What’s less authentic than entering into a ‘spontaneous’ social interaction with a script? Hugo Schwyzer argues that ‘negging’ isn’t cool.
Maybe you’ve heard a line like this at a party or in a bar, from a man to a woman he barely knows:
“You have a pretty face, but you’d be even prettier if you’d lose the bangs.”
Chances are, unless it’s coming from a gay hairstylist trolling for clients, that you’ve just witnessed a “neg-hit,” the basic tactic in “negging.”
If there’s one technique in the pick-up artist (PUA) repertoire about which I hear more often than anything else, it’s “negging.” The urban dictionary helpfully defines negging as “the offering of low-grade insults meant to undermine the self-confidence of a woman so she might be more vulnerable to your advances.” The idea is simple: women, particularly beautiful ones, are so accustomed to compliments that they’ve grown immune to their power. But make a “hot” woman think you don’t think she’s all that, and she’ll be eating out of your hand. Or so the peddlers of seduction wisdom would have their customers believe.
Though I’m suspicious of most of what the professional PUAs are selling, I do appreciate that they’re meeting a very real need. We live in a culture where heterosexual men are still frequently expected to be the initiators, to make the first move. For many men who lack the requisite self-confidence and self-esteem to approach a woman in a way that won’t annoy or unnerve her, the PUAs teach valuable techniques. Some of those techniques are solid common sense; others are soaked in misogyny. Some men who pay significant sums to be coached in “game” are happy with the results, some aren’t. But almost all are, at one point or another, taught to “neg.”
The problem with negging (whether it’s done as part of formal PUA technique or not) is that it’s rooted in men’s suspicion that too many women think too highly of themselves. Listen to PUAs and Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), and you’ll hear a familiar litany: most women expect too much. Blame romance novels or television shows, pop psychology or feminism (the MRAs are especially fond of pinning all their woes on the last of these), but 21st century American women are too demanding—or so these lads claim. They want hot bods and fat wallets and empathy, like some perfect fusion of Johnny Depp, Mark Zuckerberg, and Dr. Drew.
So the “neggers” believe that the only way to combat women’s inflated sense of self-worth and expectation is to tear down their self-esteem. They operate on the cruel calculation that the less a woman believes she deserves, the more likely she is to “settle” for the likes of the game-playing PUA. Certainly, there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence to support the hypothesis that women’s low self-esteem is connected to a willingness to sleep with (and remain in relationships with) men who will treat them badly.
In their own defense, PUAs who neg claim that all they’re really trying to do is differentiate themselves from the legions of men who use and abuse compliments. Plenty of women have experience being on the receiving end of the cheesy flattery that is the standard stuff of traditional opening lines. “Am I in heaven? Because I’m looking at an angel” is likely to elicit an eye-roll and a snort.
The insincerity of these sorts of compliments is obvious, and as a result, their effectiveness is limited at best. The PUAs argue that by negging, they’re offering a genuinely honest alternative to the usual hokum of the bar scene. No woman really is an angel, after all; expressing limited, critical interest through a quick neg-hit (a one-line backhanded compliment) will be perceived, they hope, as more authentic. It works in part because of women’s insecurity, but it also works because effective negging is rooted in a tiny kernel of truth. (The opening example about a woman’s bangs only works if the woman actually has hair covering her forehead.)
The true effectiveness of this game, of course, lies in its subtle suggestion that the PUA has taken the time to notice the woman he’s negging. Many women—perhaps particularly stereotypically attractive women—have plenty of experience being stared at by men. They have less experience of feeling seen. The mixture of compliment and insult suggests both the absence of desperation (an admittedly attractive quality) and at least a glimmer of interest (otherwise, why would the negger speak up in the first place.). Used skillfully, there’s little question that negging can work.
Bullying and threats of violence can also get guys what they want. We have to do more than ask “what works,” we need to ask “is it worth using?” As tempting as it can be to buy into the myth that “women expect too much” and deserve to be taken down a peg, the reality is that most women don’t expect a fusion of Brad Pitt and Deepak Chopra. While there certainly are some women who have grossly unrealistic assumptions about what a relationship with a man can and should provide, men also tend to exaggerate the loftiness of women’s expectations. Wanting a guy to be well-groomed and equipped with a basic vocabulary for his own emotional terrain are not unreasonable desires. In most cases, the problem isn’t women expecting too much: it’s men offering too little.
But if the PUAs are wrong to try and work to reduce both women’s self-esteem and their expectations, they’re right to remind all of us that compliments grow stale and meaningless from overuse. They are right as well to encourage men not merely to stare but to take notice. And they are right that what we’re all hungry for is greater authenticity. Except, what’s less authentic than entering into a “spontaneous” social interaction with a script, feigning a mix of candor and lack of interest in the hopes of sparking curiosity and desire? Guys can do better than that.