by Conor Friedersdorf

As promised, I'll now readdress "the neg," a technique whereby men strategically criticize women they're attempting to pickup. Prior posts I've written on the subject are here and here. I'll try to intersperse my thoughts with some fascinating reader e-mails. This will be my last post on this subject, so I'm going to include lots of great stuff you've contributed -- do click through below the fold. (Note to proponents of the neg: Your chin looks funny. Would you like to read what's below the fold too?)

One Dish reader writes:

While the use of "negs" certainly sounds unseemly, I cannot think of any substantive difference between men who try to attract women by complimenting them and men who try to attract women by doing the opposite. While "being yourself" is a laudable objective, many men will stray from that ideal when courting a woman (and, for that matter, many women will do the same).  If we accept that digression from the ideal is a frequent occurrence, why do we hold the latter group of men in such low regard and not the former?   Clearly, either group becomes a caricature if taken to the extreme: the latter are represented by awkward guys who "alpha up" through the Mystery Method and the former are self-absorbed preeners who regurgitate saccharine pick-up lines.   But used in moderation is either approach really any worse than the other?

The difference is that while compliments or put downs can be either truthful or disingenuous, only put downs lower the self-esteem of the target. In most contexts, it seems obvious that it is wrong to gratuitously put people down for selfish ends. Why is dating different? That some men cannot understand this really boggles my mind, and makes me suspect that they aren't even thinking of women as being people (interestingly, some of these men seem to think of women as less than human, and others as superhuman). Every man can imagine how he would feel if a woman approached him at a bar, assessed his dress or some physical feature, and breezily made some cutting public remark: "You dress like a guy who has a small dick." Yet numerous correspondents seem utterly unable to imagine that women might also feel badly if criticized this way.

Scott writes:

The whole premise of "Negging" the "target" is to put a woman off guard, because in theory, attractive women are so used to men fawning over them that someone who actually challenges them will be seen as interesting. That's basically a shallow end of the explanation of dating psychology.  However, a guy having confidence, being excited and interested in his own life, not immediately showing himself being intimidated, and being playful and teasing someone he meets... nothing in particular about that sounds all that negative or off-putting. 

The problem with "The Game" is it's used to teach a particular set of behaviors, instead of teach guys to actually see themselves as worth dating.

A college senior named Alex writes:

I think that what a lot of the criticism of dating as a "game" and the deception involved assumes is the rather archaic notion that women hang around waiting for their white knight and assume that every one-night-stand is a prelude to a house with 2.5 kids in the suburbs and a future of domestic bliss. Indeed, some of the most debauched stories of pickups I've heard come from my female friends. If you are simply going out on the prowl for no-strings-attached sex, how else can you treat it but as a game? This is not to say, of course, that women enjoy being manipulated, but just that often they will be out looking for the same thing and anticipating that wonderful give-and-take that is the essence of flirtation and all those things that people have been doing upon being attracted to each other for millenia. Maybe there's a crass form of it that offers no enjoyment to one of the two parties, but I know I find it thrilling, for example, when a woman has enough wit and confidence to deflate my ego in a rather spectacular way.    

On a similar note, isn't the idea that the "neg" is some sort of device that exploits natural female vulnerability kind of sexist in itself? That most women are so insecure and dependent on the opinions of strangers that a passing mild insult from a stranger in a bar is enough to drive them into said strangers bed? Most of the women that I know (and yes, the plural of anecdote is not data, but still) would respond to a crude verbal swipe at them in the same way they would respond to a crude physical one, and to a artfully crafted and witty remark to them the same way they would respond to a similarly graceful move.

Two quick responses. Comparing "the neg" to a crude physical swipe, and saying that many women are capable of deflecting either as readily, isn't a defense of the tactic at all! Moreover, if I concede that some women find these kinds of put-downs thrilling -- I'll do so for the sake of argument -- the problem remains that a guy out approaching strangers in a bar cannot reliably distinguish between that kind of woman, if indeed she exists, and the kind of woman who'll be quite wounded by a deprecating remark made about her by a stranger.

Kit writes:

...as part of my technical degree, I had to take some business and social courses to make sure that I was someone leaving with the university's seal on my diploma as a well-rounded individual.  The class I'm referring to was Sales & Salesmanship.
The professor opened the class on day one saying that being a salesman isn't an inherently evil or immoral thing.  What you're there to do is to match people with answers, find the solutions to what they're looking for and put them together.  You can't sell something to someone who is completely not interested, and the same holds true for pick-up artistry.  Just as a car salesman is selling cars, a pick-up artist is selling himself as a partner for a sexual encounter.  If someone is truly not interested, it won't happen; the "game" is seeing whether or not it can be made to happen... 
If pick-up artists want to use morally shallow techniques for getting sex, so be it.  They're not forcing themselves upon people, and quite frankly if people want to have casual sex, I think we've moved past the point as a culture where we feel like we have to moralize about it. Yeah, they might be assholes in person, and psychological manipulators, but they're salesmen selling to people who eventually buy.

But those who use "the neg" concede that the pickup techniques they use succeed in part because they are unabashed about getting shot down many times in a night before they find someone for whom the technique works. Thus "the neg" is used on many women who are insulted but unsold, and who haven't any intention of having casual sex -- which isn't to say I agree that a woman who wants casual sex is therefore outside the realm where people should behave morally toward her. I don't!

Scott says he acts as a kind of superhero against "the neg":

I've found that these guys don't know what to do when you crash their game by interrupting them and telling the girl what's going on - explicitly, and then walk away. Ignoring doesn't work, since I've walked away, and their game is exposed so the "male neg" is shattered. Since most of these guys are, well, the kinds of guys who read books to pick up girls, they won't do anything about you cockblocking them. At worst, they'll just approach another girl, maybe making sure that you see them this second time.
I suppose it goes against guy-code to cockblock a guy, but I find the neg particularly offensive because of how disrespectful it is of women. I see it as a psychological abuse. Anyway it's kind of fun to blow up these guys' games, and then go join my girlfriend of two and a half years.

Steve writes:

Despite all of the anger about the internet, it's a great tool for the disenfranchised. After going through a rather bad break-up, I found a website called "The Angry Nice Guy". While the author advocated more of a national divide in dating (i.e. American girls are bitches, go find yourself a nice european/asian girl) it led me to find a great deal of online literature about how to stop being a "Nice Guy". Roughly speaking, Nice Guys are those that are pushovers, that essentially become doormats to the point that girlfriends get bored or disinterested in how interested, and perhaps commited, their boyfriends are.

Among the many interesting reads was the "neg hit". Long before I heard about it as a Pick Up Artist technique, I had it explained to me as a way to start looking at your partner as equal. To many young men fall head over heels in love and view their girlfriend as infallible. While we shouldn't knock women off an imaginary pedestal out of spite, the neg hit can be used as a way to start seeing that girl you admire as more of a human being instead of a goddess.

I dunno, Steve, I know a lot of nice guys who aren't pushovers at all. The two qualities seem distinct to me.

A. writes:

Since the concept of "negging" has taken a more personal connotation, I think it would be fitting to provide an example of why assholes like me enjoy using it.  The benefits of the "neg" is seen in the subliminal parts of the communication.  So allow me to use an example to help illustrate my point. 

The concept of a neg is to breakdown behaviors that might communicate something you wish it not to intend.  Acting like a gentleman might make a guy look like he's pushover (emphasis mine).  So when I'm with a girl whom I've treated like a princess with my gentlemanliness, I usually give a quip along the lines of, "This doesn't necessarily mean I like you" (it's an old line, I know, but for the purposes of the discussion I'm using it).  The neg is that I'm not being a gentleman just for her to feel like a princess or that I'm thinking of cashing in on it at the end of the date.  I'm being a gentleman because I am a gentleman which allows me the freedom to act the way I am without making it seem I'm trying manipulate the date to get something from her, i.e. me being noticeably nice for sex. 

So you're using a manipulative psychological technique in order to demonstrate to your date that your gentlemaniness isn't grounded in manipulation?

He continues:

Here's another example.  You're out with a girl, and she starts explaining how she broke up with her last boyfriend.  To get her past that, I usually tell her she fucked it up but do it with a smile.  If she doesn't get that I'm joking and looks confused, I'll tell her.  But I tell her this because the last thing I want to do at that moment is to become a relationship therapist and enable her to rag on some poor guy I don't even know, at a time when I want to enjoy the moment with her by sharing fond stories of each other.  Usually I'll guide her into one by asking about something that might make her sound adventurous.  The personal elements will come out on their own so why not have fun with it?  And because I point blank told her she fucked it up the last time, I'm trying to communicate that for what it's worth I don't really care how she did in her past relationships.  It sends the signal that I don't care about her character flaws because I made it superficially known with the way I "negged" her AND I don't care about them.

The "negging" concept though has become a lost art with people who want to show off their egos as machismo individuals, but all they're doing is neglecting the tactful behavior a man should show.  Girls love guys who seem to feel good to be in their own skin, and usually assholes who neg for the sake of negging play that role quite well, but after a while those who donned that mask through techniques will be challenged to take the mask off or the relationship will slip and fall away.  If there's one thing to note from "negging" it's that the guys who do it right are subtly communicating more than just the words the say, they're opening of a line of communication between two individuals who think that they get each other and wish to play the game of verbal banter to get to the least subtle point of when the sexual tension in the air is too obvious to ignore. 

So no "negging" by itself can easily be seen as a form of misogyny which it is when used by people who don't know how they play a part in conversational skills.  It's the way the picture has been cut that has made this one concept misogynistic and low brow.  But what has been neglected is the subliminal stuff being communicated which is let's put our character flaws aside for a moment and banter a bit.  It's like joking with your friends, just a bit more playful and sexual in the verbal banter so dates become more interesting than going through the same old personal interviews during dates.  

I know I still sound like an asshole, but life is just better when you stop pussyfooting around issues.

Hmmm. A subliminal, subtle, psychologically, manipulative conversational tactic as the more straightforward approach? "Pussyfooting around" seems direct by comparison! In the situation described, why not just say, "I'd rather not talk about your last breakup -- what are you looking for in your next boyfriend?" Or, alternatively, "Yeah, breakups are tough. Do you like roller coasters?"

Chris writes:

All I can say is: I'm a puppydog.  I have nary an edge to me when quality women are involved.  Women make me happy, very few other things do, and I get excited when I find a good one.

But when as soon as I feel comfortable and I drop the formality and the big doofus of a puppy dog comes out, I lose the girl.  Completely.  Doesn't even pick up my phone calls.  And everyone I've known that didn't get a wanted girl is guilty of that crime on top of any others.

This is what makes me think you're so quick to dropkick the "neg" that you're not seeing the forest.  The neg, if done without any actual offense ("Your lipstick looks odd" is a not-friendly observation, not an offensive remark), is explicit evidence of formality in the relationship.  Formality helps establish credibility and breathing room, which are as necessary to a relationship as communication and being forthright.  I also believe that by setting a baseline, your attempts at appreciating someone are more evident amongst the myriad suitors heaping roses after dollars upon a woman's altar.

Advice: being yourself from the beginning might result in fewer relationships begun -- but it'll also result in fewer relationships lost.

Mark writes:

I really can't understand the outrage about any of this.

It has always been true that the most successful people at pickups are narcissistic sociopaths.  But they aren't so good at forming positive long term relationships for obvious reasons.

Men and women have always discussed ways to find the best potential mates, and it will always be so.

As someone who tries to be nice to everyone, what disturbs me is why this kind of thing works so often.  I think it comes down to the old Groucho Marx line - "I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member."  When it comes to forming relationships, people tend to think that they can always do better so they get bored with anyone who shows too much interest or kindness.

Albert writes:

Amongst my friends who are married, the happiest ones say that they married their wife because, in their words, "she called me on my shit." And I think that is where the Neg is so important... For those like me who are desperately trying to find someone that can see through the BS, the Neg helps me to understand the mentality of the woman I'm meeting. If it works as prescribed, I fall back on my beta side and end up having a great conversation with a woman I wouldn't want to date. If it backfires, it is usually the result of insecurity (hers or mine). If it ends up where she's interrupting my own pattern, I'm head-over-heels, and those rare conversations have led to the best relationships I've ever had. The reason they're the good relationships? Because like the happy husbands, "she called me on my shit."

As much as it bothers you (from a purely male evolutionary perspective, competition in sex, and 'losing' that competition, takes an emotional toll), I would challenge you that nearly any woman who would fall for it is not exactly the type of woman with whom you'd like to have to make a major life decision. So, do as I do -- embrace the Neg and enjoy being someone who knows the difference between having an unnamed woman to wake up to on a groggy Saturday morning and having a woman with whom you can share honest intimacy. The Neg isn't a bug in the dating game, it's a feature.

The fact that a woman "isn't the type" you'd like to date seriously doesn't justify psychologically manipulating and insulting her!

Matt writes:

What a crazy subject, man. What is or is not okay in dating is the subject of more hypocrisy than anything else in life, even politics... I once had a female friend go on a rant to me about a mutual friend of ours that had confessed he had a crush on her, her calling it a betrayal of their friendship and complaining that men can't think about women without wanting to have sex with them and how it disgusted her. Now the fact that she was ranting to another male and obviously excluding me from the guilty party (men) was not the real hypocrisy of the moment. The real hypocrisy was the fact that I was driving her to meet up with another mutual friend who she had a crush on and was hoping to hook up with that night. You never mind someone making a pass at you when you want him or her to.

Time and again I've watched as people that I know are guilty of indiscretions with the opposite sex have held forth with great indignation against someone else who has just done the very same thing. I try to tell people, "judge not lest ye be judged", because no one is innocent in dating.

I don't like what pickup artists do, but in my experience they're only getting away with it because the women involved, on some level, want it to happen. I don't know how much to blame the scumbag guy for that. As far as taking the advice of a pickup artist, I always try to advise people that if what you want is a romantic relationship, you shouldn't listen to someone who uses contempt of the opposite sex as his or her shield for pursuing the narrow goal of instant gratification. There is more going on than tactics when a man uses "the Neg" or a woman applies "the Rules"; there is a mindset about the opposite sex that doesn't readily admit respecting and admiring its members - qualities that are rather important to good relationships.

J. writes:

I don't date. My wife and I moved in together at 18. Twenty years later, that's the one decision we've never doubted.

So take with a grain of salt ... but I'll try defending 'the neg.' There's nothing nonconsensual about 'the neg'. One person acts like an asshole, and if the other person responds positively toward assholes, maybe they'll get together. I'm not sure why that's such a bad thing. If we flip the genders, does this seems less odious to you? Is it a chivalrous impulse? If a woman wants to pick up a man, and finds that insulting him fans the flames of his interest, would you find that as offensive? I bet not.

I don't know. I've seen women do some pretty despicable things, but never that particular thing.

And Sonja, one of my favorite e-mails of the bunch:

How does one determine if a pickup technique has "worked"? What counts as success? You say that "the neg" does indeed work sometimes. What does that mean? I guess it depends on what the pickupper's goals are. But I bring this up because that discussion about pickup techniques seemed to assume that women are all looking for nice guys to have solid relationships with - they could be seduced by "the neg" and then get burned. But women can spot pickup techniques that are disrespectful and still respond positively (outwardly). A man who uses "the neg" or some other slimy pickup technique can be taken to be someone whose feelings are not of great importance. So he could be used for free drinks, free tickets, meaningless sex, whatever - and all without guilt because, hey, he's no better, right? It may not be moral, but it is fair. A man's pickup techniques can signal exactly where he belongs on the relationship food chain. Has a guy who has used "the neg" and then ends up buying lots of drinks been successful? Depends on if he likes buying women drinks, I guess.