Rowan Pelling: Flattery will get you everywhere

The art of paying a compliment is dying out, so this is the perfect time for charmers to cash in
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The Independent Online

For six blissful years I worked in an office where one of my co-directors was supremely gifted at giving compliments. "Lady Boss," he would say, "can I tell you how utterly ravishing you look today?" To which I would reply, "Certainly you may, and then some." The fact that I hadn't washed my hair for weeks, was wearing a dress like a yurt and had a zit on my nose never seemed to rattle him.

I wasn't singled out for his largesse. He was blessedly egalitarian in the spreading of his accolades. No woman, however young or old, however thin or portly, whether familiar or a total stranger, was immune from his free-ranging tributes. "Your eyes are such a gorgeous, periwinkle blue," he said to a flustered traffic warden who was ticketing his car. "Look at your wonderful ankles," he once said to the mother of an office junior. "You can see where your daughter gets her sex appeal." And when talking of his wife he would say, with the admiration of an Arab prince for his favourite racehorse: "Have you ever seen such an amazing creature? Isn't she beautiful."

His compliments raised the spirits sky-high. They may have been absurdly florid and effusive but, at their core, there was the discernable glimmer of genuine esteem. He just loved women. Most importantly, it was clear that the compliments were an end in themselves. This wasn't a sleazy man trying to insinuate himself, or try it on. He sought nothing more than the pleasure of bestowing pleasure.

Male readers will be vomiting by this point but, honestly chaps, you should take a few tips. The best chat-up line I ever received, many years ago, came from a man I'd met at a party, who phoned me the next day and said, "I'd just like to shower you with compliments." What was there to dislike? Similarly, nothing oils the wheels of dreary, bitchy office life more effectively than a few well-placed compliments. Women will do practically anything for co-workers who make them feel pretty, from fetching tea to scraping vomit off their shoes (yes, I have done this). I even had one colleague who used to reward paeans to her curves with an invitation to, "Bury your head in my party pillows."

But it seems the knack of well-placed flattery is a dying art form. According to a survey this week for Loire Valley White Wines (I always wondered when someone would think of crossing a sociology department with a grape), one in eight women said that they hadn't received a single compliment from a man in the past three months. And, as we all know, compliments from women rarely count. When a female colleague says, "I like your trousers," she generally means they make your arse look like a hippo's and she hopes you'll wear them to the pub on Friday, so she looks fit by comparison.

It would appear women are the agents of their own misfortune. Firstly, men are worried about an innocent remark being misconstrued. When a chap does summon up the courage to bestow a compliment, British women don't know how to receive it with grace. They act with suspicion and say things like, "What do you mean I've got beautiful eyes? Haven't you noticed the burst blood vessels? I should never have had that second bottle of tequila! Hey, where are you going?" They never stop to think whether Kate Moss got to where she is today by saying, "Aw shucks, I'm not pretty - all that partying has wrecked my skin," or, "Please don't give me that Chanel handbag, I don't deserve it." Nobody's ever told your average British female that it's damn well nearly as blessed to receive as to give - though I'm sure Carole Caplin did a good job on Cherie. In fact, there are those of us who secretly feel a bit more blessed when we receive a bunch of compliments (according to Loire Valley, five a day is the ideal tally) then we give a tenner to charity. And if Big Issue salesmen offered you a shower of compliments for £1.40, I'm not sure that I wouldn't spend half my time down by Sainsbury's cashpoint.

Surely womankind can't be that shallow, I hear you say. Well, yes, they can be. I would crawl across a cesspit hissing with maggots to be told in reasonably credible terms I was desirable. Of course, the degree of pitiable desperation displayed has some correlation to a given woman's age and the length of her relationship - if any. When you've been married for anything beyond a decade, your spouse's compliments tend to be on the rare and thrilling side - rather like sighting a golden eagle in your back garden. And when a woman reaches the age of 35, her compliment quota, much like her fertility, is on a downward gradient that starts at a gentle slope and swiftly becomes a precipice by 40. Cunning men should therefore take note that an accolade aimed at the more mature female breast will more quickly find its target. One male friend of mine attributes every major advance he's made on the career ladder to flattering fifty-something female bosses. He calls this the "Devereux technique", in tribute to the silver-tongued Earl of Essex, youthful favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. But it might as well be called the "Portillo technique", in tribute to the Tory boys who sucked up to La Thatch.

But it would be a mistake to suggest that women are more susceptible to compliments than men. I just think we're more honest about our need for admiration. Look at all those ambitious young women who bat their lashes at middle-aged bosses. The men would call it flirting, most women would say it's flattery.