Praise with a purpose


Iíve had a lifelong love-hate affair with flattery.

Alexis de Toqueville, the legendarily prescient 19th century observer of the American mentalité, (he coined the word "individualism"), believed America's absence of social hierarchy aroused a certain insecurity in people. He concluded that in a system where everyone is sovereign, all citizens, like all monarchs, are needy of praise and sensitive to criticism or ridicule. Hence the excessive need for disproportionate flattery in democracies.

I've had a lifelong love-hate affair with flattery. My older sister was one of those comprehensive high achievers—stellar marks, popular, natural leader—who alternately inspired and disheartened me. To combat the latter effect, my well-meaning mother, a pioneer, you might say, in the self-esteem school of child-rearing, laid on praise of my abilities with a trowel. Rather than strengthening my self-confidence, though, she nurtured my suspicion that her disproportionate flattery was only disguised pity. Ever since, praise or flattery of any kind has tended to evoke a certain Pavlovian anxiety.

In my present line of work, flattery is easy to come by. Readers whose causes you champion fling electronic bouquets of encouragement at you. They're sincere, but not disinterested.

And yet it's undeniable that there's a heady momentary rush in being told by relative strangers that you're a genius, enlightened and indispensable. As the American philosopher Emerson, said: "We love flattery, even though we are not deceived by it, because it shows that we are of importance enough to be courted."

Flattery never goes to my head, though, and not only because of my historical ambivalence. Along with the bouquets, I get electronic razzberries from critics who complacently inform me I am stupid, benighted and all too dispensable. Punditry is not for the thinskinned.

Insults may be unintentional, criticism run amok. Flattery, on the other hand, is always intentional; it is "praise with a purpose," and therefore subject to moral scrutiny. Insulters are often praised for cleverness, but aren't usually the subject of opprobrium. Flatterers are never acclaimed, and often damned. Dante went so far as to assign flatterers to the eighth circle of hell, only once removed from murderers and sodomites.

Excessive flattery has been the hallmark of some of literature's most odious characters, like Dickens's Uriah Heep, as well as popular culture's most comically ingratiating ones, like Jack McBrayer on 30 Rock (or, if you're old enough, young Eddie Haskell on the TV hit Leave it to Beaver.)

The artful deployment of flattery definitely works. Superiors do reward sycophants, because everyone wants to be loved, and it is human nature to overrate the judgment of those who profess love for us.

Throughout history, flattery has been a topic of keen interest for literati and political analysts. In ancient Egypt, the Vizier Ptahhotep advised his unworldly son that in dealing with pharaohs, "Laugh when he laughs, and it will be very pleasing to his heart."

Many renowned writers—Machiavelli, Castiglione, Shakespeare (see Sonnet 138), De la Fontaine, Disraeli—have mused about flattery and its power to influence outcomes (as Noel Coward put it, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is").

You may by now assume that I myself am above flattering people. On the contrary, I am a world-class flatterer, a veritable verbal chimpanzee of grooming dexterity and finesse. I want to get ahead like everyone else.

But the undisputed master of flattery and its practical uses was Dale Carnegie. Dale Carnegie's 1936 book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, stands out as the bright line between a culturally homogeneous society in which character and discipline were the approved routes to success, and a shape-shifting, unpredictable society in which the only skill necessary was the ability to handle people. A charmless man himself with a dark view of human nature, Carnegie promoted a mechanical, constructed form of charm that works. In a way he was a cynical forerunner of the "12-step program" to personal self-improvement.

Carnegie broke charm down into assimilable units: Smile, smile, smile; agree; listen, listen, listen (people love the sound of their own voice); don't criticize (counter-productive because it only wounds people's pride). In a nutshell, flatter...

You may by now assume that I myself am above flattering people. On the contrary, I am a world-class flatterer, a veritable verbal chimpanzee of grooming dexterity and finesse. I want to get ahead like everyone else.

But I strive for professionalism. As the famously advice-dispensing Lord Chesterfield told his son, one should flatter people not for what they obviously do well, but for what they want to do better.

Of course I would never flatter you, discerning Reader, for you are much too clever, too worldly, too intellectually alert to be taken in by such a crudely ingratiating stratagem. No—and let this be our special secret—with you alone, cherished Reader, I am completely transparent.



Barbara Kay "Praise with a purpose." National Post, (Canada) 23 February, 2010.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Barbara Kay, and the National Post.


Barbara Kay is a Montreal-based writer. She has been a Comment page columnist (Wednesdays) in the National Post since September, 2003. She may be reached here.

Copyright © 2010 National Post

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