As good as it feels, it is common knowledge that flattery is not always genuine.
Some people even pride themselves on their ability to detect insincerity.
But can you? Even if you suspect ulterior motives, can you prevent yourself from responding to the flattery?
In Without Conscience, Dr. Hare recalls one of his female interviewers describing how one of the men she interviewed in prison made her feel unusually pretty by the end of the interview, through complimenting her on her appearance.
Describing herself as usually able to “spot a phony,” she commented afterward that she couldn’t believe she had fallen for the prisoner’s lines.
He describes another psychologist, with a great professional reputation but no social life, who ran off with one of her psychopathic patients. Within two weeks, this man had stolen all her money and discarded her like trash. In retrospect, in explaining her horrendous lapse in judgment, she admitted that she simply surrendered to his promises and sweet talk.
It is not only psychopaths who are adept at fooling others with flattery. Machiavellians use flattery in a way that is both calculated and manipulative. Speaking of manipulation, there are plenty of otherwise “normal” people who resort to flattery in pursuit of sex, advice, training, financial prosperity, or career advancement.
How do you know when flattery is genuine? One preliminary factor to consider is whether the flatterer intends for you to hear the compliment. “If you really want to learn the ropes, watch the master at work,” declares one of your coworkers loudly, motioning toward you. That puts a smile on your face.
But it could be even better.
That same compliment made out of earshot and shared with you by someone who overheard it is clothed with authenticity because it is now more likely that the speaker’s goal was not merely to flatter you.
In other words, it is evidence that the person really believed what they said. This type of compliment is much more satisfying, and perhaps even one you might share with your family.
In addition, consider who is delivering the compliment. We often value praise from strangers more than praise from friends. Yet it is often friends and associates who successfully manipulate us through inauthentic affirmation.
Consider the following scenario.
A new employee at a department store constantly compliments her manager on her mastery of store procedures, remarking at how lucky she is to be “learning from the best.”
As time goes on, however, this employee continues to ask her boss about the location of even easy-to-find items, and for help in minor tasks. Her boss continues to indulge her, enjoying the regular dose of positive reinforcement.
It isn’t until a coworker brings to the manager’s attention that the new employee is spending more time on Facebook than helping customers, that the manager realises her role as an enabler.
Why would the new employee need to learn anything when she can just ask her boss for help? The time the manager has been spending indulging her complimentary new employee is time that could have been spent managing the store.
Can we relate to this? Who needs an employee-recognition plaque to hang on your wall when you can be inundated with positive reinforcement all day long? How rewarding is that?
Often rewarding enough to ignore the signs of inauthenticity.
While some employees are just lazy, flattery in the workplace can be motivated by darker personality traits. Psychopaths size others up as a potential source of money, power, influence, or sex, and use flattery as goal- directed behaviour to get what they want.
And you do not need to be at the top of the food chain to be targeted. Using other people to fulfil their goals, psychopaths not only manipulate those in powerful positions, but they also use people with informal power, which includes connections and assets the psychopath considers to be useful.
This could mean buttering up the boss’s scheduler or secretary, or having someone in the mailroom pull strings to ensure a package is sent out earlier than scheduled. More often than not, the people enjoying the affirmation have no idea they are being used.
So how do you separate friends from frenemies? Examine the focus of the friendship.
Consider whether some “friends” are only complimentary and affirming when they have something to gain.
Whether they need a favour, a party date, a ride, or an introduction to someone you know, be wary of individuals who view you as an instrument or an intermediary instead of a friend.
On the other hand, you may have friends and family members for whom you are the main event.
Their focus is on you, not on what you can do for them. As far as they are concerned, spending time with you is a goal in itself.
Not surprisingly, with friends like this, friendship itself is a valuable source of affirmation.
Linked with well-being and happiness, genuine friendships fulfil fundamental human needs.
Friendship is even affirming on a basic level, because the simple act of spending time with someone conveys an appreciation of value.
Friendship also involves affirmation through social support — which plays a fundamental role in cultivating and maintaining intimate relationships.
Social support expresses affection through providing assistance, elicits feelings of comfort and warmth, and creates intimacy.
Emotional support in particular leads to fulfilling personal relationships.
From RED FLAGS: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Toxic People in Your Life. Copyright © 2015 by Wendy L. Patrick and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
NOW WATCH: Ideas videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.