‘Flattery is all right as long as you don’t inhale.’
Assuring a friend that, yes, her diet has really worked when you know she’s feeling low in the self-esteem stakes is kind; flattering your boss that he or she is a great manager is purely common sense; being flattered by your partner, whether alone or in front of others, brings a cosy glow for all.
But for flattery to work its inoffensive magic, the person being flattered must be entirely aware of the nature of the spell. Hence the social contract: Flatterer A pays Recipient B the favour of a little harmless flattery. Recipient B returns the favour by not taking it all too seriously. Both A and B feel happy, without recourse to irrevocable statements or harmful lies. Just don’t ever believe the propaganda.
Of course it would be better to live in a world where compliments finally ousted flattery for ever – compliments are real, flattery is fake. But if we didn’t have the easy art of flattery, the difficult art of complimenting without then sounding fake would be even more fraught with difficulties –and life is already difficult enough.