"You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery" by Richard Stengel

A witty, savvy guide to the age-old art of strategic sweet-talking.

By JoAnn Gutin

Published June 16, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

If I were to review "You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery" according to author Richard Stengel's rules of effective ingratiation, this is what I'd say. "While Stengel's treatment of Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son is perhaps a bit glib, the rest of his magisterial inquiry into the shifting fortunes of this most human of all social interactions is absolutely groundbreaking. The section on parhesia (or candor, flattery's opposite) in 5th century Greece equals anything put on paper by Dr. Walter Burkert."

In other words, I'd find some small thing to quibble about to render the subsequent praise less fulsome and more believable. I'd also take great care to be specific: As Stengel cautions, generalized flattery rarely wins points. The reference to Greek scholar Burkert is -- and I hope I don't flatter myself -- an inspired touch; it implies I'm such an expert on the topic that praise from me is hard-won. Then I'd lay the kudos on with a trowel.

Unfortunately, dear reader, my responsibility is to you, not to Richard Stengel or to my career and the possible advantage that currying favor with a Time editor and New Yorker contributor might bring. Thus, I am bound to say that while sections of "Youre Too Kind" have considerable charm, the best thing about the book is the title. (Which, as anyone can see, is fabulous.) Hung on an interesting but slender premise -- possibly hatched over dinner with friends -- it has been expanded to a length that neither the idea nor the writer's enthusiasm for it can sustain. "Youre Too Kind" is really a series of essays, some of which read like dutifully researched term papers and some of which would have made terrific magazine articles. A genuine history, it's not.

Stengel casts his net far too widely, finding the origins of flattery in the stroking and grooming of chimpanzees, which he sees as a proxy for the behavior of our earliest ancestors, and going right up to the latest Sharon Stone interview. (Breathless journalist: "How do you see yourself in 10 years?" Stone, who knows how to play the flattery game: "More like you, I guess." Turns out the bombshell is an aspiring writer.) How can you say anything interesting, or even true, for that matter, when you have so much territory to cover? He's forced into inane observations such as "We get the word 'politics' from the Greek word for city, polis." Not to put too fine a point on it, but  duh.

When he plants his feet in the 20th century, though, Stengel is on firmer -- and more interesting -- ground. He fingers self-help guru Dale Carnegie as "both a cause and a symptom of the shift away from the significance of 'character' in the American makeup to the importance of 'personality.'" Carnegie's epiphany was that "the average man is more interested in his own name than in all the other names on earth put together"; ergo, the best way to win friends and influence people was to behave like a bipedal Labrador retriever. Slightly later we have Norman Vincent Peale, who believes that the way to be happy is to think happy thoughts: Pick appearance over reality every time. Flattering the millions of Peale or Carnegie devotees would be child's play.

And this is the route modern politicians have chosen; all presidents and presidential candidates now profess to trust in the wisdom of the American people. How smart do you think most of our compatriots really are? The Greeks had a word for this political ploy, Stengel says: demagoguery, or flattering of the demos.

In our own era, Stengel argues, flattery has poisoned the very wells of democracy: our information sources. Despite all the tsk-tsking you hear about the adversarial relationship between the media and public figures, the bond is really one of flatterer and flatteree. As a Time magazine senior editor, Stengel evidently knows whereof he speaks when he describes "Washington journalists in their ill-fitting suits and bad shoes" ingratiating themselves with elected officials and competing over "scraps of gossip that pass as news."

For all my reservations about the unevenness of Stengel's coverage, I can say that as a handbook on how to flatter, "Youre Too Kind" rules. For instance, he advises us never to say to someone, "You got your hair cut!" Either say, "That haircut looks great on you," or say nothing at all. People are always nervous about their haircuts. If you want to compliment a writer (which not nearly enough people do, in my experience), don't ever say, "Hey -- I saw your article!" without adding that you liked it. The writer will be too proud to ask what you thought, will brood for months, and will start avoiding you in the street.

When someone asks you to be candid, don't. Nobody really wants candor; what they want is reassurance, and if you're a good friend you'll give it. Our enemies supply all the candor we need.

And to my mind, the wisest counsel Stengel offers the aspiring flatterer -- men seeking to flatter women of a certain age, take note -- is to mix a little bitter with the sweet. Just telling someone she looks "great" not only lacks originality; it suggests you're not really paying attention. I speak from experience: The nicest thing my husband has ever said to me in a long and happy marriage was when he shot me an admiring glance in the elevator on our way out to dinner and said, "You know, you look sort of like a Scandinavian movie star on the wrong side of her career."

What could I do? I melted, and murmured, "Sweetheart, you're too kind."

JoAnn Gutin

JoAnn Gutin is a writer and anthropologist who lives in New York.


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