Chuba Ezekwesili: ‘Na wash’ – The economics of flattery

by Chuba Ezekwesili

Lagos-Ng

 

 

That right there is the story of Nigeria. A country where the bitter truth is anathema and flattery is the cherished medicine. Don’t ‘embarrass’ the President, Minister, Governor, Pastor or authority by being honest. Instead, allow their ineptitude to continue.

Flattery, known to the Nigerian youth as ‘washing’ has always piqued my interest due to its ability to influence one of the greatest drivers of human behavior: the ego. Our egos have proven to be immensely adept at driving behavior. And well, given that I’m yet to see many other nationals with large egos like Nigerians, I thought something on our ability to stroke that ego was long overdue.

Frankly, flattery has great supply and demand in Nigeria thanks to our culture that eschews questioning and encourages rigid stratification of status based on age, sex and health of bank account. After all, where there is a demand for a product, the market ensures that a commensurate supply exists.

In Nigeria, the correlation between money and flattery has metamorphosed into a trade-by-barter relationship. Flatterers offer ebullient greetings with the expectation of immediate financial remuneration for their ‘arduous’ task of unabashed adulation. With money, criminals can instantaneously become ‘honorables’. They can also become ‘elders’ in the church and most possibly ‘saints’, if it was permitted. Money in Nigeria also has this wonderful effect of reversing age differences. Suddenly, you can become ‘daddy’ or ‘uncle’ to someone who’s competing with your grandfather’s grey hairs.

And because half my readership comes from outside Nigeria, I’ll drop a few commonly used Nigerian greetings you should be wary…just in case you venture back into Nigeria. These include “We remain loyal”, “My Oga”,”My Chairman”, “Well done Sah”, “Anything for your boys?”, “You too much O!” ,”Happy Weekend” etc.

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Flattery’s a unique product because it’s not only exchanged for money, it also takes the place of money in many cases. Like currency, flattery can be ‘exchanged’ for other goods/products such as job opportunities, political appointments and sexual favors. Religious leaders use flattery to placate their congregation and keep them hoping. Politicians use flattery-as well as other expensive and forcefully persuasive resources- to garner the votes of the masses. Nigerian men prolifically use flattery to win the favor of women and vice-versa. And the most amusing of all are the Nigerian policemen who flatter/hustle money from you.

Like currency, the value one receives from accepting flattery is largely dependent on who dishes out the compliment, the conscience/gullibility of the recipient, and the expectations of the flatterer (we’ll call this the ‘tax’).  In form of an equation, it would look like this: f(S) = [P + C + G – T] where S=Satisfaction of benefactor, P= who the flatter is, C = conscience of benefactor, G = gullibility of benefactor, and T = tax from flattery.

In order to depict what happens when one flatters too much, I rigged a Laffer Curve. For those with no economic background, the only similarity between the original and this one (let’s call it the ‘wash-wash curve’) is the ‘tax function’ – given that flatterers tend to ‘tax’ their benefactors. What the curve below shows is that people tend to enjoy flattery up to a certain point where it begins to get annoying, especially when there’s a ‘tax’ involved. Of course, this curve doesn’t apply to Nigerian ministers, presidents, governors and the rest who seem to have ‘infinite’ resources.

wash-wash-curve3

Flattery differs from money in an interesting way though. Apparently, the value of flattery seems to remain even when the flattery is obviously fake. Chan and Jaideep (2010) pointed out that even when flattery is accompanied by an obvious ulterior motive that leads targets to discount the proffered compliments, the initial favorable reaction (the implicit attitude) is not eliminated, but continues to coexist, and have far more influential consequences than the discounted evaluation (explicit attitude). Stripping off all the ‘grammar’, the paper simply states that we still fall prey to flattery even when we’re aware that it’s false.

In crucial cases, this makes flattery immensely dangerous as it has the potential to stifle innovation and development. Flattery lowers the expectations of both the leaders and the led. In a society that constantly encourages the adulation of leaders, such leadership will lack the desire to remain accountable or improve performance. The adverse effect of flattery on leadership appears to be corroborated by the research of Assistant Professor of University of Michigan, Ithai Stern. In his research on CEOs, he finds that the greater the status, the more flattery and opinion conformity will be directed towards the CEO. The more flattery occurred, the greater the CEO’s self-enhancement. Why’s this dangerous? It’s detrimental when there is low performance, the greater the self-enhancement of the CEO, the less likely the leader will initiate necessary changes in strategy.

“Flattery is a kind of bad money, to which our vanity gives us currency.” – François de La Rochefoucauld

That right there is the story of Nigeria. A country where the bitter truth is anathema and flattery is the cherished medicine. Don’t ‘embarrass’ the President, Minister, Governor, Pastor or authority by being honest. Instead, allow their ineptitude to continue.   Little do those who constantly have an excuse for the ineptitude of authority realize that they are only worsening the performance of those they adulate.

Overall, flattery is not necessarily detrimental and can be invaluable…especially when you’re in a relationship. It just depends on how much of it you decide to take in. Those who fail to control their demand for flattery might end up getting so much of it that they begin to trade in their own coins…and I believe that’s called self-flattery. And to those who love to trade in flattery, remember – your flattery is like cash, the more you dish it out, the less value it holds over time.

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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