The Whisper Campaign: Psst, You’re Amazing (Pass It On)

whisperingI‘m in the process of reading Derrick Jensen’s Walking on Water, a Gattoesque condemnation of our education systems. Although I’ll save his comments on how to help people learn more effectively for another post, he makes two points that apply to more than just learning. Although Jensen is one of the world’s most relentlessly pessimistic critics of modern society, when he tries to make people learn he is always complimentary, positive, respectful and encouraging — a cheerleader who believes his purpose is to enable people to realize their potential and focus on their strengths, not to browbeat them about their failures. And at the same time he is always honest to a fault. When he cannot honestly be complimentary, he says nothing. When it is necessary to challenge a suggestion, a concept or an idea, his criticism is always indirect and focused on how to make it better, not what’s wrong with it. His responses are more likely to start with what if than but, and more likely to end with a question mark than an exclamation point.

What’s more common, I think, in the Western world anyway, and not just in our education systems, is the exact opposite. We love debate. Our television and movie entertainments (both comedic and dramatic) are full of arguments, the more heated the better. A clever all-out rant is invigorating and fun to hear or read. In meetings we jump all over new proposals like vultures. Some teachers and professors pride themselves on reducing their students to tears. And when we are complimentary, it’s often dishonest — to salve our guilt, to seduce someone, for some other ulterior motive or just to bring an unpleasant or boring conversation to a quick close.

We are equally poor at accepting compliments, probably because we’re so used to them being dishonest or at least insincere. We expect they are often sycophantic, and meant for the consumption of others in the room more than for the recipient.

So I have a proposal. I want to start a Whisper Campaign. Sometime in the next 30 days, identify someone you genuinely admire, and when the opportunity presents itself, whisper, or say in a low voice, when no one else is paying attention: You’re amazing. And then just smile, pat them on the shoulder or shake their hand, and walk away.

Now I can hear you saying to yourself this won’t possibly work. Worse, it might get you charged with sexual harassment, pandering, or even infidelity. That’s why it’s important not to say it loud and not when anyone else can eavesdrop. It is less likely to be startling or embarrassing if it’s said quietly. The smile is to let them know you’re sincere and not being sarcastic (and don’t tell me people won’t assume you were being sarcastic — without the smile and the pat they might just stay awake all night fretting about what you really meant). And by just walking away you make it clear that you’re not expecting, or waiting for, a response. But make absolutely sure it’s sincere — if your motive for saying it is to get anything in return don’t say it (if you do, and it backfires, you deserve it — you’re cheapening the compliment and spoiling the Campaign for the rest of us).

What do you think will happen? At the very least, you will make that person feel better. It’s very possible they will ask you, when you next meet, what motivated you to say it, and why you did it that way. Just be honest, tell them you said it because you meant it, tell them that we are all too shy about complimenting people who deserve it, and if you like, tell them that some guy on the Internet is trying to start a Whisper Campaign to get everyone who receives such a compliment to pass it on to someone they really admire and from whom they want and expect nothing in return. Don’t be specific and don’t try to justify it in more detail than that. If they even try to return the compliment, politely stop them and explain that the Whisper Campaign is like Tag or Pay It Forward — no tag-backs are allowed.

I’ve done this three times recently — just as a test, but sincerely in each case. I got two beaming smiles back (even before I turned to walk away). I got one look of shock or puzzlement. To my surprise they all smiled at me when I next spoke to them and none of them mentioned my compliment again. This was better than I expected — no thank you’s and no awkward follow-ups to deal with. Were they too embarrassed to bring it up? Did they think I had temporarily lost my senses and want to spare me embarrassment? Or did it just work — make them feel better, and possibly rub off by giving them the courage to pass on compliments to others? Since they never asked about it again, I couldn’t formally start the Campaign with them, but I kinda think it has worked anyway.

If you try it, please let me know how it works for you. We may not start a meme, but maybe in a small way we’ll make the world a little better, a little happier, a little more honest.

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4 Responses to The Whisper Campaign: Psst, You’re Amazing (Pass It On)

  1. Praising students on the side, rather than in front of their peers, works for me all the time. Even more so with teenagers. I find that teens have mixed feelings about plaudits voiced before the class. Although they may feel proud, they’re somewhat squeamish about how their peers will react. They’re quite sensitive about jealousy or envy. And they’re not quite sure as to whether the message is intended for them or for the rest of the class.The same rule applies, if not more so, when we have no choice but to correct a student for his misbehaviour. A teacher should never knock a student in front of his peers. Let’s not forget that students are learners. If we want to encourage them to make mistakes, we shouldn’t openly criticize them when they do.

  2. You are refining your appreciative approach…I do this all the time too…it’s awesome.I like the Whisper Campaign idea. It shows the Gift economy at work.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    François: Yes. This is a change of philosophy for me. I have always criticized sparingly and in private, but generally praised in public. I’m learning to be more discreet, and more generous, in giving praise as well.

  4. Iain Lowe says:

    Hi Dave,I’m not sure this is really a change in philosophy but maybe more of a refinement of the previous ideas: there are certain types of praise that are more suited to being given in private. I think the key factor may be intimacy; if I have intimate praise for somebody, sharing it publically may work against me more often than not. Public praise should focus on shared goals whereas private praise should focus on personal and/or intimate aspects of the relationship.When you tell somebody that they are “amazing” you are referring to some aspect of your relationship with that person that causes you to be amazed. This is not something that needs to be bandied about or else it loses it’s subtlety.In social gatherings my girlfriend and I often spend a lot of time apart, flitting from one group of people to the next. We always manage to catch the other’s eye however and deliver a small, subtle gesture of caring even across a crowded room.I think private praise gives a feeling of belonging and closeness that is not acheived via public praise.I’ll stop rambling now and go praise somebody!

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