Hypocritical Flattery

Humans usually have a social norm against flattery. Yes we flatter each other, and often, but we usually flatter indirectly. So just how big of a fig leaf does it take to hide flattery? Consider item #1 from a post on “the seven techniques for ingratiation and influence that are most effective in moving up the corporate ladder without looking like a kiss-ass”:

Frame flattery as likely to make the boss uncomfortable. …one manager whom we interviewed noted that he commonly prefaces flattering remarks with such phrases as “I don’t want to embarrass you but. . . ,” or “I know you won’t want me to say this but. . . ,” or “You’re going to hate me for saying this but.” (more)

Note that this approach makes the praise seem no less glowing, and it offers little reason for observers to less suspect the praise was designed to gain favor. So how could flattery without this addition be unacceptable, yet flattery without this addition be acceptable?

This example suggests that the key social norm is that you should not encourage others to flatter you. While there is a weak norm against praising others to gain their favor, the stronger norm is against your explicitly rewarding others for praising you. So by directly claiming that someone is not encouraging you to praise them, you declare them innocent of violating the key social norm against encouraging flattery from others.

Of course it is hard to see why anyone should take your mere claim that they do not encourage flattery as much evidence for this conclusion. After all, they are still a boss, you could still gain by flattering them, and your claim that they do not encourage flattery is itself additional flattery!

Yet I’ll bet it does work. Which just goes to show that human social norms have a limited scope. We can only manage to express, learn, and enforce a limited number of social norms, while the social behavior that our norms must police are vast and vary widely. As a result, while our norms appear on the surface to discourage flattery, in fact they just move it a level or two away from the norms.

While this does little to actually discourage flattery, or bosses from encouraging flattery, it does greatly reward those who are smart enough to see how to flatter just outside the scope of the usual rules. Hypocritical social norms reward intelligence. Which is why, according to my story, humans have huge brains.

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  • Michael Wiebe

    Hypocritical social norms reward intelligence.

    What exactly do you mean by “intelligence”? IQ, social skills, rationality, or something else?

  • Are you sure there isn’t just a norm against telling lies, and so we disclaim a motivation for lying in praising our superiors?

  • Even the most jaded blogger succumbs to flattery.
    Scientists, too.

    It’s why colleges keep psychologists around –
    to explain it.

    • IlyaShpitser

      Hey do you write anything substantive here, or are your posts just a way to get traffic to your blog?

      • Relax: I’ve posted on roissy’s for almost five years and get all my traffic from chateau heartiste.

        After lurking here for almost two years, I wanted to take a 500 level course to rinse my brain out from all the babble I DO read.

        Why would I want you to post there?

        When you won’t even acknowledge what I wrote about psychologists is completely true.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Personally, I can’t stand flattery, including listening to the standard preface to a question that goes on about the greatness of the person being questioned. But this seems so common that it clearly works, it creates a greater willingness of the person being questioned to take the question seriously and engage with the questioner. I suppose people aren’t nearly as interested in discussing ideas as much as forming coalitions, though loathe to admit it.

    • Simon

      Eric, I always knew you were too smart to fall for flattery.

      • CJB

        I am embarassed to say +1 for this comment

  • kirk

    The solution is implicated flattery. “I really liked the answer you gave the customer.” vs. “You won the sale just by being present at that meeting” focuses on specific behavior. It’s like a chest bump in the end zone in the first and boot-licking toady-ism in the second.

  • Lord

    Humans are reticent to praise much less flatter unless motivated. Praise runs down the chain just as flattery runs up it for much the same reasons but praise is not disdained but encouraged and encouraging. Sometimes it is honest, sometimes it is more honest than we can accept, and we always want it to be honest or at least want to believe it to be honest. That may be why it is so weak. I was always fond of Sir.

  • Greg Pfeil

    I hesitate to call it flattery, but I know that something similar I do is to preface compliments with a statement that minimizes my qualifications to offer said compliment, EG: “I’m not very knowledgable in your field, but I think your article is very compelling.” Sometimes, flattery even leaks into the preface, like “My palate isn’t nearly as refined as yours, but I thought your cooking was delicious.”

  • konshtok

    Humans usually have a social norm against flattery?