your reading pleasure.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Marcia says:

    Zing to me and thanks to you for opening my heart’s eyes.

  2. Kristi says:

    This is a great article! I’ve been thinking about this for a long time! You summarized it very well. I couldn’t put it into words! I will share this article!

  3. I just discovered this article after googling “why do people withhold compliments.” I wanted to see if anyone else has pondered this subject like I have! And you are a lover of Christ too! I enjoyed your commentary and all the examples of it. Such a interesting phenomenon. I love when you said “therefore, it cannot be corrected. It is not acceptable to demand your own praise or to praise yourself.” This is the conundrum! LOL but YES we are called to encourage each other daily in Christ, which takes the edge off and opens our hearts xoxo

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