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.
Richard Stengel was Time’s sixteenth from 2006 to 2013. He is also the author of several books, including Mandela's Way and Information Wars. He graduated from Princeton and attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.