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Flattery: Tool of the weak

Huzaima Bukhari

Remember, he who butters also holds a knife”―Anonymous

Human beings are basically narcissists with each posited on a varying degree of narcissism but it is an understood fact that all want to be praised and appreciated for what they are and at times, even for what they are not. While some may forcefully demand applause, others may appear tranquil, in silent expectation of accolades. Within everyone’s heart and mind exist the desire to be considered noble and good. The most sinister of criminals eagerly look forward to be acknowledged for their atrocities and their way of committing felonies. What to talk of humans, even animals, particularly pets, yearn for that commending stroke of hand or that prized treat for being valued. They cannot speak but they definitely understand their masters’ body language and easily discern their different attitudes. Truly speaking, paying and receiving genuine compliments can brighten up any person’s day. This also helps to encourage good deeds and is a means to embarking upon a more intimate relationship as these wonderful comments cement ties with other fellow beings.

Of course there is a great difference between compliment and flattery with the former closer to truth and the latter based on falsehood. This is the main reason that flattery is construed in negative terms and those who indulge in flattery are eyed with suspicion by all except in most cases by the target person who is perhaps enthralled at the idea of being glorified. One is reminded of a famous story in Aesop’s Fables where a fox came upon a crow sitting on a branch with a piece of cheese in its beak. In order to snatch this savoury, the fox, using its guile began to flatter the crow, calling it beautiful and wishing to know whether its voice was as charming as its looks. Overwhelmed by these words, the crow opened its beak to let out the most horrific sound one can imagine and in doing so, dropped the cheese which was immediately grabbed by the sly fox.

A counter argument related to flattery is that it helps to coax persons who are reluctant to perform something particular. For example, if those who are hesitant in exploring their hidden talents, say of singing, dancing, painting, acting etc. are enticed towards trying out these feats by flattery, there is a possibility that they may discover something in themselves that can bring about a substantial change in their lives. Although based on false notions, there could be many potential celebrities waiting to hit the limelight. In these instances, the flatterer has to be one with clean and clear intentions, which in majority cases is impossible, so intertwined is flattery with chicanery.

One of the worst forms of flattery is its ability to exert control over others, usually with the objective of exploiting them for selfish and nefarious purposes. In everyday life there are innumerable examples of young female teenagers, office workers and even highly placed professionals who are seduced into an unhealthy and abusive relationship much to the dismay of their parents, families and even their own aspirations all because of the cunningness of some flatterers who found these women vulnerable to their sweet talk. Besides females, many established males too get entangled in the mesh of ambitious women’s cajolery only to lose not only their wealth but also their dear ones at times.

Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,

Therefore I lie with her and she with me,

And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

“When my love swears that she is made of truth,” Sonnet 138 Shakespeare

In other words, a relationship that has its foundation on flattery would be short-lived as obvious from break-ups, divorces and falling apart of partnerships. The hurt that comes from the knowledge that all which was spoken with exaltation was nothing but untruth can cause loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. It can take many difficult years to rebuild one’s shattered image in one’s own eyes. Another result of such agony could be mental imbalance that may trigger the criminal within or force one to commit suicide or become revengeful thus destroying other innocent lives.

The place where flattery can be viewed with complete flamboyance is in the corridors of power where rogues act with the objective of making personal gains at the expense of adulating those who have the capacity to deliver. Already their minds are intoxicated with authority that gets further swelled up when sycophants hum the right tunes around them but only a few realize the superficiality of false admiration having highly damaging consequences as proven historically. While many get away with false pretenses, only a few have the ability to stay mum and fewer still can call a spade, a spade, especially when put to the test. As explained by Jean de la Bruyere: “We should keep silent about those in power; to speak well of them almost implies flattery; to speak ill of them while they are alive is dangerous, and when they are dead is cowardly.”

Strong people do not depend upon flattery to achieve their objectives as they can bank upon their own personal abilities and qualities. They may pass compliments to win some hearts but never resort to deception for selfish interests. Only the feeble, insecure and diffident are the ones to make use of flattery as a tool to move forward in life.  


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).

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