Most of us are habitually stingy with praise. The reasons vary from concern that "excessive" praise would cheapen it, to fear that it would make us look pathetic and fawning. I think that these concerns stem from a few misunderstandings about the nature of praise.
One problem is our experience with insincere praise, otherwise known as flattery. We have all had experience with people who will flatter us in order to manipulate. A reputation for flattery is very unsavory. Once we have a reputation for insincerity, our opinions - both positive and negative - will be discounted.
Another form of false praise can be a style of polite speech. Someone who uses the language of praise in casual contexts may have a harder time differentiating actual praise.
Both of these problems are solved by praise which is specific and concrete. Studies of child-rearing have shown that children who are given generic praise (e.g. you are so smart, or strong, or pretty) actually have lower self-esteem than those who are given specific, concrete praise:
- "That was a hard math problem! You stuck with it and figured it out - I'm really impressed!"
- "Wow! You carried all those heavy shopping bags in one trip!"
- "That color really brings out you eyes!"
This does not stop being true after childhood. General compliments, while nice, may be suspect on either of the grounds described above. Specific, concrete praise, is grounded in reality and can therefore be internalized and affirmed by the recipient.
It takes an effort to give this kind of praise. You have to really think about what it is that you are acknowledging. But praise done right will not land as insincere or excessive, and will not cheapen either the giver or the recipient.