You don’t say!

Hilary Moriarty is all for handing out more compliments

And the truth is, really, you don’t, do you? Say, that is. None of us do. How often have we thought well of someone and just not said it? Clapped hand to the shoulder, looked them in the eye and said “You were terrific”?

Most of us don’t. Maybe it’s British reserve or stiff-upper-lippiness or fear of embarrassment. Because I suspect that mostly we are not brilliant at accepting praise – maybe we don’t get enough practice? We shrug and mutter “Oh, it was nothing” or if it was really spectacular, like a raging river rescue, “Oh, anyone would have done the same … it was nothing special.”

There are times when you wish that you had said something to a colleague or a friend, but the moment passed. And then you realise “Hey, that was a pity – I should have said …” and lo! You get a reprieve. An opportunity arises and you grab it with both hands and blurt out the words. Usually a thank you. Something was said or done that made a difference to you and possibly yours and it’s worth remarking upon. Worth appreciating. Aloud. 

Last summer, by sheer accident, I heard, via a tenuous connection with the distant town where I attended grammar school, that the man who taught me English from 11-18 had died. I never heard the details – he was buried before I got the news. And I believe he must have been a good age, in the way that when you are 17 a teacher must be at least 45, mustn’t he? So now – oh my goodness! Ancient! Though more seriously, he must have been at least 80. His was no tragic-because-so-young death.

But for me, it was tragic: I had never said thank you. And in many ways I owed him my life.

Funnily enough, I have been fortunate enough in my time to have encountered two particular doctors who really did save my life, literally rather than metaphorically, and perhaps I could have said more to thank them both. But doctors are different – saving lives is their job, for goodness’ sake, and effusive thanks may well be really embarrassing, not to mention time-consuming. Having spent most of my working life in classrooms, I imagine that for teachers to be life-savers is less common. But that’s what Paul Hughes, head of English at Denbigh Grammar School in North Wales did for me. The life I lead is a direct consequence of his English lessons and his answering my wail of “Sir, I don’t know what to do at university!” with “Well, English, of course!” That confidence in me, in those fragile sixth-form years, carried me a long way, even if my mother eternally regretted that he had not answered “Law” on the basis that I would have made a lot more money.

Your challenge for today is to give praise, up, down and sideways

Who knows? Not making a mint had more to do with teaching than with my degree subject, so I cannot blame him for that. But I do wish I had thanked him as an adult when I would never have thought of doing so even when I left school. And I am sure I was not alone – even though the world may be different now, a more touchy-feely place than it was 40 years ago. So part of the fascination with articles in which famous people reflect upon the teachers who were most influential in their young lives is seeing people open up and make public their previously unexpressed gratitude and appreciation. I once had the pleasure of sending to a retired head, once a modern linguist at a highly academic school, the TES page in which a well-known comedian was both moving and effusive in his praise of his lessons and his skills as a teacher. The TES had not sought him out to let him know nor sent him a framed copy. He was both delighted and hugely surprised – “God, I remember those classes – they were a great group – we covered the syllabus in about half a term and spent the rest of the time reading books way outside the requirements and talking about life and the universe in the kind of fluent French which made Oxbridge interviews a doddle – that class – they were wonderful!”

Mutual appreciation then, very nearly at the end of the day. And maybe that’s one of the difficulties with the notion of paying compliments on the spot, rather than waiting 40 years and telling the world in a way which might even miss the person most interested. A pupil or colleague saying “Thank you” is one thing, and probably not uncommon. We are trained from birth – “Say thank you!” we repeat to toddlers clutching a gift. These days, it is suggested we contact anyone we might have missed out in our younger, more churlish days in order to thank them now – even if they have forgotten – and thereby improve our own mood. And then there’s the bigger picture, caught between the pages of ‘The Gratitude Diaries’ – and Lordy, couldn’t they take a while to fill in?

So thanks are one thing, but compliments? They are another and hardest to pay, I think, going up the chain. Most heads would say a large part of their work – leading – is not just thanking people promptly for effort and excellence, but also paying the compliments which give you a glow all day and make you feel as if the job is worth doing and life itself worth living. And I really believe it’s harder to pay a compliment ‘up’ to the boss than it is ‘down’ to the toiler in our various vineyards.

I once heard a head effusive in her praise of the sports teacher who had stepped up when the head of department was ill and run an immaculate sports day – oh, the complications of times and heats and competitors who wanted to be in the long jump and the 100 metres final – a detailed, timetabling nightmare. Thanks yes, but also congratulation and fulsome praise for the teacher, who left the office blushing and smiling. For the rest of the day it wasn’t just a job. She was great at it and had been told so. Then the head turned with a wan smile and said: “I can’t remember the last time anyone even said I looked nice in a new suit, never mind telling me I was doing a good job.”

I quite wanted to strangle the chairman of governors. Odd, isn’t it, that I should think it was his job to ‘praise down’, for want of a better expression. But yes, thereafter I was quicker with the ‘praise up’ as perhaps I should have been anyway. And I always thought it no longer counted, because she had virtually told me she needed the affirmation – so how would she know now if I meant it?

And maybe that is why we feel free to say most, be most appreciative, in an obituary. And what use is that?

So, your challenge for today, should you choose to accept it, is to give praise, up, down and sideways. Now. Just say it.

Hilary Moriarty taught English for 25 years, is a former head and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association

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