• 11.09.11

Can You Be Damned By Strong Praise? If The Context Is Wrong, Absolutely

You can inadvertently send negative messages, even when you say only unambiguously positive things about someone. The reason has everything to do with context.

We all know how easy it is to damn someone with faint
praise.  When you describe a
coworker as “not completely useless,”
or a potential blind date as “decent enough looking, I guess,” other people
understand immediately what you are really saying. Faint praise is generally used intentionally, to send a
message. And that message is: steer
clear of that one


Why don’t we just come out and say what we really mean? The short answer is that  there is an awful lot of social
pressure to avoid directly criticizing
other people. Studies show that
people who “bad mouth” others are viewed very negatively. (Gossipers very much included–lots of
people like to hear gossip, but they
rarely like the person delivering it.) 

As the saying goes, “If you don’t have something nice to
say, don’t say it at all.” Faint
praise is a great way to get around that particular problem–you get to technically say something nice, knowing
that you are really saying something very different.

But what if you say something that isn’t just technically
nice, but is actually nice–something genuinely positive? New
by psychologists Nicolas Kervyn, Hilary Bergsieker, and Susan Fiske suggests
that you can still inadvertently send a negative message, even when you say
only unambiguously positive things–a kind of “accidental” innuendo.  The reason has everything to do with context.

When you are describing someone, people (largely
unconsciously) expect you to mention aspects of personality or character that
are relevant to the situation you are
in.  In other words, if you are
describing Bob to a potential employer, she will expect you to talk about Bob’s
competence–is he hard-working,
reliable, innovative? If, on the
other hand, you want to bring Bob along to a party and you are describing him
to the hostess, she will expect you to talk about Bob’s warmth–is he engaging, funny, easy to get along with?

When you violate those expectations–when you focus on
Bob’s warmth in the context of work, or praise his competence in a more social
setting, new studies show that people draw very negative conclusions (even
though, technically, you had only good things to say). They assume that since you aren’t
addressing what you should be addressing, you must be doing it
intentionally. What you aren’t saying leaves the biggest impact.

For instance, in one study, “Pat” was described as either “nice,
outgoing, and sociable,” or “smart, hard-working, and competent”  Participants were asked to evaluate Pat
as either a potential employee or as a fourth member of their travel party
across Europe. When Nice Pat was judged in the context of travel-buddy, the
overall impression was highly positive. But when Nice Pat was judged in the context of work, he/she was rated very
negatively. Participants assumed
that since no one mentioned Pat’s most relevant attribute–competence–that
Pat must be a very nice doofus.



The key to avoiding unintentional innuendo is to really think about context when you are
weighing in on someone’s good and bad qualities. You might think that your friend’s best quality is his
terrific sense of humor, but if that’s what you focus on when speaking to a
potential employer, you may cost your friend a job. Take the perspective of the person you are speaking to–what do they want to know about Bob? Focus on the most relevant attributes, and you are more
likely to leave the impression you actually intended.

To learn more about proven strategies for reaching goals and managing others, check out Heidi’s new HBR Single Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, or her new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.  Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson.  Her website is


[Image: Flickr user Johan Larkander]