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Contrary to the Maxim, Flattery Can Indeed Get You Somewhere

January 09, 2002|JIM SHEA | HARTFORD COURANT

Take away the lack of utensils, the homicidal mania and the occasional Cheech and Chong-ish repartee--"I saw in a dream [man], we were playing a soccer game against the Americans [man]. And when our team showed up on the field, they were all [like] pilots [man]"--and the guys gathered around Osama bin Laden at his videotaped luncheon a few weeks back sounded and acted very much like a bunch of VPs sucking up to the CEO.

But then why should the key to getting a key to the executive washroom be any different in terrorist organizations?

The simple truth is that the planting of a big wet one on the boss' backside is so universal that it actually might be in our genes.

In his book "You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery," Time magazine columnist Richard Stengel maintains that flattery is biological. He notes that among animal groups, bowing and scraping--a form of flattery--in the presence of the dominant male is linked to survival.

"Flattery is a very small subset of what evolutionary biologists call reciprocal altruism," Stengel says. "The purpose of that was to help the species survive. So maybe in some small way it has an evolutionary purpose."

While flattery always has been around, Stengel says its nature changed during the Renaissance, when people began thinking of themselves as unique individuals. Before this period, flattery was less personal. You praised the king, not the person who held the throne. When this changed, flattery became not only an accepted means of social mobility but an effective one as well.

Why?

Because contrary to the maxim, flattery can get you everywhere.

"People are susceptible to flattery because it's telling them something they want to hear," Stengel says. "Mark Twain once said, 'Everybody likes a compliment.' And almost everybody does, probably because it gives us all a tiny hit of serotonin and makes us a little bit happier."

Interestingly, the greater your self-esteem, the more susceptible you are to flattery. This is because people who think highly of themselves tend to view flattery not so much as outright fawning but as perceptive observation.

Stengel includes himself in this group. "I still get fooled all the time," he says, "even when people are teasing me about it. That's the extraordinary thing about flattery; even if you know it's flattery, you're still flattered."

So is there anyone with whom flattery will get you nowhere?

"Contrary to what one might think, the person who is immune would be someone who has such low self-esteem that he or she would find anything complimentary to be a lie," Stengel says.

Stengel draws a distinction between flattery and praise, with the difference being sincerity. He notes that in the proper context--school, for example--praise can be an important teaching tool. But can't flattery also be of benefit?

While railing against "grade-inflation flattery," the over-adulation of movie stars and professional celebrities, Stengel says in some circumstances, flattery can serve a purpose. He points to what he calls little-white-lie flattery: telling the bride she is beautiful or a hospitalized friend that he looks good.

Overall, Stengel is a proponent of flattery.

"The world would be a drabber, less interesting place without flattery," he says. "It's like chicken soup: It doesn't hurt, and it may even help. Plus, we'd have so much less to laugh about."

But what about the workplace butter-uppers, the shameless toadies who would require emergency rhinoplasty if the boss stopped short? Don't they keep more competent, deserving souls from climbing the corporate ladder?

As it turns out, not always. Stengel says studies of ingratiation show flattery increases liking but not perceptions of competence. So if you are superior, it usually won't make a difference. But if the competence of two individuals is equal, the flatterer will get the nod.

So the bottom line is a little puckering up won't hurt. But then a reader as intelligent and perceptive as you already knew that.

Jim Shea writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune company.

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