Once upon a time parents were sparse with praise. It was thought that children ought not to be praised because they might get a swollen head. Correspondingly, parents who praised their kids beyond pride in their nursery rhyme reciting abilities were looked on as immodest and somehow unseemly. Teachers too seemed to subscribe to this tough love philosophy. That seemed to have been the general culture — although it did not mean that parents or other elders were not loving in general. Praise if it was handed out, was only in the face of success — people who always came first in class (obviously not me!), people who were rich, girls who were very desirable. This was perhaps not so much praise as it was an acknowledgment or affirmation of power.
Perhaps the idea of being stingy with praise is also meant to egg you on to do better, aim higher, Tiger Mom style. It may well make you more competitive. It certainly didn’t have that impact on me. Of course I learned all about sarcasm, but it also left me second-guessing the world, unsure of myself and constantly struggling with anxiety about my work. But like most people I knew, I was used to it, as we are to whatever seems normal to us — until we experience something different.When I first encountered cultures where praise is more easily handed out, I was uneasy. Here, at home, in India, I was more used to sarcasm and backhanded compliments which passed for praise. Meaning, if you’d been paid attention to, then you must be liked. Sort of like schoolboys pulling a girl’s pigtails to show their interest.
I became easier with it, but often it would set my teeth on edge — because praise, especially of children, in some places, seemed quite the same as criticism. It was instrumental, intended to make them compete and succeed, rather than just blossom. It seemed it only served to make them extraordinarily thin-skinned.
We often see praise used as currency. We’re all familiar with the fluttering admirer of our writing, photos or choice in earrings. We feel flattered, even a bit pleased by the attention and approbation. Amazed that we can inspire such uncontrolled admiration in someone. Yet we feel pressured to do the same — and when somehow unable to — we earn a simmering resentment in return, which we don’t always understand.This kind of transactional praise can be debilitating — making it impossible to know oneself or others. In fact it’s only about exercising power.
For this reason we also see people treat those who praise them as somehow faltu, not worthy of respect. Perhaps learning to give and take this praise in a genuine way is a sort of big learning for us as a society if we want to create systems and objects of beauty and relevance.
Over time I’ve certainly learned how magical a thing genuine praise can be — as opposed to praise excessively bestowed or withheld. How much confidence and belief it can give you and also, how much it can increase your ability to accept criticism and to not be threatened but rather, exhilarated and inspired by the excellence of others.
Giving and taking praise in fact are an act of generosity, trust and eventually comradeship which make the tasks life and work set out before us so much easier. And without fair praise, fair criticism also does not find a form. But perhaps both of these ask for a deeper relationship with equality — for the grace to treat others and also feel equal, a path we as a culture are struggling with.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.