A Spoonful of Smarm Makes the Manipulation Go Down

In my quarterly (okay, maybe monthly) viewing of Pride and Prejudice, I realized - again - that Jane Austen very much enjoyed making fun of British clergy of her era. Watching Mr. Collins' constant and absurd gushing over the Lady Catherine de Bourgh is comical. And then I had an Austen revelation - that she was making quite a comment on the presence of smarm in our church culture, probably culture in general, but church culture for sure.

Jane would not have called Mr. Collins' behavior smarm. But we do. The word origin seems to be 20th century British, referring to a behavior exhibited in order to gain particular favor that came from a word used a century before that referred to daubing grease to keep hair in place. Depending on the blog post or author, smarm may be false niceness, haughty condescension, or manipulative smugness. This particular post focuses on the acts we do to make people like us or to make people think certain things about us.

Which is not a completely tragic thing. People who don't care whether or not others like them are often called sociopaths, so there's that. But like most actions, there are fine lines between appreciating the need for love in our lives and accepting it in ways that honor the other and being addicted to the constant approval of others because if only s/he likes me, my life will be wonderful.

Smarm lives in the latter. It is an outgrowth of the deep brokenness that whispers to us, "You know, if you just get that woman/man/person in authority/parent/neighbor/other person to whom we've assigned this unrealistic role to like you, you will be ok and all your hurt will go away." Smarm roots itself in arrogance, as well, because arrogance and deep insecurity are intertwined. We think that our compliments are so amazing that we can make someone like us, appreciate us, or give us what we want.  We think that the words we say will control what others think about us rather than the truth that our actions almost always tell people who we are and they respond accordingly.

Smarm is that behavior of which we are all capable that compliments people, lavishes praise upon them, and gilds the proverbial lily not because we are honestly touched by something they have done or said, but because we want to manipulate them into liking us or hoping they will in turn respond a certain way. Perhaps they will think we are special, too. Perhaps they will recognize our genius and elevate us to a position of trust. Perhaps they will fill the deep need of validation we all have.

We may call it smarm, but it's basically manipulation. It's the shadow side of "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." Smarm is the seemingly nice behavior of compliments, helpful advice, or fawning words that are used to help the manipulative behavior go down.

Not all compliments are smarm. Those words and actions that come from a place of honesty and deep appreciation offered with no agenda - they are not smarm. Those are kind responses that we are all called to share with each other.

Honest praise has no agenda. Smarm is mummified with agenda. A sure way to tell if you've ventured into smarm is how we react to the person's response to our compliment. If we offer our words of favor or guidance, and we are angry when the person doesn't respond in a way we think appropriate, we might be in the smarm neighborhood.

Smarm is a new, hipster word for the old sins of dishonesty and of manipulation. Some familiar with the 12 Steps recognize its relationship to codependent behavior, that behavior that manipulates others into supporting our addictions, irresponsibility, false selves, or other actions that don't meet the standard of loving ourselves and others. Smarm allows us to deny our pain and deep need.

The counter to smarm is the same counter to most things in the broken world - deep honesty. And deep honesty almost always comes when we venture into our own brokenness and offer it to God for healing. Other people cannot do God's work (or our work) of deep, personal healing. Other people cannot like us enough so we can love ourselves. Other people cannot validate us enough so we feel worth within ourselves.

We are called to that task by God with God's help. That work is individual, so what works for others may not work for everyone. But somewhere in community we can discover we all need to be loved and to love and find ways to love in holy and healthy ways...sans the smarm.


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