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Monday, August 18, 2014

Empathy, Politeness, And Self-Interest–Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

Olga Khazan, writing in the New York Times (8.18.14) tells the story of how writer Paul Ford encountered a beautiful, well-dress, elegant woman at a cocktail party.  They exchanged pleasantries and she told him that she was a consultant to the stars who encouraged them to buy Harry Winston jewelry.  Ford, dressed like a writer and a shabby one at that, assumed that this attractive, ambitious woman would quickly look elsewhere for company.  However, she stayed.

I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson.

Empathy both Ford and Khazan suggest was the key.  Apparently few people took the young woman seriously – after all, how hard can it be to sell glitz and bling to uncultured and fabulously wealthy stars – so when Ford said he understood how hard her job must be – client lists, personality profiles, hours of reviewing publicity photos, pre-matching celebrity with jewelry, etc., the woman blossomed.  Someone had understood her.

I am not sure why this is such a revelation since flattery has been around a long time. People have such a distorted and elaborately inflated image of themselves, that a word of praise that reinforces it goes a long way.  Women who for millennia have been expected to look nice for men are particularly susceptible to insincere praise. 

I have an acquaintance who is smart, successful, and a good mother.  However what she sees in the mirror before stepping out is clearly not what anyone else sees.  Her dress is all wrong – frills where they don’t belong, scoops which disclose what should be hidden, and colors that accentuate her unfortunately sallow skin.  Her make-up gives her a startled tranny look, and she totters on too-high heels. What this woman needs is simplicity – a classic ensemble in muted tones and tailored lines.  A hairdo which softens her rather angular face, and no make-up at all except perhaps a light eye-liner to call attention to her attractive eyes.

“You look absolutely beautiful”, said a male friend who wanted something from her – a business partnership, sex, companionship for his young daughter, money.  She brightened, pleased and excited that her efforts had been noticed.  She was being appreciated for what she knew was her charm and especially her beauty.  The doors to her male suitor were opened wide.

Savvy men have always understood flattery; and although it bothers the more honest of them, they know that complimenting a woman on her rotten dinner, her dress, or her off-kilter smile is money in the bank – emotional deposits to be withdrawn and spent to buy a little space when their tomcatting has been discovered.

Men are in many ways far worse than women when it comes to flattery because their ego seems to be involved in some primordial way.  A comment about a receding hairline, bald patch, softening paunch, or worst of all short stature can be devastating.  The wound inflicted by an attractive woman who refers even indirectly to any of these traits goes deep and lasts long.  Women go all bitchy and defensive when girlfriends criticize what they wear, sniff and dismiss them as fashion imbeciles; but men sulk and hide for weeks when they are accused.

Given the fragility of men’s egos, women’s willing suspension of reality when looking in the mirror, and people’s universally distorted self-image, flattery is of course the first thing pulled out of the toolbox. “What a great idea”, a Senior Vice President I know used to say to her stumbling minions and overly ambitious comers.  “Could you please find time on your calendar to tell me more about it?”  The minion without an idea in her head but who was needed for donkey work in the back cubes could be encouraged to work even more brutal hours with just a word of compliment and praise.  The impatient, smart, but sketchy and troublesome middle manager could be neutered with a few minutes of patient, attentive listening.

Flattery works best when the flatterer modestly defers to others. “How did you ever complete that so quickly?”, my SVP friend used to say to those who plodded and fretted. “I wish I had your work habits”, and with those few words as effective as a slave-driver’s whip, she got documents on her desk by morning.  She knew that these ‘deliberate’ workers thought that everyone worked like they did – parsing endlessly, re-writing, re-organizing, and re-formatting ad infinitum – and they had no idea of how unable and inefficient they were.  A simple word of praise from the SVP did nothing to improve their performance; but assured completion of assigned tasks. I saw Herbert Barber’s office lights on long after 5 o’clock when I headed home after dinner downtown; and I knew that he was proud of the fact that he would have the report on the SVP’s desk by 8 the next morning.

Of course the more ethical approach would have been to offer a helping hand to poor Herbert.  A few tips on proposal-writing, some tutoring, and useful suggestions would have gone a long way to building his capacity and professional work; but flattery was a lot simpler and certainly less costly.  The SVP ran a business after all.

The woman who is slowly but surely gaining weight would certainly be better off if her husband timed a few remarks early on; but why should he?  A friend of mine had been married for 25 years, had lost sexual interest in his wife, and always had a girlfriend. Flattery (“Honey, you have never looked more beautiful”) in the face of reality was the simplest and surest ways of keeping her nose out of his business.  What did he care if she doubled her dress size in two years?

A man who is polite, deferential, and respectful flatters indirectly. Courtesy and politeness are handmaidens of flattery. The most successful men know that women want to be taken seriously, and as in the case of the writer and the beautiful jewelry rep, just listening is enough to thaw even the most suspicious and circumspect women. “Manners are a way of showing other people we care about them”.

Khazan and Ford call this empathy and suggest that it is has inherent value. It shows a level of humanity that arrogance and self-centered ambition never will.  Empathy is everywhere today.  In the classroom every child is of equal value whether smart, dumb, or indifferent; and it is the responsibility of all students to make an effort to explore the very special talents of others.  Talk shows are more and more confessional, eliciting concern and compassion from large audiences.  Everyone is encouraged to talk about their cancer, bi-polarity, childhood abuse, and emotional traumas so that others, through their empathy, can more easily accept their own misfortune and unhappiness and perhaps overcome them.

This is all nonsense of course. Collaborative learning, multiple intelligences, and classroom empathy are simply educational constructs built on the prevailing progressive dogma of diversity and inclusivity.  It is the educational theorist who benefits from such programs, for they are applications of his own ‘progressive’ ideas, not the students who know smart from dumb as well as they know up from down.

My SVP friend knew that she was brighter than any of her underlings, but unlike most smart people, resisted the urge to lord it over others.  Feigned empathy – flattery – was by far the better management technique.

Men listen patiently to women’s frustrations about the glass ceiling, unresponsive fathers, and insensitive men not because they care at all, but because empathy is the quickest way to the bedroom.

Khazan falls into the idealist school of behavior:

Empathy is considered by many psychologists to be essential to cooperation, problem-solving, and to human functioning in general. Researchers have described it as “social glue, binding people together and creating harmonious relationships.” Empathetic people are more likely to forgive others for small errors, like running late…Empathy helps people to behave more generously.

There is no higher value ascribed to empathy as this passage suggests.  It is simply a way of facilitating human interaction.  Flattery, a kind if insincere word, praise, and modesty are means to an end.  Practiced by SVP and minions alike they can make an office work more efficiently.  Flattery, insincere politeness, and feigned empathy are proven social tools.  They rank up there with bluffing as successful ploys.

The authors do not mention lying as part of empathy, but deception other than flattery is also part of social gaming. People who look terrible from chemotherapy are routinely told they look great.  The most cantankerous and ill-tempered children are called ‘cute’ and ‘adorable’.  Homes that are decorated with garish and uncultured, kitschy taste are called ‘elegant’ and ‘tasteful’.

The lesson from all this is that a silver tongue is a gift  Intelligence, ability, and ambition are important; but the man or woman who understands the inherent fragility of others can go very far indeed. 

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