In the final section of You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery, Richard Stengel offers a riff on his book's chatty title. He explains: "You're too kind...expresses a formal, old-fashioned Southern sort of graciousness.... It is also a reciprocal compliment: you're praising the other person's kindness." It's an apt title for the book, which lifts praise for the much-maligned art of flattery through a witty, tongue-in-cheek history of bootlicking.
Flattery, as Stengel points out, is a scorned form of something we like: praise. "Flattery is strategic praise," he explains, "praise with a purpose.... It is a kind of untruth that uses what seems to be the enhancement of another for our own self-advantage." The trouble with flattery is that it's often used sleazily. Stengel notes, "Flattery is double-edged...because it has something to hide. Its success depends on disguising any motive other than disinterested sincerity." But in You're Too Kind, Stengel defends the slick art. He argues that flattery need not be mere brownnosing; instead, it may offer a truly democratic means of getting ahead.
In order to produce this argument, Stengel takes us all the way back to our evolutionary origin: the chimp. He notes that, under the hair, chimps are as finely attuned to hierarchy as humans. As Frans de Waal writes in Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, "The social organization of chimpanzees is almost too human to be true." The most hierarchically powerful chimps control access to females and food, so a lower-status chimp must bring small offerings to his leader in order to gain access. A twig, some dust -- anything can be material for a lowly chimp's grinning bribe. But, Stengel shrugs, chimpish graft is hardly immoral. In fact, it is absolutely appropriate to the larger group's needs. In order for footloose chimps to form a clan (which protects them against other, hostile species), they must maintain hierarchy. As Stengel puts it, "Flattery is a strategy for optimizing personal relationships and thus has an evolutionary advantage.... Flattery is a form of cooperation, and cooperation is the successful evolutionary principal of reciprocal altruism." Flattery, according to Stengel, is bred in our flesh.
Following this heady theorizing, Stengel considers flattery's place in Egypt and in the Hebrew Bible. In Egypt, he suggests, flattery was heaven -- or at least, praise could continue an aristocrat's legacy into a glorious hereafter. Even the common Egyptian lackey could taste eternity if he got buried with his ruler. Trading in Egyptian flattery seems, then, a thing divine. And Stengel follows up on this by suggesting how flattery can enter into the Judeo-Christian sense of the divine as well. In Stengel's view, Yahweh must have created man in order to be flattered. Stengel writes, "Did God create mankind... because he wished to be known, loved, or served? The answer, I think, is all three.... And the only way he has figured out how to get praise or flattery is by compelling it." The interpretation is sacrilegious, perhaps, but it gets the point across. We must flatter to survive. Flattery, in some cases, is a moral imperative.
But snow jobs are not always holy. In the midst of his survey of glorious suck-ups, Stengel points out that flattery has often been banned from great cultures. In the Greek and Roman worlds, for example, flattery seemed a hideous threat to democracy; if politicians flattered the public, then justice would take a backseat to pretty words. Instead, ancient thinkers prescribed straight talk, or parhesia. But the ancients had a different sense of flattery than ours. Flattery seemed an oily means for politicians to sway the people, rather than an honest attempt of one individual to befriend another. In our culture, flattery can simply build bonds between individuals -- which is what Stengel likes about it.
He also likes flattery's romantic possibilities. In a chapter focused on troubadour poetry, Stengel explains why flattery has become such a common method for hitting on dates: It works. Stengel describes troubadour poetry's precepts and then collapses the troubadours' romantic flattery strategies into a trim list that can still help fools find love. He suggests: "Throw yourself on her mercy. [Tell her] 'You are the cause of my suffering and the cure for my moral pain, for you hold both my life and death shut up in your hand.' You can never get rid of me. Tell her: 'I will never cease to serve you no matter what you decide.' Accuse her of being a cold-blooded killer. Tell her: 'If you send me away, I will die, and that will make you a murderer.'" The suggestions are simple, perhaps, but they can still help us get our groove back. Flattery helps us make love.
And flattery can also help us make war, since it forms the basis for political maneuverings. Through an analysis of Machiavellian politics and Emersonian individualism, Stengel points out how often flattery is recommended as a political weapon. Machiavelli, though he cautions princes against sleek weasels, also attempts a little weaseling himself in his dedication of Il Principe. And though Emerson and other American writers decry toadyism, they also utilize it to sell books. More important, according to Stengel, American democracy depends on flattery as a means of leveling classes. He argues, "[I]n a democracy, the courtiers are us. The court is everywhere and everyone is a courtier.... It is not a vertical court as in aristocracies but a lateral court: everyone is pandering to each other." Flattery, it turns out, is not only a moral good with spicy benefits, it also informs American patriotism.
Stengel's defense of flattery is simple: "Its benefits outweigh its costs. Telling someone that he or she is brighter or more attractive...probably will actually make him or her a little brighter or more attractive. It's social amelioration. It's making life a little pleasanter." Moreover, with Stengel's happy guidebook, we can all schmooze with a little more panache. Stengel's history of flattery is thick with funny quotations, goofy insights, and chuckles -- and its appendices are eminently worthwhile. And why not flatter folks? No one could do it better than you could.
Jesse Gale is a most graceful writer...though she is terribly modest about it.