I once wrote a grad paper about the ethics of flattery in Renaissance culture. Or lack thereof- flattery was always characterized as a negative thing, a manipulative rhetorical stance devised to get the flatterer something. It was described as effervescent, cloyingly sweet, embodied in the tongue, and exerting a feminizing, emasculating force on any and all who were tempted by it. Hamlet says as much to Horatio, spelling out their Platonic love (married souls) as one beyond materiality (though I've often thought he's being rather rude to Horatio too, by drawing attention to the difference in their classes):
'Nay, do not think I flatter;
For what advancement may I hope from thee,
That no revenue has but thy good spirits
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. "
So Renaissance flattery is a sweet, poisonous kiss that conceals an ulterior motive (usually a financial one). And I think flattery today still carries that sugary venom, though the motives are frequently less clear.
This wonderful thing happened to me at the Shakespeare conference last month: an old friend who also happens to be a newly distinguished Shakespeare scholar came up to me out of the blue, gave me a hug and told me I was absolutely gorgeous. He wasn't hitting on me- he has a brand new baby - he wasn't just being "nice" because we haven't been in touch so he couldn't possibly have known that my self-esteem was floundering. He simply wanted to tell me this. It was so deeply sincere and compassionate and charming, that I was sort of bowled over by it. And then it happened twice more, at the same conference- various people told me I was beautiful. People I've known for years who never said it before, and people I'd just met.
The thing is that I rarely feel attractive- I'm still 15 pounds overweight, my clothes don't fit the way they should, and I'd been dealing with a lot of frustration over the past two months.
But I soared on those words. I know it's silly to let something superficial like a compliment on my appearance lift my mood, and it's not as if I haven't heard the same words many times before (given the choice, I'd much rather be told I'm smart). But this was different- it was not in the least flattery. This wasn't about him wanting something from me. This was sincerity. And it was magical: it conjured respect and joy out of sorrow and insecurity.
There's something about people being truthful and guileless at the right moments that I find incredibly refreshing, though it's rare- I can't tell you the number of kind, well-meaning things that have been spoken or written to me that conceal other intentions. Though it frequently takes me a while to get there, the truth always comes out with me, even when it's not wise or useful. But now I think this is a good thing.