Pickup Artists: The Girliest of Men

By Megan McArdle

I find it hilarious that the pick-up artists think of themselves as especially manly.  When I read this piece, what they sound like to me is girls--specifically, girls in the 14-17 age group.

So how does it work? It begins in a bar. PUAs (pickup artists; this will be the first in a long line of acronyms and other assorted jargon) do often ply their trade during the day, sometimes even on the street--this is called "day game" and has its own nuances--but the classic location for seduction is the trendy club or bar. For the most part the pickup artist "sarges" alone (i.e., operates alone--the term comes from the name of one of the cats of an early pickup artist), but a "wingman" or "wing" can play a role as well (among other things, he makes the pickup artist who is "running the set" look good). After a target is chosen, she must be approached within three seconds--this is the "three-second rule," one of Mystery's inventions. The thought behind it is twofold: first, if a man looks for too long at a woman, she might begin to think he is creepy, or, possibly worse, a coward; and second, if a man looks for too long at a woman, he might indeed become a coward, he might lose his nerve. When it is time for an approach, the approach always comes from an angle, from ten o'clock; this is less intimidating, but also conveys sufficient confidence. The pickup artist always smiles.

The first words spoken to the group (and it will usually be a group, because "women of beauty are rarely found alone") are an opener, which is delivered along with a false time constraint. The time constraint--"my friends are waiting for me so I have to go in a few minutes, but..."--serves to eliminate anxieties that the pickup artist will never leave; anyone who has been approached in a bar, male or female, knows this feeling. The PUA opener--what follows the "but" in the time constraint--is unlike the come-on lines we have always heard: "Come here often?"; "What's your sign?"; "I must be in heaven, because you are an angel." The PUA opener seeks instead to start a conversation, nothing more, nothing less. Typically, it asks for an opinion, which both makes the intrusion plausible and, even better, allows women to offer their advice (because who doesn't love giving advice?). One opener that has been "field-tested," the "jealous girlfriend" opener, asks the group what a friend (imaginary, of course) should do in the following situation: his new girlfriend has become more and more opposed to his continuing contact with his ex-girlfriend from college. Now, of course it makes sense that the current girlfriend should have pride of place. But the ex-girlfriend is just a friend at this point--and anyhow, they are still such important figures in each other's lives! Is that really fair?

In the meantime, of course, the pickup artist needs to watch his body language--or train himself into the proper body language beforehand. PUAs are quite fond of watching movies with famously "alpha" protagonists--James Dean, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt--and routinely copy their stances and gestures, practicing in front of a mirror. They seem to know everything that one could possibly desire to know: where to put their hands, where to put their feet, what to do with their weight. They know how to manipulate a woman out of her barstool so they can slide into the seated position (the position of power). They know how to rock backwards slightly when delivering openers--again, so that their interlocutors fear they might leave at any moment.

Soon it is time for a "neg." Here is the insulting, the teasing--the alienation, as Mystery put it. When the opportunity arises, the pickup artist finally acknowledges his target, whom he has either been ignoring or only addressing as part of her group. But it is hardly an acknowledgment: it is a mild insult, or a backhanded compliment, and always delivered in as casual a way as possible so that the intention to insult can never be detected. At the target's first attempt to join the conversation: "Whoa, your friend is pushy guys, is she always like that?" Or after she smiles: "Your nose is so cute; I love the way it wrinkles up." The thought is that depriving a woman of attention and validation will lead her to seek it from you; Strauss puts it best when he says that to neg a woman is to treat her like a bratty little sister.

But the victory of the pickup artist can only be guaranteed by demonstrating value. In the abstract, this involves establishing that the pickup artist is different from other men, intriguing in some way, superior. Most of the time, however, because of the historical accident of the culture's foremost practitioner having been interested in magic as a child, this is achieved via a number of pseudo-mystical "routines": ESP, handwriting analysis, various personality tests. (In Mystery's own case, there are actual magic tricks involved, but he knows better than to introduce them as "magic tricks.") In one routine, "the cube," the target is asked to picture a cube in the desert. Then she is asked: How big is it? What is it made of? What color is it? Then she pictures a ladder, a horse, flowers, a storm. Sure enough, the cube represents her ego, the ladder her friends, the horse her lover (or her own sexuality), the flowers children, the storm her problems. Is the ladder leaning on the cube? Her friends depend on her. Is the horse bigger than the cube? She wants her lover to dominate her. And so on. That the details of the routine are purely arbitrary is not lost on the pickup artists--there exist bountiful variations, in which the terms are shifted around according to whim, the flowers representing one thing, the ladder another. The idea is just to get the target talking about herself, and in a style that comes naturally; after all this is "chick crack," catnip to women, who according to the pickup artists love any and all psychological speculation, particularly when tinged with the supernatural. And the pickup artist displays his value by engaging the opposition precisely in that territory, the realm of fog and intuition; but he doesn't just engage her in this realm, he dominates it, beating her at her own game. That is value.

The playbook has many, many pages left at this point: the target must be isolated; a connection must be made (something traditionalists try to do first but the pickup artist knows to do later); and comfort must be built to allow for an eventual transition to the "sex location." (And on all of these subjects, and indeed on those above as well, there are thousands and thousands of posts on various internet forums.)

Spending all of your time thinking about how to attract the opposite sex?  Check.  Practicing poses in the mirror to figure out which ones are most attractive?  Check. Talking about it endlessly with your friends who only seem to care about the same, one, thing?  Check. Increasingly elaborate strategems for getting attention?  check.  Eventual evolution of said strategems into rituals as mechanical as playing the opening levels of an old-style video game?  Check.  If I close my eyes, I can still smell the bubble-gum scented lip gloss . . . 

Do they send out for pizza while they talk, or would that just make Erik cry because he looks so fat in his new jeans?

Who--over the age of 25--believes that investing most of your time and energy in attracting another person means that you're gaining power over them?  At least the little girls eventually learn that sex and flirting are supposed to be fun.  And very few full time jobs are fun.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2010/07/pickup-artists-the-girliest-of-men/59578/