The third of the four qualities the Buddha named as marks of a false friend is flattery.
The words of the Buddha:
“The flatterer can be identified by four things: by supporting both bad and good behavior indiscriminately, praising you to your face, and putting you down behind your back.”
A flatterer could also be called a two-faced friend, one who says one thing in your hearing and another when you’re not around. You don’t often discover how others speak of you when you’re not there, but you can listen to how they speak of others who aren’t present. Would they say the same things if the person being discussed were in the room? What are the odds that you are spoken of with as little regard when you are absent?
Interesting that the Buddha says a flatterer “…supports both bad and good behavior indiscriminately”. Such a person is not using any judgment, but is just floating along as if it didn’t matter whether you are (or she is) doing something wholesome or unwholesome. It is hard to call out a friend whom you think is doing something damaging to herself or others, but a true friend would bear the consequences of speaking up.
Another dangerous form of flattery is the human tendency to defer to others if they seem important. The physically attractive, the glamorous, the powerful, the famous, the very rich – do you (or does someone you know) speak to them with an unwarranted degree of deference?
Every situation is unique and deserves consideration, but the goal — wholesome intention — is the same. If you stop and reflect before speaking, you are more likely to refrain from insincere and harmful talk than if you don’t think first. Take your own words seriously. As a good friend of mine once said, “Listen to yourself!” Pay attention to whether others take their own comments seriously or not. In this way, you will detect whether you or a “friend” of yours is a flatterer. You can change your own behavior, and you can change who your friends are – these things are in your power to do.
Next up: the reckless companion, and then the qualities of a wholesome friend.