You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery

Overview

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 ...
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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Our Review
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.

Jeff Turrentine
In You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery Stengel writes "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. There is no natural defense system". Surely any area of human behavior so widespread, and so integral to our daily lives, deserves its own well researched, thoughtful and often downright funny historical analysis. It's not mere flattery to state that Richard Stengel has delivered such a book. Readers especially the supremely sophisticated, highly intelligent, not to mention physically attractive readers will enjoy it immensely.
Forbes FYI
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Flattery is one of the most base of our basic instincts--after all, it is calculated truth-twisting for personal gain. Following on the heels of Jeanette Walls's recent Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip, this cultural history is a genial, witty and engaging account (honestly!) of human foibles, relationships and social conventions by New Yorker contributor and Time senior editor Stengel. The author draws on an expansive array of sources to illuminate his subject and to demonstrate how flattery has changed as civilization has evolved: from Darwin, who showed us how natural selection may favor a silver tongue, to the Hebrew Bible's depiction of God as highly invested in flattery, to the way in which the Italian Renaissance elevated flattery from an art to a politic. Stengel is at his most perceptive when he explores the presence of flattery in American culture. While the Puritans had little patience with or use for flattery, it came to have a more pronounced role by the early 20th century. Stengel is especially strong in his analysis of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, which, he claims, successfully attacked the Protestant work ethic by promoting slick flattery over hard drive and toil. This is a work of insightful social criticism. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Charting the uses of flattery and the social contexts in which it is used from biblical times to the present, Stengel (a senior editor at Time magazine) illustrates that more than mere praise, flattery is praise with a motive, be it benign or grasping. In his introduction, Stengel admits that some of the examples of flattery throughout the ages that he chooses to describe may be more inclusive rather than exclusive for some tastes (in the humorous chapter about the God of the Old Testament, he argues that the "insecure" God craves adulation from his chosen people, the Israelites, so that He can feel "powerful" and "revered"), but his expansive view of flattery doesn't diminish the fun. Beware: After reading this book, you may look at the subject of strategic praise in a whole new light, and it may not be a flattering one, either. Enjoyable and informative; for popular culture collections and larger public libraries.--Kimberly L. Clarke, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
A comprehensive, humorous, and insightful history of man's sycophantic behavior. Time editor Stengel (January Sun, 1990) directs his account to the "perfect, gentle reader" (i.e., you and me) and declares that he has an "emotional gratuity" for reviewers. That's a point or two in his favor, of course. While he takes the subject seriously, his underlying tone is often facetious, and he is aware of the vulnerability of most of us to the victimless crime of brownnosing. In fact, that is his whole point. Stengel's study is structured as a recap of human history, paying particular attention to the power struggles that provoke flattery. He begins with a prehistoric study of the fur-smoothing, flattening (thus flattering) rituals of our social-climbing simian forebears. Stengel deems much religious ritual to be a form of bribery or flattery, while ancient idolatrous art is defined as court propaganda or spin. By New Testament times, Stengel sees Christ's golden rule as a utilitarian invitation for the kind of mutual socialization that supports flattery. Aristophanes becomes Stengel's early critic of demagoguery and its accompanying abuse of flattery, but the highly stratified Roman society of late antiquity only elevates this toadyism (and Stengel reproduces Plutarch's guide for spotting apple-polishers). Well past classical times, the author follows flattery's major role in the sparring between sexes as well as the social classes. He then makes an elaborate case for the 12th-century troubadours as the true founders of the Romantic sweet-talk that still dominates our culture. Castiglione, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Lord Chesterfield,andShakespeare's Iago are among the thinkers considered in pre-modern times. As Stengel moves on to the nonaristocratic New World ("flattery in America was seen as unmanly"), we are introduced to self-reliant men like Emerson who declare independence and immunity from puffery. Nevertheless, Andrew Carnegie made friends and influenced people with flattery. Stengel even describes the Friar's Roast as an ironic form of flattery. A highly readable history.
From the Publisher
Elissa Schappell Vanity Fair Winningly smart and ever so charming.

Jonathan Yardley The Washington Post Stengel has written not merely a popular history of flattery but also a guide to its employment.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684854915
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 6/1/2000
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 0.96 (d)

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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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

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Table of Contents

Introduction 11
A Word or Two on the Etymology of Flattery 26
Chapter 1 Everyone Has a Hierarchy 31
Chapter 2 You Can Take It with You 49
Chapter 3 Flatter Me or Else 66
Chapter 4 Flattery Is Undemocratic 89
Chapter 5 The Invention of Romantic Flattery 109
Chapter 6 The Courtier's Guide to How to Flatter 131
Chapter 7 American Transparency 161
Chapter 8 How Flattery Won Friends and Influenced People 193
Chapter 9 The Science of Ingratiation 218
Chapter 10 The Capitals of Modern Flattery 241
Epilogue: How to Flatter Without Getting Caught 271
Appendix 275
Notes 281
Acknowledgments 297
Index 299
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Introduction

From the Introduction

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."

* * *

A working rule of anthropology is that the most important thing to examine about a society is what it takes for granted. We take flattery for granted. We assume that it has always been with us and always will be. In this book, I'm not going to use the scientific principle of parsimony -- that is, making only the most spartan assumptions when constructing an argument. I'm going to take a broader, more expansive view of flattery. There will be examples that will probably make you say, Well, no, that's not flattery. But I would rather err on the side of inclusiveness than exclusiveness.

Before I go any further, let me quickly posit a brief working definition. Flattery is strategic praise, praise with a purpose. It may be inflated or exaggerated or it may be accurate and truthful, but it is praise that seeks some result, whether it be increased liking or an office with a window. It is a kind of manipulation of reality that uses the enhancement of another for our own self-advantage. It can even be genuine praise.

I'm not going to spend much time talking about the everyday, obligatory forms of flattery that we use in what used to be known as polite society. Yes, we tell the hostess that the paella was delicious even though it tasted like glue. We tell the corporate lawyer that we enjoyed talking with him even though we found his conversation about the changing legal status of real estate investment trusts to be a mite tedious. There are also the vestigial limbs of flattery, rituals we no longer think about, like signing a letter "Yours sincerely." This type of flattery is something we do out of habit, the original desire to please having long since departed. And in the age of e-mail and cell phones, there is a new etiquette that drops these old terms as useless and tiresome.

Then there are the situations where flattery is mandatory: The bride is always beautiful. The deceased was always kind. If we go to someone's art opening, we are obliged to say something complimentary to the artist. If we visit someone with a new baby, it is incumbent upon us to say the infant is cute. In such situations, to say nothing is interpreted as a rudeness; the lack of praise will be conspicuous by its absence. We do it because we understand that flattery in such circumstances is the lubricant that makes civilization go. Without it, we will have, as sociologist Erving Goffman suggested, drawing-room chaos. Social stability depends on a certain amount of deception. "At every level," wrote the philosopher George Steiner, "the linguistic capacity to conceal, misinform, leave ambiguous, hypothesize, and invent is indispensable to the equilibrium of human consciousness and the development of man in society." We have to prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet.

There are many useful analogies for flattery. Flattery is a kind of propaganda in which the information is, as historian Daniel Boorstin said, "intentionally biased." Like propaganda, it is information that depends on an emotional appeal that we want to believe. Flattery is also a kind of mask, a mask that protects and enhances the flatterer in the guise of enhancing the person being flattered.

The sense of all these metaphors is that flattery is not quite what it seems, that there is a disjunction between appearance and reality. To use still another metaphor, it is the idea that flattery is forked, that it is double-edged, that it seems to be saying one thing while saying another. And the reason that it is double or forked is because it has something to hide. Its success depends on disguising any motive other than disinterested sincerity. Flattery at its core is language that advances self-interest while concealing it at the same time.

Beautiful Lies

It was Montaigne who wrote that the beauty of truth is that it has one face. "The reverse of truth," he says, "has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit."

Almost all definitions of lying describe flattery as well. Lying is generally defined as one person misleading another. Game theorists call lying "strategic misrepresentation." Whereas lying has traditionally been treated as a form of social deviance, flattery has been considered a part of social norms. At worst, it's a misdemeanor.

There are two primary ways to lie: by concealing or by falsifying. Flattery tends to be the latter rather than the former: We falsify or exaggerate the truth. (Though tactically omitting criticism when it is deserved is a kind of flattery.) Lying can be passive; flattery is usually active. While we think that there are signs that can reveal a lie, there is no tell -- the sign in poker that someone is bluffing -- for flattery. Liars often feel guilt about the deception; flatterers rarely do.

Whereas a lie can sometimes be detected (No, sir, despite your testimony, I can conclusively prove that you were not home on the night of the twenty-seventh), flattery usually cannot. Flattery tends to be subjective, lying objective. And the stakes are far lower. At worst, if you are caught flattering someone, you are at least displaying your deference. "What really flatters a man," said Bernard Shaw, "is that you think him worth flattering." Even if we see through it, we are hardly outraged. Usually, we just say thank you. "We love flattery," wrote Emerson, "even though we are not deceived by it, because it shows that we are of importance enough to be courted."

But all deception, like all flattery, is not equal. There are lies and there are lies. Even Montaigne noted that truth is an abstract ideal, not an everyday reality. "I do not want to deprive deceit of its proper place," he noted, "that would be a misunderstanding of the world." St. Augustine proposed that there were eight different categories of lies. I won't go through them all, except to say that they ranged in levels of seriousness from a lie against God's word that injures someone, to a lie that harms no one and may actually protect someone from harm. We generally call these latter "white lies." I would make a similar distinction among different types of flattery. There is flattery that actually seeks to harm and there is flattery, like telling a hospital patient he is looking healthier or a struggling student that she is improving, that is virtuous. Flattery, even at its worst, seems less reprehensible than simple, straightout lying.

Francis Bacon said there were two types of flattery -- malicious and benign. Malicious flatterers are those who come to bury you while praising you. (Tacitus said the worst class of enemies are those who praise you.) Benign flattery is simply exaggerated praise without a specific motive. The sixteenth-century Italian writer Stefano Guazzo made a distinction between fawning and flattery, fawning being dissembling without any intent to harm.

The best analogy I have found for the difference between good and bad flattery comes not from literature but from the law, and it has to do with intent. In the case of the failed prosecution of former secretary of agriculture Mike Espy for accepting illegal gifts, the Supreme Court made an interesting distinction between gifts and gratuities or bribes. A gift, the court said, was something given for its own sake with no particular expectation of a return. A gratuity or a bribe was a gift in order to get something in return, it was the quid in the quid pro quo.

Flattery, I think, exists along the same continuum. It can be a gift given more or less for its own sake, with no expectation of a return, or it can be a bribe given in the hope of some benefit. The first is harmless and may even do some good; the latter is basically just strategic, and the goal can range from the mere desire to be liked to a more malign desire to hurt the person you are appearing to help.

If flattery is a bribe, it's almost always one we're ready to pocket. If flattery were a crime, the recipient would always be an unindicted co-conspirator. Bribed politicians usually have their gifts seized, but the receiver of flattery can't -- or won't -- return his illegal gains.

The aging lover in Shakespeare's Sonnet 138 perfectly understands this dynamic. It is a mutually fulfilling deception.

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies.
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue;
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And where say not I that I am old?...
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.
Use It or Lose It

The issue about flattery, though, is not so much whether it is true or false -- praise is subjective anyway -- but whether or not it is sincere. In his famous lectures on "Sincerity and Authenticity," Lionel Trilling defined sincerity as a "congruence between avowal and actual feeling." We think of flattery as being precisely the opposite: that we are saying something we don't really feel. Something that is not genuine.

Trilling makes the point (which seems to be the theme of virtually every twentieth-century artist) that society compels a kind of insincerity, a parting of the ways between avowal and actual feeling. That the constraints of society do not let us be our true selves.

Trilling asserted this with some gravity, but to our twenty-first-century ears it sounds a little trite. To say that society forces us all to be insincere is today merely a truism. Some would call that an ironic view, but I think it is simply a practical one. We do not believe that there is a virtue in sincerity because sincerity is perceived not as truthfulness but a kind of simple-minded naiveté. Being sincere is regarded as showing all your cards up front -- in other words, a losing strategy. Sincerity, even as a style, is seen as old-hat, creaky, earnest -- the most dread word in the modern critical lexicon.

Flattery is not seen as bad or wrong because it is perceived as another tool for playing the game. Flattery is not bad because gamesmanship is not bad. Flattery is not bad because strategizing and calculating are not bad. Flattery is not bad in a world where twenty-three-year-old cyber-millionaires must read Sun-Tzu and Machiavelli. And, finally, flattery is not bad because there are no longer any consequences for outright falsehood, much less insincerity. Public lies are now treated as social misdemeanors, something between a parking ticket and drunk driving. Public liars are hardly even shamed anymore. The ubiquitous use of the word "spin" as a synonym for what we formerly would have called lying suggests that we're comfortable with the avoidance of outright falsehoods by using less obvious ones like obfuscation and indirection.

Today we think of flattery a little like Hegel did, who used the phrase the "heroism of flattery." By that he meant that the individual had come to recognize the essential falseness of society and that he bravely understood that he must play along to get along. This, suggests Hegel, gave a person more not less freedom, and it also made him a more artful player of the game. Using flattery, then, becomes a little like Pascal's wager: You're only damned if you don't.

Another reason that flattery has lost its moral sting is that we no longer have an internal moral compass. We tend to form our opinion of ourselves based on others' opinion of us. The modern individual, as everyone from Rousseau to David Riesman has suggested, is obsessively concerned with how we are perceived. We have less faith in our own sense of ourselves than in how others see us. "The savage lives within himself," Rousseau wrote. "The social man knows how to live only in the opinion of others, and it is, so to speak, from their judgment alone that he draws the sentiment of his own being." (Note to reviewers only: But I well know that some wise, measured, and well-written opinions are more valuable than others.)

In a society where we live by the opinion of others, the stock of flattery should just go up and up. If we give disproportionate value to others' opinions, why wouldn't we give even more value to disproportionate praise? In a society where there is less personal or individual validation, flattery becomes more valuable. In that sense, we have a greater hunger for praise than ever before. It validates us to ourselves. It shores up our fragmented identities. And besides, it's really, really nice.

So we play the game. We do our best to seem sincere, both in the giving of compliments and in the receiving of them. ("You flatter me" is not an accusation of duplicity or strategic manipulation but an exclamation of false modesty.) Yet we're not very good at playing sincere anymore. That suit doesn't hang as well as it used to. Whether it is because we are self-conscious, or that we are more aware of duplicity, or just more hardheaded, I don't know, but we have seemingly lost the trick. As André Gide said, "We cannot both be sincere and seem so." But we still do our best to fake it.

The Golden Rule of Flattery

The Greeks were idealists. They believed that there was such a thing as absolute truth. Nature itself was the unembellished truth, and language was just our poor attempt to find a handsome container for it.

But truth is a concept to which nature is indifferent. In fact, according to evolutionary biologists, natural selection often favors deception. Certain edible snakes have evolved to resemble inedible ones so that they will not be eaten by their natural predators. It's been said that man is the only animal that lies, but according to the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, many species deceive each other as successful survival strategies. The better deceivers are the ones that get their genes into the next generation. "The conventional view," Trivers writes, "that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution." Deception is in our genes.

Evolutionary biologists also posit another type of behavior that is adaptive: They call it reciprocal altruism. Trivers summarizes this idea as "one good turn deserves another." I would suggest, as I do in a subsequent chapter, that flattery is a subset of reciprocal altruism. Flattery is a kind of favor exchange. I praise you (one good turn) and you help me (another) and together we get our genes into the next generation -- or our cyber-company to an initial public offering. It stands to reason that if I flatter you, and you are bigger and stronger than I am, and as a result you save me from that saber-toothed tiger, we both benefit and I still have a chance to keep my DNA in the evolutionary line. It was Darwin who first suggested that the love of approbation and the desire for praise are grounded in instinct.

If we look at flattery from a purely utilitarian perspective -- that is, from the philosophical point of view that anything that boosts happiness is good and anything that detracts from it is bad -- flattery is a good. When it works properly, flattery makes the subject of the flattery a little happier and it makes the flatterer a little happier. And that is true even when the flatteree is wise to the flatterer. (The flatterer is still happy because he doesn't know he's been discovered and the flatteree is happy because he at least knows he's worth flattering.)

John Stuart Mill said that Christ's golden rule -- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- is the essence of utilitarianism. The golden rule is really just a mutually rewarding exchange -- which is what flattery is. In a modern study of ingratiation, which is what sociologists call flattery, the social scientist Edward Jones explains the golden rule of ingratiation: "We influence others to give us the things we want more than they do, by giving them the things they want more than we do." With flattery, both sides have a stake in allowing the deception to be believed. Both parties have something to gain by cooperating with the lie. According to game theory, the flattery exchange (I flatter you and you say Thank you) is the opposite of a zero-sum game (because no one loses) and the opposite of a perfect information system (because no one knows what is really going on). It's a transaction in which both parties come out ahead.

Flattery Maketh the New Man

Flattery is not immutable. It has not forever been the same. It has changed as humankind itself has changed. In telling this unorthodox history of flattery, I will also be charting the course of the slow transformation from a world of character to one of personality, the transformation over the centuries from a world where much was assumed and little was in doubt to one where little is assumed and much is in doubt; a world where truth and morality seemed clear, to one where they are fuzzy and relative.

Flattery once was more institutional than individual, more generic than personal. Flattery once was of roles, of offices, of archetypes -- you flattered the king's office and his kingly attributes, you did not flatter his personal characteristics or abilities. That would have been unthinkable, not to mention impertinent. The rise of the individual during the Renaissance changed the nature of flattery. The transition from a world where people thought of themselves as serfs or cogs to a world where people felt themselves to be unique and individual meant that you tailored your flattery to the specific attributes of the person you aimed to please. Today, you no longer flatter the office, you flatter the man -- or the woman -- who holds it.

As societies themselves changed and became freer and more democratic, the perception of flattery shifted as well. Once societies were no longer so rigidly hierarchical, flattery lost its dangerous quality, its notion of trespassing against what was established and perceived as right. If whatever is is right, as Browning said, anything that changed what is must be wrong. But once social mobility became a good, flattery lost much of its sinful character. Flattery, in a sense, became just another tool of advancement, not as useful as a degree but more effective than a new tie.

In fact, as we shall see from the chapter on Renaissance courtesy literature, flattery became an instrument of social change. Dukes are born, not made, but flattery was a way to get the duke to give you land and turn you into a gentleman, even though you weren't born one. Later, flattery became an engine of democracy, for it helped people rise not according to their birth but because of their (perceived) merit. It helped open doors that had been closed before. We've come full circle, for in a democracy, if every man is a king, we are all courtiers as well.

America, the crucible of modern democracy, invented a new form of flattery. Forget the furbelowed affectations of Europe; American flattery was as spare and practical as the cotton gin. In America, as Emerson said, "the only sin is limitation." In the Old World, flattery was born of limits and died of mobility. In the New World it was precisely the opposite: Flattery rejected limitation and thrived on mobility. Flattery might get you anywhere. A shoeshine, a smile, and a compliment might be your ticket to the middle class. Just as America perfected mass production, it also commodified flattery. Now, on Mother's Day (another triumph of manufacturing) you can buy one of dozens of greeting cards telling dear old Mom how wonderful she is. And now, you have your choice of sincere ones or ironic ones.

What's the Harm?

I think we can all agree that giving praise where praise is due is an unalloyed good. The question is: What is the downside of giving praise where it is not due? In other words, is there a moral cost to flattery?

I suppose the downside of giving praise where it's not due is that it can render people incapable of self-criticism, and unfit them for weathering criticism of any kind. I've generally found that when people are not self-critical -- or have a nonstop insecurity tape playing in their heads -- they consider any criticism an attack. You see this often among politicians and movie stars. While they don't suspect flattery of having an ulterior motive, they do suspect criticism of one. People without the ability to criticize themselves are people who make the same mistakes over and over again and then refuse to take responsibility for them. That is a good description of the modern narcissist who merges lack of self-awareness and a high sense of entitlement -- a very unattractive cocktail -- and doesn't blame himself or herself for anything.

One could also argue that there is an economic or fairness cost to flattery. That is, if the less competent person gets the job by virtue of flattery over the more competent person. But is it unfair? I'm not so sure. First of all, it is not as common as one might think. Studies of ingratiation, as we shall see in a later chapter, show that flattery increases liking but not perceptions of competence. But yes, given equal competence between two competing people, the deft flatterer will likely get the job. One could argue that flattery is actually just another useful skill and that the person who does the hiring will unconsciously be rewarding it. And then, that new hire will use flattery to be successful in her new job, which will only make the boss look better. Nothing succeeds like successful flattery.

* * *

Francis Bacon, in making his distinction between malicious and benign flattery, notes that "some praise comes of good wishes and respects." As an example, he cites Pliny's phrase "laudando praecipere" -- to teach by praising. To teach by praising is one of the foundations of civilization; we teach the values we esteem by reinforcing them in our children -- and in ourselves. When my niece Amanda correctly spells "aardvark," I praise her. When my son, Gabriel, shares a toy with his friend, I praise him. Many studies over the years have confirmed that children who are told that the teacher thinks they're smart will do better on tests than they would have otherwise. Praise does make people better and smarter. "More people are flattered into virtue," wrote the English novelist Robert Smith Surtees, "than bullied out of vice." And if we sometimes use excessive or undeserved praise to encourage someone, that is not a crime.

As you've gathered by now, I've done a little sleight of hand and turned flattery into a subset of praise rather than of lying. One of the classic definitions of flattery is that it is "insincere praise." Well, that's still praise. The reason I have elided the two is that it seems to me that in our society these days there is not an overabundance of praise but a dearth of it. Yes, there is the absurd and shallow flattery of movie stars and celebrities. But I am not talking about undeserved praise, but praise where praise is due. Sometimes we must even praise the giving of praise to make sure that it is given where it is due.

In his poem on the death of William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden praises the Irish poet not so much for writing well, or even for turning swords into plowshares, but for turning pain into a kind of gladness, for teaching us how to find something good where we could easily see only ill. It is a song of praise to praise itself.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;...

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Given the choice of living in a world without praise or one with too much, I would unhesitatingly choose the latter. What a joyless world a world without praise -- or flattery -- would be.

Copyright © 2000 by Richard Stengel

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2006

    No, YOU'RE too kind..

    Stengel's history of flattery is well-researched, fluid, wise and funny as heck. He makes a great case for flattery as being essential to 'greasing the wheels' of uneven power relationships throughout history as much as now. Brownnosers of the world unite - you have nothing to lose but your shame.

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