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You're Too Kind by Richard Stengel

You're Too Kind

A Brief History of Flattery


A Brief History of Flattery–and why it’s an art form well worth studying. Ranging from the Pyramids of Ancient Egypt, an outrageous form of physical self-flattery, to the publication of “How To Win Friends and Influence People.” More than mere praise, flattery is praise with a motive. You’re Too Kind looks at flattery and the social contexts in which it is used from Renaissance times up through President Clinton on the opening day of his impeachment inquiry: “I trust the American people. They almost always get it right”.

About the Book:

Okay, who was the first flatterer? If you guessed Satan, you'd be close, but according to You're Too Kind, flattery began with chimpanzees, who groom each other all day long. In fact, flattery is an adaptive behavior that has helped us survive since prehistoric times.

Our flattery is strategic praise, and to illustrate its myriad forms, Richard Stengel takes us on a witty, idiosyncratic tour, from chimps to the God of the Old Testament to the troubadour poets of the Middle Ages, all the way through Dale Carnegie and Monica Lewinsky's adoring love letters to her "Big Creep."

Flattery thrives in hierarchical settings like royal courts or Fortune 500 boardrooms, and it flows both upward and downward. Downward is usually easier, but studies show it works best on those who already have high opinions of themselves.

Stengel sees public flattery as an epidemic in our society, and private praise as being all too scarce. Most often, though, flattery these days is just a harmless deception, a victimless crime that often ends up making both the giver and the receiver feel a little better. In short, flattery works.

Praise for You're Too Kind:

“Charting the uses of flattery and the social contexts in which it is used from biblical times to the present, Stengel (a senior editor at Time magazine) illustrates that more than mere praise, flattery is praise with a motive, be it benign or grasping. In his introduction, Stengel admits that some of the examples of flattery throughout the ages that he chooses to describe may be more inclusive rather than exclusive for some tastes (in the humorous chapter about the God of the Old Testament, he argues that the "insecure" God craves adulation from his chosen people, the Israelites, so that He can feel "powerful" and "revered"), but his expansive view of flattery doesn't diminish the fun. Beware: After reading this book, you may look at the subject of strategic praise in a whole new light, and it may not be a flattering one, either. Enjoyable and informative; for popular culture collections and larger public libraries.” Library Journal

“Winningly smart and ever so charming.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“Stengel has written not merely a popular history of flattery but also a guide to its employment.” —Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

“A comprehensive, humorous, and insightful history of man's sycophantic behavior. Time editor Stengel (January Sun, 1990) directs his account to the perfect, gentle reader (i.e., you and me) and declares that he has an emotional gratuity for reviewers. That's a point or two in his favor, of course. While he takes the subject seriously, his underlying tone is often facetious, and he is aware of the vulnerability of most of us to the victimless crime of brownnosing. In fact, that is his whole point. Stengel's study is structured as a recap of human history, paying particular attention to the power struggles that provoke flattery. He begins with a prehistoric study of the fur-smoothing, flattening (thus flattering) rituals of our social-climbing simian forebears. Stengel deems much religious ritual to be a form of bribery or flattery, while ancient idolatrous art is defined as court propaganda or spin. By New Testament times, Stengel sees Christ's golden rule as a utilitarian invitation for the kind of mutual socialization that supports flattery. Aristophanes becomes Stengel's early critic of demagoguery and its accompanying abuse of flattery, but the highly stratified Roman society of late antiquity only elevates this toadyism (and Stengel reproduces Plutarch's guide for spotting apple-polishers). Well past classical times, the author follows flattery's major role in the sparring between sexes as well as the social classes. He then makes an elaborate case for the 12th-century troubadours as the true founders of the Romantic sweet-talk that still dominates our culture. Castiglione, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Lord Chesterfield, and Shakespeare's Iago are among the thinkers considered in pre-modern times. As Stengel moves on to the nonaristocratic New World (flattery in America was seen as unmanly), we are introduced to self-reliant men like Emerson who declare independence and immunity from puffery. Nevertheless, Andrew Carnegie made friends and influenced people with flattery. Stengel even describes the Friar's Roast as an ironic form of flattery. A highly readable history.” —Kirkus Reviews