Cheap Congratulations

The other day, I discovered that one “professional” social media site was sending out messages along the line of “congratulate [fill in the name] on [two or five] successful years with [whatever company/organization].” I could possibly see congratulations on fifteen, or twenty-five years, but praise for making it two years? If someone needs praise for that, there’s either something wrong with them or the company or organization they’re working for.

It’s not just that. Our entire society in the U.S. is overrun with cheap and meaningless ceremonies of celebration and congratulations. Social media is inundated with brief and almost cursory birthday wishes, the majority of which seem to be from marginal acquaintances.

There are “graduation” ceremonies for children going from nursery school to kindergarten, from kindergarten to grade school, from grade school to middle school/junior high, and from junior high/middle school to high school. A generation ago, and certainly two generations ago, such “celebrations” would have been considered ridiculous. “Getting through” seems to be much more important than learning anything.

There are participation trophies for children in all too many sports, and producing such trophies has become a profitable endeavor in itself. Really… a trophy for just showing up? Isn’t this sending a message that merely doing the job is worth praise? Praise used to be for going beyond just being there.

On the high school and college level grade inflation is so rampant that grades have become less and less significant in evaluating potential incoming students, and that means that applicants tend to be evaluated on other factors, including standardized test scores or what schools the student attended, most of which work to the disadvantage of poorer and disadvantaged students. In some universities, the “average” grade is somewhere between a B and a B+.

Adjectives such as “wonderful,” “hard-working,” “brilliant,” and “talented,” are thrown out like cheap candy, and professors who aren’t handing out constant praise risk criticism on student evaluations [which most universities factor into evaluating faculty for raises and retention] as well as complaints to the administration for not being supportive or “creating a hostile classroom environment.” Actual honest evaluations by faculty, especially junior faculty, can now cost professors their jobs.

As both I and Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, have noticed, virtually every professional musical theatre production gets a standing ovation, something once reserved for truly high quality performances. High school and college productions now routinely get standing ovations.

True excellence in anything is rare, and the effusive praise and compliments should be reserved for that, but then, I wonder how many people really recognize excellence or confuse it with what they like or what pleases them. And with all those “cheap candy” compliments and praise, is it any wonder that people mistrust what other people say more and more?

6 thoughts on “Cheap Congratulations”

  1. Frank says:

    Agreed. I think it may be worth mentioning, even if this may seem obvious, that all this “cheap candy” also obscures the true excellence that some do achieve, and IMO, does a disservice to the “participation trophy” crowd because it denies them constructive criticism.

    Long ago, when I was learning martial arts, I had gotten to the level of sparring, and I asked the instructor to let my opponent (who was traditionally a more advanced student, who was tasked “not to hurt” the beginner) make at least light contact (causing a “sting”) on me when he kicked or punched me…so I could feel my mistakes and what they “cost.” That enabled me to learn better and quicker what I was doing wrong.

    I think we need to bring back the sting.

  2. RRCRea says:

    I don’t disagree, but I do think that thorough examination of this issue resolves it into several different situations that might appear the same, but, are actually the result of quite different origins and forces. Meaning, as is often pointed out here, that there is no one simple way to tackle this all at once, because it is many separate issues glommed together because of superficial similarities.

    E.g. Some aspects of grade inflation started out as a way for academics to covertly subvert the draft process during the Viet Nam war. Congrats on 2-5 years in one place may be earned when corporate culture no longer rewards time spent. Typically the only way up isn’t by doing good work, it’s by getting the next level of job elsewhere. And so on, or else examining initial states, intents, receptions, adoptions and expansions of each point would get very long.

  3. Lourain says:

    Perhaps a slightly different slant on the “Congratulations”: Is the person/organization giving the congratulations one that you respect?

    1. If it’s “standard format” for everyone or essentially perfunctory, it’s cheap no matter who sends it.

  4. Phineas says:

    The standing ovations bother me, but I usually go along with it because the seats in so many performance halls are just so darn uncomfortable that by the end of the performance, I’ll take any excuse to stand up. However, I think you can still judge how much the audience means it by how long the applause lasts.

    Here’s an example where the trend went the opposite way: When I was growing up it seemed like everyone applauded at the end of every movie. Nowadays it’s pretty rare but I still see it happen occasionally, and since the actors/movie makers aren’t actually present, it’s presumably because the audience actually enjoyed the movie, not because they’re afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings. Or maybe there’s just a few holdouts from the old days.

  5. Alan says:

    By comparison it saddens me a great deal to see how many people get up at the end of a performance. They rush out to get to their cars before everyone else without applauding the cast in the least. To me that seems quite rude.

    Not every performance deserves a standing ovation or asking for an encore, but unless the show was truly terrible you shouldn’t leave before the cast has their chance to take their own bows and thank their crew.

    At a recent performance of Miss Saigon I commented on this to my date. She quite agreed, noting that she sees this behavior in other parts of the country so it’s not a local issue.

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