How to Recognize a Sycophant

Out the brown-nosers in your life.

Posted Feb 20, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

Let’s start with a story.

One day, when Sultan Mahmud (reigned 998-1010) was hungry, he was brought a dish of eggplant. He liked it very much and said, “Eggplant is an excellent food.” A courtier began to praise the eggplant with great eloquence. When the sultan grew tired of the dish, he said, “Eggplant is a very harmful thing,” whereupon the courtier began to speak in hyperbole of the harmful qualities of the eggplant. “Man alive,” said the sultan, “have you not just uttered the praises of the eggplant?” “Yes,” said the courtier, “but I am your courtier and not the eggplant’s courtier.”

Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock
Source: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

We all recognize in this Middle Eastern tale the smarmy practices of a toady. Here are some ways to tell a flatterer from a true friend.

1. Opinion conformity.

A sycophant imitates your tastes and opinions, often sharing your opinions enthusiastically. Sometimes this can be taken to absurd lengths — copying your look, décor, dress, and mannerisms. One friend told us that some graduate students started wearing baseball caps to class, because their professor was a big fan of baseball.

2. Fashion stockers.

This is a subtype of mimickers. In the eyes of some, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it can go too far and get creepy. We know one person who conspicuously copied the outfits of a colleague, going so far as to ask her mother in Italy to buy certain items. Remember, one of the truisms about sycophants is their essential nullity. A weak sense of self can lead to the imitation of others.

3. Self-promotion.

This happens often in the workplace where the suck-ups promote themselves unceasingly to impress the boss.

4. Other enhancement.

Be wary of those who flatter their target routinely. It could be a boss, or someone whose circle the person aspires to join. These toadies will echo the boss’s words and hone their compliments, at times piling them on, at others praising the target more subtly. The stupider the target, the easier it is to lay it on. Problems ensue when the flatterer has so transformed the target’s world through blandishments that the target begins to lose touch with reality, depending upon exaggerated accounts of his or her actions.

5. Kiss up, kick down.

This behavior distinguishes a truly despicable sycophant and is most noticeable in hierarchical situations. Such bootlickers ingratiate themselves to those with whom they are currying favor and abuse those below them, treating perceived underlings dismissively and with contempt.

6. Disagree on small points.

This is particularly wily. The suck-up will only register mild differences of opinion — to show that he or she has some independence of mind — but will always agree on big issues. Or the sycophant may couch criticism in the form of a compliment — “You are too generous.”

Outing the Suck-Up

If you want to out someone you suspect of being a sycophant, express an opinion or preference for something—then change your mind, and see if he or she will do the same.

Or express an outrageous opinion, or take a questionable stance. A friend will seek to discourage you from pursuing a questionable course of action. A flatterer will encourage your worse tendencies and aid and abet them.


Plutarch, How to Tell a Friend from a Flatterer.