In praise of all things not nice

Once when I was a teenager, I designed my own funeral. What might have been a medication red flag for some kids was only Saturday night with a new notebook for a saint-obsessed, Brian’s SongSunshineDeath Be Not Proud-movie-of-the-week-weepy addict, folk singing, beatnik wannabe. I listed the music first (very heavy on the Peter, Paul and Mary and Simon and Garfunkel), then the location (outside), the flowers (lilacs and carnations), the speakers (my dad, one of my teachers) and finally and most essential, the content of the eulogy. I included all my best attributes, a few brilliant passages from my journals as well as ideas and wisdom I felt were unique and might be lost to the world in the event of my untimely death. I feared that the image people had of me and the image they would have spoken of was inaccurate: too nice, too tame, certainly not tortured enough. I wanted them to pay tribute to the “real me,” a brave but edgy girl worth remembering. Basically, I wanted to control my own spin, even from beyond the grave.

This bizarre memory came back to me as I attended a work-sponsored dinner celebrating employee longevity. The annual party recognizes benchmarks at five-year intervals and various managers prepare speeches for associates who have been with the company for 5, 10, even 25 years. Sometimes the comments were more roast than toast, sharing quirks or relating funny stories, but most were straight up tributes, detailing contributions and strengths. What was interesting was the reaction of the individuals being honored. Some seemed to be having the time of their lives, grabbing the microphone to clarify anecdotes, wincing and grinning, glowing with pride in their new dress or tie. Others stood as still as a tree trunk, their faces forced into an upturned grimace, clearly mortified.

I am definitely one of the tree people, very squeamish with public praise. Yet I have a very visible job. I facilitate time and space for associates to discover insights they already knew, but which they tend to attribute to my influence. I am very deft at directing these conversations toward owning their experience and away from the woman behind the curtain. I make self-deprecating disclaimers, sharing credit with anyone who might be in the building at the time. I genially wave it all aside like gnats.

This is ironic considering I teach these same managers how to utilize praise as a technique for improving performance. In a recent class we discussed when positive feedback is effective and when it’s not. Like many topics in a classroom setting, we compared models and formulas and highlighted my favorite soapboxes: specific behavior, timeliness, relevance to key responsibilities, linkage to business priorities, developmental appropriateness, establishing relationships, tone of delivery, etc. As with many topics in the classroom setting, the reality of how people respond is much more complex than what can be scribbled on a flip chart.

For example, I get embarrassed when I am told that I am smart. First, I know that in any cross-section of humans, there will be some dazzlingly more intelligent and woefully less and every variation in between. Second, my smartness varies depending on what I had for breakfast and whether or not the issue at hand includes numbers or sports. Third, I can’t really impact my smartness one way or another except for the vain hope that crossword puzzles will maintain aging brain cells. Smart is like hair that curls or stylish shoes or a presentation I threw together at the last minute that worked because of luck and coffee; it is just small talk, the ebb and flow of casual conversation, a way of interpreting a person in lieu of actual data.

Blue moon occasionally, I will accept an offer of praise with true gratitude. I can’t speak for everyone; it was clear watching the awards ceremony that some people simply love the limelight and feel more self-confident about their accomplishments. I respect a healthy measure of entitlement. But for me, the difference between uncomfortable praise and swagger-inducing praise was apparent long ago in my funeral instructions. Meaningful praise has the buzz of real connection. It reflects the desire to be known and understood. It recognizes a feat or quality valued by both the recipient and the observer. It signifies rigorous and satisfying effort. The best praise feels like someone has inadvertently read your script.

Compliment an over-edited, fussed and re-fussed scrap of writing (“great post!”) and I will smile. Admire my flowers and I may puff up like a peacock. Mention that you have seen or read something by one of my sons and I will start singing like Mama Rose. These are closer to the core, what those who know me know I care about.

Someone came up to me at work and said that she had been looking forward to meeting me. She said, “I heard you were nice.” We chatted cordially, but inwardly I was horrified. Nice? She heard I was nice? If I were hit by a truck tomorrow, this was not a description I would want lingering in anyone’s memory. I determined to pull out and refresh my eulogy again. Just in case. I must make certain that the world would appreciate the loss of such a fierce and mighty aphid hunter.

15 responses to “In praise of all things not nice”

  1. Great post!

    Or, should that be — great post, fierce and mighty aphid hunter!

    more seriously — i hope you’re busily planning your ToC for your best-selling management handbook. we know it will be called “the bowie factor,” but what about the subtitle? “surviving gen x management”?

  2. i bet she heard you were nice by reading your comments here. we’ll have to take care of that problem.

    you are one mean-assed bitch, brewer!

  3. PB says:

    damn straight

  4. MF says:

    Brewer,
    I’m so in love with y ou, I can almost cry.

  5. Meaningful praise has the buzz of real connection

    Nicely put. I’m kind of a praise junkie, when I get meaningful praise I get that immediate, pleasant neuroreceptor boost that I associate with marihuana. Even a quick “good job!” from somebody that I think of as an authority figure and whom I trust, is enough to give me a little rush. But gushy praise from somebody who doesn’t know what they’re talking about is just off-putting.

  6. Dave says:

    Is “marihuana” the new preferred spelling? Hipster-retro, like the fad for rye cocktails?

    I am quite uncomfortable with praise, but like you say, Pandora, a well-targeted compliment can sometimes be really great. Mostly I just blush and say thanks — an improvement over trying to argue the complimenter out of praising me, which is what I used to do.

  7. the new preferred spelling

    Naw, it’s the old preferred spelling. But I’m like Humpty Dumpty in my dealings with words.

  8. LT says:

    pandora is not smart and not nice. this post proves it. pandora will kick your ass.

  9. You get embarrassed when people tell you you’re smart? I get mad when people tell me I’m cute. I’ve tried all my life to be everything else but cute, but I bet, even when I’m eight-two, people will tell me I’m cute.

    I like your fourth paragraph.. I like the whole thing, but, at the risk of sounding cute, the fourth one had real zing.

  10. Dang it. I meant eighty-two and the fifth paragraph.

  11. LP says:

    “Dang it.”

    aww, that’s cute!

  12. even when I’m eight-two

    How is the heightening therapy coming along?

  13. Hey, Dave, have you seen any new way to knock someone over the head on The Internetz lately?

  14. ann feign says:

    i can just see you in this writing. your facial expressions, the tone of your voice, everything. you really know how to keep it real.