As I moved about doing errands over the past week, I saw it happen a lot. In fact, I was surprised how often it occurred.
There was the woman chastising her husband loudly because he'd forgotten something as they stood in the checkout line at a grocery store. She was visibly irritated, and he took the brunt. It was hard to watch — and in fact it made me feel a little irritable because I had.
And then there was the man arguing with his wife about his preferences for shrubs in their yard. They were standing in a garden center filled with colorful plants in all shapes and sizes — there was even a tiny hummingbird hovering on a nearby fuchsia. It should have been a delightfully happy moment. Instead, he was wagging his finger and saying, "You simply don't know what you're talking about" for all to hear. Yes, he was actually wagging his finger.
Counter those experiences with one where you witness a grandmother kissing a talkative child on his little tousled head as he sits in the grocery cart and "helps" her shop. Or the elderly man who holds the door, smiles and tips his hat to a tattooed teenager with lip rings. I saw that, too.
Irritability and grumpiness are contagious. So is good will. A little acknowledgement, a sentence worth of praise, an unexpected smile can change everything. I'm not talking about compliments.
This is not about, "You have the bluest eyes!" or, "That was a great meal." Those are fine statements, and we need to use more of them. Research at Marquette University demonstrated that compliments are so important that even when the speaker is insincere, they are still effective. But praise is different.
Even when the acknowledgement is not directed at you, there's spillover effect for others who witness it. It's like a smile that stays in the atmosphere. The person acknowledged stands a little taller and is more likely to acknowledge the next person they encounter more positively. Praise glorifies. Praise begets joy. Well delivered praise indicates we're paying complete attention to a situation and the people involved.
Seems simple, but it's not. And there are a few cautions.
Praise is best provided in frequent, small doses, best communicated one-on-one.
Think about the last time you, from-the-heart, acknowledged someone you care about with a "well done." If it was as recently as yesterday, I salute you. If you cannot easily call up a recent moment in which authentic acknowledgement was given or received, I invite you to change that.
I've done my own research on the nature of praise this past week. It was launched as the result of a difficult exchange with my husband over something that now seems trivial. In a few short minutes, we were both grumpy and out-of-sorts. We seldom really argue, so the moment has stayed with me. Actually, it's probably the reason behind this column. In fact, I think I wrote a similar column, years ago, after we had a stay-in-the-air verbal skirmish.
This stuff takes practice. But if we each did just a little more regular praise-giving and some occasional hat-tipping, who knows what could happen next.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.