How to master the fine art of flattery

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University of Exeter/Flickr

Flattery, as Cicero would describe it, is the handmaid of the vices.

It’s also been decried, according to historian Willis Goth Regier’s “In Praise of Flattery,” as “that filthy science,” “the worst of vices,” and the “prostitution of empty praise.”

But flattery, historically and continually, serves a vital purpose – indeed, that’s the difference between flattery and praise. Flattery is when praise seeks a reward, as Regier puts it. And it is considered by some “the most useful of all arts.”

As we know, another person’s ego can be your foe. In her book, “No One Understands You And What To Do About It,” social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson explains that when someone feels threatened by your potential superiority and success, their egos can run amok and cause them to downplay your successes and even distance themselves from you.

Flattery, however, can be the great vanquisher – if used correctly.

The rules for flattery, or affirmation as Halvorson calls it, are threefold:


Your compliment should be truthful

Yes, we know honesty is a virtue, but there’s also a pretty practical reason for this.

Humans have this innate desire to be seen by others as they see themselves – this desire is called self-verification.

According to Halvorson, people become really uncomfortable when they get compliments they don’t feel they deserve, so it’s important your affirmations match up with their own sense of reality.

Having direct evidence of your compliment can help it seem more genuine


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Flickr/CannedTuna

Flattery doesn’t have to come in the form of a direct compliment

While you could explicitly praise someone’s words or deeds, this might feel too forced for some, and Halvorson says flattery might come easier to them in the form of a question.

The goal is to ask anything that would get the other person to think about what makes them and their lives so meaningful.

Questions could include, “What are some of your proudest moments?” or “I don’t quite understand this – could you help me?”


You could probably afford to do it more

Too much flattery can offend, but Halvorson says there’s a good chance you’re not in any danger of this.

In her book, she dedicates an entire chapter to how much less we communicate than we think we do – in short, it’s a lot less.

So while you may think your colleague knows how much you admire her work, unless you outright say it, and often, she probably hasn’t a clue.