Everybody in Hollywood has their version of this story. You’ve got a show or a movie, and you’re walking around town, and maybe you run into an old friend or sit next to someone on an airplane and the conversation gets around to what you do for a living and quickly gets to the “Have you ever done anything I might have heard of?” stage, and you mention your project and get this:
“Oh yeah. I’ve seen that.”
And that’s it. They don’t say anything after that.
“Saw your show,” someone will say. Or “Watched your movie” or “Read your book.”
And then, nothing. No “I liked it.” Not even a simple “Not for me.” Just an acknowledgment that the product has been experienced, and you, hanging there.
You can’t really say, “Thank you.” You can’t say, “Well, gosh, I guess it’s not for everyone.”
It instantly creates a lopsided power move because no matter what the other person says, it seems somehow solicited. Somehow dragged out by the needy and pathetic other person, who probably didn’t want to be in that conversation in the first place.
I never do this myself. I always say, “Great show!” Or, “I loved that movie!”
And always in a booming and hearty voice that’s loud and warm and too quick to be really accurate or thoughtful — but, honestly, when you tell someone you love their work, in my experience, they never ask for specific clarifications. Once you fling some really booming flattery around, most people are happy to move on to other topics.
What matters isn’t the sincerity. If you’re on the receiving end of a nice blast of “You’re so wonderful!” it barely matters — What am I saying? It doesn’t matter in the least! — if it’s true, if you really are wonderful, if the person telling you how wonderful you are even thinks you are wonderful.
What’s important is that the person delivering the flattering cascade thinks you’re worth stroking. It’s like a kabuki moment: I’m lying. You know I’m lying, but I want you to know that I respect you and think you’re the kind of person who’s worth lying to. The very best thing about flattery is how incredibly flattering it is.
And if you’re on the other side, if you’re delivering the flattery, it’s amazing how instantly it works, how immediately the recipient begins to glow and swan around. It’s like a sugar rush. It’s cheap. It rots your teeth and makes you fat, but for a few moments, you feel invincible.
Flattery, done correctly, is the Cinnabon of human interaction.
A certain network chief has canceled my shows five times. Five times. But each time, with a gracious phone call and some (probably empty, but who’s keeping track?) flattery, each time, I hung up the phone thinking, "OK, well, OK, bad news, sure. But he likes me! He thinks I’m talented!"
I’ve just eaten the Cinnabon of Flattery.
Once, I was told by a producer of online content that he could never, ever, ever begin to afford to work with a writer of my stature and talent, which was so flattering that I instantly agreed to work for him at what can only be described as Asian sneaker factory wages.
And I can’t tell you the number of times — well, I could tell you, but I won’t; the number is too high and humiliating — I’ve had a script or pilot or pitch rejected, only to be told later how much I’m loved and cherished and respected.
The Cinnabon of Manipulation.
We are, as a species, pretty cheap dates. And that’s a good thing to remember, especially as the holidays approach, with all of their perilous opportunities for dinner table confrontations and side-eyed sneers and storming out of the room when Grandma mentions that handsome Tucker Carlson on the TV.
It’s preferable and even more fun to tell Grandma she looks terrific, to gush about the moistness of the (in truth) too-dry turkey, to tell your spouse that he or she looks slender, to tell your transgender cousin that no, those shoes are perfect with that outfit.
The holidays are no time for sincerity. Make sure there are plenty of Cinnabons passing around the table.
Rob Long is a television writer and producer and the co-founder of Ricochet.com.