The Art of Sucking Up

Nov 14, 2017

Donald Trump is known to praise himself. And it's been reported that the president thrives on praise. That fact has the nation thinking about flattery, and it could boost sales of a new book written by two professors from Virginia.  Sandy Hausman spoke with them and filed this report.

Two Virginia professors have written a book detailing the history of flattery.

The slim volume written by Deborah and Mark Parker features a bright red lollypop on its cover – a logical image for the work they called Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy. That, says Mark, is just one of many words we have for flattery. 

“You get bootlicker, you get lickspittle, you get toad eater. You get brown noser,” he says.

And whatever you call it, the Parkers say this behavior has been around for a very long time.

“One of the most informative essays on this is by Plutarch, who wrote many years ago," he explains. "He was concerned with how to tell a flatterer from a friend, and if you want to see another version of Plutarch, you can watch Hamlet.  Shakespeare was steeped in Plutarch and took all his ideas and dramatized them wonderfully.”

"Yes," Deborah adds.  "There are denunciations of flatterers in the Bible. Confucius also condemns flattery."

Deborah Parker, who teaches Italian at UVA, adds that sucking up holds a special place in Dante’s Inferno.

“There are nine circles to hell. Murderers and tyrants are punished in the seventh circle, but flatterers and other sins are punished in the eighth circle. For Dante, a sin like flattery affects the entire social order, because it makes frank discussion impossible."

Mark Parker points out that, "It is deceptive behavior, so I think there is a moral issue here. It changes your reputation, and it can really change your character.”

But Deborah is quick to add that we’re not talking about kindness – those things people say all the time.

“Noticing what a nice color that is on you – that’s everyday politeness. I think it’s a question of how habitual the practice is, what the intentions of the flatterer, are.  Is this self-serving?”

JMU English Professor Mark Parker says people often use flattery in an attempt to influence the decisions of powerful people – which could explain why Washington, D.C. is the suck-up capital of the nation and was that way long before Donald Trump.

“If you listen to the Watergate tapes or the tapes about the Vietnam War, those have all come out now, and you can see a kind of sad spectacle of very powerful and extremely knowledgeable men just doing the most elementary bits of flattery to powerful figures.”

Nor is brownnosing the sole purview of Republicans. 

“The exposure of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails showed many instances of flattery too.”

And, of course, popular culture is littered with sycophants – from Leave It to Beaver’s Eddie Hakell to Smithers on the Simpsons. Strangely, the Parkers discovered that some people who suck-up don’t see it that way.

“In fact the more successful the flattery is, the less likely the flatterer is to think of it as flattery. They think of it as the truth.”

So far the reviews have been – well – flattering. Said one, " More relevant now than ever, as sucking up becomes the master trope of the Trump era, this choice romp through the spectacular world of bowing and scraping will entertain and enlighten."

The Parkers are pleased. They don’t expect this book to become as major motion picture – but, maybe, a reality show.