Why Does Flattery Still Work?

September 3, 2012

Neil Armstrong said he was “small”, but YOU are great.

“Say baby, you must be tired. ‘Cause you’ve been running through my mind all day long.” Isn’t too much cheese unhealthy? Don’t most of us have a strong BS meter? We need one: marketers shamelessly flatter us into buying this product or that one, (“Because you’re worth it!”) 

 At its worst, flattery can be a weapon to make you feel obligated. ” Honey pie, I survived the operation because of your love and support.” Try walking away from that relationship after such flattery. I have become so suspicious of flattery that I rarely give it out myself.

Which is a pity really, because flattery is ubiquitous. We employ flattery when we can’t think of anything significant to say, but wish remain congenial–the modern equivalent of the handshake, it lets strangers know you come in peace.. When Neil Armstrong visited India, not long after his moonwalk, he was presented to then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Following the introductions, there was an awkward  silence and so one of the PM’s staff commented: “Mrs. Gandhi stayed up till 4.00 a.m. so as not to miss your landing, Mr Armstrong.” To which a self-conscious Armstrong counter-complimented, “I’m sorry Madame Prime Minister. Next time we will be sure to land at a more earthly hour.” Flattery is a small talk, it is a pleasant way to fill silences. There is often no agenda, no hidden manipulation.

And Neil Armstrong was no stranger to clever use of flattery either. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” included all of us in his historic moment. He flattered the entire human race for the success of the NASA scientists. No wonder he was universally mourned when he died.

 Apart from being a nice guy, might flattery serve a more important purpose? Don’t we get our sense of reality exclusively through confirmation from other people? For example, we know there is a lamp-post on the sidewalk, that we are not imagining it, because we see other people walk around it. I remember when I was confined to a hospital bed for weeks, I began to hallucinate. I had difficulty distinguishing between what I was thinking, dreaming, and actually perceiving. This happens to many patients  precisely because we are deprived of external confirmation of whether or not a thing actually exists. A fact we take for granted in daily life. That is why, irrespective of how wary we are against insincere flattery, it is one of the ways we confirm or deny our perceptions. We need to be careful though because we all have our weak areas. As a writer I am most vulnerable to praise about my writing. Which is dangerous because it could lead to a false sense of my ability. People who surround themselves with sycophants risk becoming self-delusional. Only if the same compliment is repeated by different people at different times, do I begin to accept that perhaps what is said refers to something ‘real’. (Of course the same applies to insults too).

Perhaps it our very dependence upon flattery for confirmation of reality that leads us into trouble. Sometimes we desperately want something to be true. “Does my butt look big in this?” Well, if you need to ask, you probably know that it does but you so require it to be untrue that you’ll settle for even a coerced compliment. When we chat with friends or relations we repeat the same stories to confirm our interpretation of events, our version of sanity and goodness. For its role in confirmation of reality, flattery does get you everywhere.

It dose not require a genius to figure out the flattery should be sincere. But what constitutes sincere flattery? Well, the other day, one of patients at the hospital was showering me with  compliments. I figured she just wanted to make sure I would keep visiting her and helping her. Then she said: “You have such lucidity in your eyes.” That remark threw me. I mean, who uses a word like lucidity in daily conversation? The compliment was so specific that I allowed it to penetrate my defenses. Perhaps she said it because she noticed this fact and thought it worth a mention. Perhaps she had no ulterior motive.

Thanks for reading this blog. I must say, of all my readers, YOU are the smartest. (Did you really believe I’d resist that.)


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