A Victim of Flattery?
We have all experienced a compliment that didn’t sit right. Instead of feeling affirmed by it, you may have felt confused or even used by the person complimenting you. For example, you might be called “smart” because your classmates want you to take the bulk of the group project. You might be called “assertive” because your sibling doesn’t want to ask for directions. You might be called “strong” because your friends need some helping moving on Saturday. Whatever compliment you’ve been given, you may have been a victim of flattery.
On the surface flattery and praise can sound similar, but at the core they are exact opposites. You cannot tell from the comment “You’re so nice”, whether it is flattery or praise. The nature of praise is authenticity. It derives from a genuine delight in something observable. If someone is praising you for being nice, they genuinely believe you are nice and value kindness. Flattery, in contrast, is insincere. A flatterer either doesn’t genuinely believe what they are saying or doesn’t really care if it’s true and valuable or not.
Sometimes, flattery can be easy to detect immediately, or simple to discover over time. Often this is because we can feel the manipulative effects of flattery, but how do we know if our words are praise or flattery? It’s much harder to judge our own words rather than someone else’s. Authentic praise tends to be more natural and specific while flattery is artificial and vague.
Praise tends to be more natural than flattery. It’s an expression of delight in something valued. When we see a sunrise in the morning we haven’t spent the night before writing down the words to say to describe the beauty of red sky lighting up the horizon. We simply enjoy it and let it that enjoyment overflow naturally into expressions joy. If a boyfriend or girlfriend asks “What do you like about me?” the right answer is not “Let me get back to you”. No, we let our enjoyment overflow into praise! “You’re beautiful!” You’re wonderful!” “You’re amazing!” This is not to say that genuine praise cannot be thought over and written down into poems, songs, stories. However, those poems and songs are an expression of a genuine delight that come naturally Only, the right words needed to be thought over in order to express the true emotion.
Flattery, on the other hand, is artificial. It has a goal beyond the enjoyment of the object. Flattery is utilitarian in nature. When we use flattery, we butter someone up in order to get something from them. It could be their intelligence, strength, or beauty. Maybe we just want them to like us. Flattery is a tool we use to get something that we value more than the person we are flattering. When that happens, we are communicating that this person is less human than ourselves. They are not worth the time and effort it takes to give sincere praise.
Have you ever been given a vague compliment? Someone tells you that you’re nice or smart or pretty, but they don’t seem to know why exactly. Maybe you are smart and nice and pretty, but maybe you’ve never thought of yourself as particularly nice. Perhaps you’re thinking of earlier that day when you yelled at your housemate for leaving the fridge open. Praise is a genuine delight in something that is valued. It begins with a particular instance in time and space that sparks joy in the beholder. This means that praise can be backed up with specific examples. Those moments in time can be evidence to show the praise is trustworthy. Flattery doesn’t come from a joyful moment, but a desire to get something from someone. A person using flattery tends to not put in the effort to think of a specific time you’ve been nice or a particular thing about you that is beautiful.
A friend once gave me a compliment and my first question was “Can you tell me how you have you seen that in me?” I genuinely wasn’t sure that the encouragement was accurate and I need some evidence. She began to tell me five different instances that she had seen in the past week that affirmed what she was saying. That was praise worth enjoying. I could tell from the specific examples that this was something she actually believed and valued in me. This does not mean that all praise is specific. Sometimes it can take someone a while to recall the exact moment that led to the praise. Flattery, as well, can be specific if it helps to get the flatterer what they want. Because of this, you may not always be able to tell when someone is praising or flattering you. However, this knowledge should help you discern whether you are the on the giving end of either praise or flattery.
A great way to tell if your words are praise or flattery is when you feel joy. If praise is an expression of delight in something you value, then you can expect to feel that joy before you even praise somebody. You have already noticed something that brings you joy and you are happy to let them know what you’ve seen or heard. Your words should make you happy and maybe even a smile to your face as you say them. Joy can be infectious so you can also expect to see a smile brighten the face of the friend you’re talking to.
Flattery, in contrast, will only bring joy when you get what you want. True authentic praise finds joy before the words leave your mouth because they are an expression of joy. Allow the words you speak onto others be an outpouring of what is truly in your heart, rather than a tool to get what you want.