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You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery

You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery

by Richard Stengel
Okay, who was the first flatterer? If you guessed Satan, you'd be close, but according to You're Too Kind, flattery began with chimpanzees, who groom each other all day long. In fact, flattery is an adaptive behavior that has helped us survive since prehistoric times. Our flattery is strategic praise, and to illustrate its myriad forms, Richard Stengel takes us on a


Okay, who was the first flatterer? If you guessed Satan, you'd be close, but according to You're Too Kind, flattery began with chimpanzees, who groom each other all day long. In fact, flattery is an adaptive behavior that has helped us survive since prehistoric times. Our flattery is strategic praise, and to illustrate its myriad forms, Richard Stengel takes us on a witty, idiosyncratic tour, from chimps to the God of the Old Testament to the troubadour poets of the Middle Ages, all the way through Dale Carnegie and Monica Lewinsky's adoring love letters to her "Big Creep."

Flattery thrives in hierarchical settings like royal courts or Fortune 500 boardrooms, and it flows both upward and downward. Downward is usually easier, but studies show it works best on those who already have high opinions of themselves. Stengel sees public flattery as an epidemic in our society, and private praise as being all too scarce. Most often, though, flattery these days is just a harmless deception, a victimless crime that often ends up making both the giver and the receiver feel a little better. In short, flattery works.

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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.

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Simon & Schuster
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Read an Excerpt

Pleasure to Be Deceived

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."

Copyright © 2000 by Richard Stengel

Meet the Author

Richard Stengel is the editor of Time.com, and has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, and GQ. He is the author of January Sun and collaborated with Nelson Mandela on Long Walk to Freedom. He lives in New York City with his wife and two sons.

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