I keep thinking about something in Leah Ginnivan's most recent newsletter - she says "I think most people, certainly myself and most people I hang out with, have a streak of narcissism" - meaning not the full-blown version but "the idea that we must be a Certain Way, and need to be perceived as a Certain Way". She goes into a lot of detail but the bit I want to talk about is the tendency to "evaluate and treat others according their ability to uphold our own self image".
That's what flattery is - upholding someone else's image of themselves. But this "our own self image" part is important. It's not just saying "you're so handsome, you're so strong, I bet you're really good at sports". It's much more subtle. It often doesn't even look compliment-shaped.
It's often in the shape of friendly running jokes about a person's traits, like being scatter-brained or getting wasted every weekend or always being the first one into work every morning. Teasing: "How many times have you seen Mad Max now? 50? 100?"
This is why parody often doesn't work by the way - people like themselves so I might watch a parody of a type of person I don't like and think "oh my god what a devastatingly cutting portrayal" but the recipient just goes "haha that's so me" and they feel good because it backs up their self-image. (Hipsters love Portlandia, conservatives loved the Colbert Report, Area Men love The Onion).
If you ask someone's opinion on a sports thing, and they're a sporty person, you're backing up their self-image ("you seem like you'd be informed about sports"). If you ask the kind of nerd who calls sports "sportsball", this is not going to flatter them, it's going to alienate them.
Weirdly specific example: there's a thing you often see in geek social circles where everyone agrees one girl/woman has a powerful deathstare? And friends will back this up by telling new people to watch out for it, don't piss her off, beware the Deathstare. Like, joking but also sincere. And there's not really any such thing as an extra-powerful deathstare, it's just an angry face, so this is a collective social backing up of each other's self-image.
So the next thought was that nothing draws contempt like misfired flattery. When someone is trying to flatter you, they aren't just delivering a compliment, they are making an assessment about what you think of yourself, and then trying to uphold that image. So it has the potential to go incredibly wrong. "Really, that's what you think I'd like to think of myself?" If they get it wrong, you think "you don't get me at all" and it's a huge turn-off.
(Note: not all compliments are flattery - some spring purely from your own perspective. If I think your earrings are cool and I say your earrings are cool, chances are that's all that's going on. Flattery is motivated more by getting that person to like you than by self-expression. It can also be unconscious - you're not deliberately manipulating someone but you do want them to like you and that affects how you act around them.)
When I had long hair, I used to sometimes get compliments about how 'traditional and feminine' I looked. This was not the way to my heart. I'm sure you can think of flattery that misfired because they complimented you on something that you have no interest in being. If you think of someone who's boorish and unpleasant, this might be one of the social skills they often get wrong.
Leah's newsletter is great if you like thoughtful analytical commentary from a very smart woman working in medicine and so seeing a huge variety of people at a very intense time for them, that is one way to get emotional awareness fast. Comes out only a few times a year so won't jam up your inbox. Subscribe here
This piece was originally published in The Whippet #79 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!
Sign in or become a Whippet subscriber (free or paid) to add your thoughts.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.
A newsletter for the terminally curious
Arrives in your inbox every second Thursday.