“But I heard he’s abusive at home.”
“She looks great.”
“True, but I heard she takes diet pills and her kids are starving.”
We’ve all heard conversations like this, high praise followed by instant critique.
Imagine, for a moment, that someone stood on a rooftop and yelled out your praises. It would feel great. How validating it would be to hear accolades flying through the air, landing every which way, for friends and strangers to hear. But Proverbs warns that such behavior can be devastating and, ultimately, a curse. Because of the faulty or vague pronoun reference at the end of the verse, we are not exactly sure who will be cursed. Perhaps the person with a loud voice who wakes others early in the morning will be cursed by his neighbors. Few would appreciate an alarm clock that sing someone else’s praises, although it might be affirming to have an alarm clock that sings one’s own.
A more likely interpretation is that the object of another person’s praise will be cursed. The Talmud seeks to understand why [BT Bava Batra 164b-165a). Once, the Talmud scholar Rabbi Shimon was sitting in front of his father and reading chapters from the book of Psalms. Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, his father, saw the book and admired its calligraphy. Humbly, Rabbi Shimon said, “I didn’t write it,” and credited another person’s handiwork. His father then retorted: “Turn away from uttering this malicious speech.”
Malicious speech? This makes no sense. Rabbi Shimon was praising a scribe, not criticizing one. The Talmud continues, arguing that this, indeed, makes no sense. “What malicious speech is there?” the scholars ask. “A person should never speak the praises of another, as out of the praise about him someone may come to speak to his detriment.” Ouch.
We humans are insecure creatures. Working from a scarcity model, when we hear too much praise of someone else, we falsely believe that its diminishes our own positive sense of self. Our egos are bruised or maybe, because of our own narcissistic tendencies, we interpret the praise of someone else as an implicit criticism of ourselves. Why am I not better, worthier, more talented? Am I not as good as this guy, the object of someone else’s adoration? We’ve all heard compliments given to others, and our first instinct is to find fault. We need praise, and yet we minimize the praise of others. It’s this that the Talmud warns us of in our human interactions.
There are commentaries that suggest that loud praise is a form of false flattery. “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that speaks proud things,” advises a verse in Psalms (12:4). Maybe the Talmud is suggesting that when someone screams another’s praises rather than sharing it person to person, they are doing so for their own personal gain. Again, we all know – and may be guilty of this ourselves – people who receive false praise because the one who compliments wants something from them: money, connections, support. This kind of praise is disingenuous and promotes a lack of authenticity in our relationships.
This prompts yet another rabbi to make the observation that there are three sins from which a person is not spared every day. In other words, try as we might, human beings are going to slip up in these arenas every single day: having sinful thoughts – the desire to do something wrong in one’s head, failing in prayer – engaging in the act of prayer but without proper intent, focus or concentration – and malicious speech. Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible to avoid speaking badly of others. To this, the Talmud also balks: “Can it enter your mind that someone cannot spend an entire day refraining from malicious speech?” Later, another rabbi concludes that, “Everyone sins with regard to malicious speech.” This, too, the rabbis question. The answer softens the blow; it’s a hint of malicious speech, something someone says that could be interpreted to be positive or negative or a backhanded compliment.
Reading these pages, it’s not hard to conclude that the best way to walk in the world is in silence. Why bother trying to work on refraining from gossip when even praise can be misinterpreted? Maybe the Talmud is actually suggesting that finding fault with others is a human addiction; it’s an everyday struggle tied into our own inadequacies and deep insecurities. And, like the advice given to other addicts, we need to take it one day at a time, one conversation at a time. Praising others helps us regulate our own ego needs, but that praise needs to be tempered in order to be heard and properly nurtured.
Praise, but praise quietly.