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(You're Too Kind) A Brief History of Flattery

Richard Stengel

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Successful people are the most vulnerrable to flattery. They see any praise as being shrewd judgement. (People who do not suffer fools gladly, glady suffer flatterers.) People with low self-esteem much warier.

Flattery works bc we're eager to believe what we want to believe. We all want to bve liked; we all want to be appreciated.

Flattery almost always hits its target bc target rises up to meet it.

Some cases where flattery always obligatory - bride is always beautiful, dead people, babies ....

Hegel used term 'heroism of flattery' - ie individual recognises the essential falseness of society and bravely understands that must play along to get along.

We no longer have a moral compass - we form our opinion of ourselves based on what others think of us. So in a society where less personal validation, flattery becomes more valuable.

If do it properly, flattery makes both subject and flatterer a little happier, so both have something to gain by co-operating with the lie.

Flattery just another tool for advancement - not as useful as a degree, but more effective than a new tie.

We teach kids by praising them, so why not colleagues? More people are flattered into virtue than are bullied out of vice.

(Richard Stengel in NY Times)

Perfect, gentle reader: I will not begin this book with a tribute to your discernment, because a person of your obvious accomplishments would certainly be immune to such blandishments. You would surely see through such transparent puffery and reject it out of hand. Someone with as much self-assurance and insight as you would not want any soft soap and sycophancy, but rather candor and direct truth.

Well, nothing personal, dear reader, but I doubt it.

We like to think that the smarter a person is, the higher she ascends up the ladder of success, the less susceptible that individual is to flattery. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. People of high self-esteem and accomplishment generally see the praise directed at them as shrewd judgment rather than flattery. While people with low self-esteem are much warier. Yes, how bright young Smith is for seeing how brilliant I am. "Self-love," said La Rochefoucauld, "is the greatest of all flatterers." People who do not suffer fools gladly, gladly suffer flatterers. (Ergo, flatterers are no fools.) I will simply flatter you, then, by not flattering you — which is perhaps the highest flattery of all.

When I told friends that I was working on a book about flattery, they would often pause for a moment, smile, and then say, in a theatrical tone, "What a brilliant idea! Yes, that'll be a fantastic book. You're just the person to do it." When this first happened, my initial reaction was to say to myself, Hmm, they really seem to like the idea — and then I caught on to the irony. That is why flattery works: We are all so very eager to believe what we want to believe.

That ironic tone is so often the cloak for all flattery, indeed all praise, these days. What we think of as flattery is usually delivered with an air of arch knowingness, a kind of self-consciousness that says, We all know this is flattery, so don't consider me a weaselly little brownnose for saying it. In fact, these days we struggle to invent new ways to praise people because the traditional methods are seen as a worn-out currency.

Much of public praise has become sly and ironic, delivered in quotation marks. The old late-night talk-show introductions, "a great entertainer and a great American," are now used only as a form of kitsch. Public praise has become that way because no one wants to be perceived as a smarmy suck-up. We still occasionally hear sincere seventies superlatives — "You're the best"; "You're the greatest" — on daytime TV talk shows. Those pat phrases are the continuing legacy of the various self-esteem movements of the past three decades. Those superlatives defined flattery downward. If everyone is "the best," of course, then no one is — or we all are.

Flattery, of late, has become more covert, better hidden. When I first started working as a magazine journalist in New York City in the early 1980s, the editor was a crusty, no-nonsense fellow who seemed allergic to phonies and impervious to small talk. My great fear was having to get in the elevator alone with him, for I knew I didn't have a clue as to what to say to him.

Not too long after I started work, there was a kind of get-acquainted session for new writers. I suspect it was the suggestion of some management consultant who urged the editor to try to make new employees feel more comfortable or some such thing. At the meeting the editor tried to be affable and he even gave us his rictus of a smile. Instead of talking about the magazine and its history, though, he fell back on discussing that week's events and his notion for a certain cover story. One of the young writers raised his hand and in the most earnest tone said, "I really think that's a brilliant idea. Your ideas are always so perceptive, so much ahead of the pack. So wise, really."

I looked around the room to see if people were smirking or rolling their eyes. They weren't. I looked at the editor to see if this gruff fellow who was famous for his bullshit detector was ready to kick the little toady in his sycophantic butt. No. In fact, the editor smiled softly. At the end of the meeting, he invited the writer to send him a memo with some cover suggestions. I was dumbfounded. This man was in fact an excellent editor, smart, hardheaded, with a good design sense. But this very obvious flattery penetrated his defenses like the proverbial knife through butter. "Everybody likes a compliment," said Abraham Lincoln.

I think today such straight-out flattery is rarer than it was back then. You don't see such fastball-over-the-center-of-the-plate flattery, but a slider that just nicks the corner. We are subtler about flattery. We are warier about being detected. Bystanders are more cynical. We don't want to seem too earnest. We are better versed in the wily arts of what sociologists call "impression management." Public flattery is less over-the-top, but people can still be fervently flattering in private as a kind of remedy for not being more effusive in public: I could never say this at the staff meeting, but I wanted to tell you your suggestion was just superb.

These days, we tend to think of all praise as flattery. We rarely bother trying to distinguish between the two. Praise seems to have become a subset of flattery. Flattery has never been a flattering idea, but now our slightly jaundiced, strategic view of it has tainted ordinary praise. What does it say about our culture that we don't make a distinction between praise and flattery, or that we look at all praise as flattery?

It has become a cliché to declare that we live in an ironic age. But what does that really mean? For one thing, we all have a looser, more skeptical relationship with the truth. We are all moral relativists these days. No one believes in the George Washington-cherry tree standard anymore — if they ever did. The Enlightenment idea of truth as a supreme value has gone by the wayside. Nothing is completely straight anymore. Nothing is unstrategic.

Irony always flourishes in ages when the idea of truth itself is relative. But pervasive irony engenders a kind of cynical moral lethargy. Ethical distinctions make us weary. Such fine differences are met either with a smirk or a shrug. We cloak ourselves in what Christopher Lasch called "protective shallowness." If all truth is relative, flattery is just another way of massaging it.

When I talk to someone I don't know very well, I no longer think, Is this person telling me the truth? I think, How close to the truth is what he's telling me? It is not that I think people these days are more deceptive; I think they are more self-aware, shrewder and more pragmatic about interpersonal relations. Our view of reality is more nuanced, and that is not a bad thing. These days, honest people try to stay as close to the truth as possible. Less honest folk stray as far from the truth as practical.

The root of the word "irony" is the Greek term eiron, which we translate as "dissembler." That is how we tend to think of flattery, as dissembling, a particular kind of manipulation of the truth. But flattery is different from dissembling because it is a stretching of the truth we rarely question. If someone tells me that she is a very insightful person, I wonder whether it can be true. If she tells me that I am a very insightful person, Well, hmm, that's very perceptive of her. In many ways, flattery works like a heat-seeking missile, only what the missile homes in on is our vanity. And vanity, as the sages tell us, is the most universal human trait. We all want to be liked. We all want to be appreciated. Flattery almost always hits its target because the target — you, me, everybody — rises up to meet it. We have no natural defense system against it. We don't doubt because we want to believe. As John Locke said, we all "find pleasure to be deceived." If it's a lie, it's a lie we don't care or want to question. "Lie to me," sings Sheryl Crow, "and I'll promise to believe."

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