In Praise of Flattery by Richard Stengel

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October 6, 2017

In Praise of Flattery by Richard Stengel

Perfect, gentle reader: I won’t begin this essay with a tribute to your wisdom because a person of your obvious accomplishments would surely be immune to such puffery. Someone with as much self-assurance and discernment as you would want not soft soap but unvarnished candor.

Nothing personal, dear reader, but I doubt it.

In fact, the higher your self-esteem, the more susceptible you are to flattery. Confident folks regard the praise directed at them as shrewd judgment rather than sucking up. But perhaps, selfless reader, you feel you’re not getting the buttering up you deserve. And it’s no wonder, for the type of flattery that has reached dangerous, epidemic proportions today is the absurd adulation and reflexive massive grade inflation of such public praise, a kind of halo effect around celebrity that results in a society-wide giving of praise where praise is not due.

The result is that such public flattery has debased and cheapened the currency of private praise. We’ve become warier, more ironic about praise in general. No one wants to seem like a smarmy suck-up. No one wants to appear too earnest. The language of superlatives has become worn out and phony. If Mike Ovitz is a visionary, what does that make Charles Darwin? If Donal Trump is charismatic, what does that Martin Luther King? If every flavor-of-the-month actress is brilliant, what do you tell your seven-year-old daughter when she comes home with an 88 on her spelling test?

Flattery has never been a very flattering idea. Satan was nothing less that the Arch Flatterer, according to Milton. Dante put flatterers in the eighth ring of hell, right beside tyrants and murderers. In societies that were hierarchical, like those in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, flattery was considered perilous because it was a means of upsetting the divinely ordained social order. If you brownnosed the King into making you a lord, you were unfairly fiddling with the status quo.

But flattery began even before Eden. Chimpanzees groom each other all day long as a strategic means of advancement. Such petting the root of the word flattery comes from the French for stoking or caressing is nonverbal flattery. You can even make the case that it’s evolutionarily adaptive behavior. The ancient Egyptians flattered themselves that they could outwit death. (The Pollyannaish credos of so many self-help movements are the modern echo of this.) The ancient Greeks believed the greatest danger to the democracy they invented was demagoguery, the flattering of the people a device Bill Clinton always exploits when he’s in hot water. (On the day the House opened its impeachment inquiry, Clinton said, “I trust the American people. They almost always get it right.” And they believed him because it was a pleasing fiction.)

But the blossoming of the individual during the Renaissance changed the nature of flattery. When people began to think of themselves not as serfs or cogs but as unique individuals, flattery become more personal. You no longer flattered the office but the person who held it. Once social mobility became a good, flattery lost its moral stigma and became just another tool of social advancement.

The American Puritans rejected frilly Old World flattery for something more direct. Ben Franklin’s practical advice never to contradict anyone and to ingratiate yourself through little favors (“A flatterer never seems absurd,” says Poor Richard’s Almanac, “the flatter’d always takes his word”) eventually gave birth to Dale Carnegie, whose recipe for How to Win Friends and Influence People was to make them feel important by flattering them sincerely. (Carnegie knew that once you can fake sincerity, there is nothing holding you back.)

But Carnegie was more than just the quintessential American salesman. His life and work signaled a change in the American persona. For Carnegie was both a cause and a symptom of the shift away from the significance of “character” in the American makeup to the importance of the “personality,” the transformation form the rough-hewn individualism of the frontier to the “have-a-nice-day” perkiness that is the signature of the service economy. Sociologist David Riesman once described this as the transition from “the invisible hand to the glad hand.” Hey great to meet ya!

This shift in character ultimately robbed flattery of much of its moral sting. Our internal compass has become fuzzy. The modern individual, as everyone from Rousseau to Christopher Lasch has suggested, is obsessively concerned with how others see him. “The savage lives within himself,” wrote Rousseau. “The social man only knows how to live in the opinion of others.” While flattery is no longer a sin, it’s become even more effective because we have fewer resources for figuring out just how darn smart and good looking we really are.

Today there is far too much undeserving pubic praise. I’m talking about the proliferation of cheesy TV award shows for just about every form of entertainment. The omnipresence of worshipful stories about celebrities in every form of media. The very pervasiveness of such pandering undermines the authenticity of private praise. It would be sad if the language of personal appreciation were to become as phony and clichéd as so much public flattery. The solution is that we must embrace flattery to redeem praise. Small flatteries are part of the mortar that holds society together. It is one of the little, daily rituals that keep civil society civil.

It is the tactical omissions of everyday life that make society possible. Out of both compassion and convenience, we almost never contest other people’s depictions of themselves. Is that a form of flattery? I think it is. Is it harmful? I don’t think so. As the great student of manners Lord Chesterfield once said, if some men and women want to think of themselves as a little brighter, a little more attractive than they actually are, what is the harm? And if telling them so makes them so, so much the better.

John Stuart Mill said the golden rule Do unto others as you would have them do unto you  is the essence of utilitarianism. It’s really just a mutually rewarding exchange, which is all that flattery is. I flatter you; you say thank you; we both feel better about ourselves. It’s a transaction in which both parties come out ahead.

The ancient Romans had a phrase, laudando praecipere, to teach by praising. It is one of the foundations of civilization. We teach the values we esteem by reinforcing them into out children and each other. “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 exaggerated praise to encourage someone, that is not a crime.

Ultimately, I think there is not an overabundance of praise in our society but a dearth of it. Not he absurd and shallow praise of movie stars and professional celebrities, but deserved praise. Sometimes you must even praise the giving of praise to makes sure that is given where it is due. Given the choice of living in a world without praise or one with too much, I would unhesitatingly choose the latter.

Everyone from Plutarch to Mark Twain offers advice on how to flatter successfully and not get caught. Some rules:

  • be specific Forget one-size-fits-all compliments like “You’re the best!” You could be flattering anyone. Don’t tell Tom Hanks you think he’s a great actor. Say, “I loved your opening tracking shot in That Think You Do!”
  • praise the beautiful for their intelligence, and the intelligent for their beauty. This was Casanova’s credo, and it is the silver bullet of seduction.
  • Find something you really do like. If you’re a bit squeamish about making up things, figure out something you actually do admire and praise it to the skies.
  • flatter people behind their back. First, you’ll never be suspected of being a slimy little weasel. Plus, it’s actually more effective
  • When the flatteree hears you’ve said she is “brilliant,” she will think much more kindly of you.
  • Don’t be afraid to flatter people WHOM you think they need a lot of flattery. And they can always use more. It’s a renewable resource, and, heck, it’s free.
  • Tell a Secret When we reveal something intimate, we flatter the other person that he or she is worthy of trust. Just don’t confess you’re a shameless flatterer.
  • Never say, “you were so much better than I thought you would be” Don’t give a compliment that suggests you held a low opinion of the person before.
  • Mix a little bitter with the sweet including a tiny bit of criticism witht he praise makes the flattery seem more authentic: “I thought there was one slow movement in the first act, but other than that, it was better than Hamlet.”
  • Know how far to go too far. Don’t over do it. If you say, “Your paintings put Rembrandt to shame,” the artist may be a tad skeptical.
  • Comparisons are never odious. Just as we envy people who are nearest to us in status, we feel more gratified when we hear we’re better looking than our neighbor.
  • Ask for a small favor. As Plutarch first noted, we like people for whom we do favors more than people who do favors for us.
    • But never offer a compliment and ask a favor at the same time. When you charge for praise, you the receiver wary.

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