The origin of the art of flattery goes back to time immemorial. Kings used to keep flatterers in their courts and reward them with treasures for their efforts to make the kings appear greater than they were. It seems that kings generally suffered from acute inferiority complex which had to be cured with flattery in addition to accoutrements like shiny robes and golden crown.
It’s not only kings of the bygone days that craved for flattery, their later counterparts also seem to lap it up earnestly. Most people in power seem to love flatterers. Is it because the desire for power and inferiority complex are two sides of the same coin?
Whatever that be, it seems that the ability to flatter those in power is a valuable life skill. The benefits one can derive using this art skilfully may not be insignificant at all. In fact, it is much more useful than intelligence or what is generally known as IQ.
Robert Sternberg, psychologist, defined practical intelligence as a skill that enables one to ascend the ladder of success. In his own words, practical intelligence is “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect.” [Emphasis added]
Maximum effect can be interpreted variously. For most people, I guess, it would mean personal benefits. Hence, for most people, practical intelligence may not be much different from flattery when it comes to their dealings with people in power.
High IQ is of not much use as far as success in the world of practical affairs is concerned. Psychologist Lewis Terman had proved it (much against his will) in the first half of the 20th century – before Sternberg spoke about practical intelligence. Terman was a worshipper of IQ. “There is nothing about an individual as important as his IQ, except possibly his morals,” declared Terman before he set out to make an elaborate study of 1470 students identified from 250,000 elementary and high school students. Terman’s chosen students all had an IQ between 140 and 200. That is, they were all geniuses. Terman’s assistants followed these geniuses as they grew up with the fidelity of a dog.
Very few of these geniuses went on to make remarkable careers. Some published books and scholarly articles, some others thrived in business and a few others went on to occupy some important public offices. The vast majority of them had careers that could only be considered ordinary. A surprising number of them ended up with careers which Terman considered failures. Not one of them won any Nobel Prize whereas two of the students rejected in Terman’s selection process won the Nobel later – William Shockley and Luis Alvarez.
That is to say, it is not high IQ that brings success in the world of practical affairs. One needs practical intelligence. Today’s Indian educational system has realised this and has included many non-scholastic skills in the curriculum. “Life skills” are mentioned specifically in the assessment form for students. They refer to thinking skills, social skills and emotional skills.
Long ago, when I was a student, the educators didn’t think of such skills. Or maybe they did. When I was in class 5 or 6 the example that I was taught for simile was: “O King, your face shines like the moon.” I remember all my siblings learning the same example. Probably that was meant to be a lesson in flattery. This example for simile was probably chosen in order to teach us how to flatter those in power though there were no royal kings in our times.
The problem with many students like me is that we failed to learn the lessons except for the exams. Our mistake was to think like Terman that only the IQ and the morals mattered really. By the time I learnt about Sternberg and his practical intelligence I became too old to learn new tricks particularly those like flattery. So I have chosen to be contented with standing on the sideline and watching the courtiers singing paeans as they move up and up... Believe me, there’s much fun in this exercise too.