Giving compliments makes us anxious, but new research shows that praising people has huge benefits - for both parties.
“The happy phrasing of a compliment,” the writer Mark Twain once noted, “is one of the rarest of human gifts, and the happy delivery of it another.” Twain was describing a meeting with the Emperor of Germany, who had praised his books. But we can all surely identify with the sentiment: receiving sincere and well-expressed praise can feel as good as an unexpected windfall.
Unfortunately, our anxieties about the ways others may perceive our own words can prevent us from giving compliments ourselves. No one, after all, wants to come across as clumsy, patronising or fawning.
“Compliments are the easiest way to make other people – and, as a result, ourselves – feel better,” says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago. “But when a kind thought comes to mind, people often don’t say it.”
Yet three new studies on the psychology of compliment giving and receiving suggest that our fears about the ways our praise will be received are completely unfounded. And by letting go of that awkwardness, we could all enjoy better relationships with our friends, family members and colleagues.
Across numerous experiments, the researchers found that the participants significantly under-estimated how happy the other person would be to hear the praise, and significantly over-estimated how cringe-worthy they would find the encounter.
If you do have a kind thought that marks genuine respect for the other person, the message of the scientific research is clear: share it. Contrary to Twain’s aphorism, you do not require any rare gift to show your appreciation of someone’s best qualities.
“It doesn’t cost anything,” says Xuan Zhao, a psychologist at Stanford University. “It’s a really efficient way to make other people feel happy.”