Stop Negging Them On!

My musings on the “pickup artist community” are now officially the most gratifying blog posts I’ve ever written. This is partly due to fascinating responses from folks who’ve e-mailed me, interesting conversations it has spurred with friends, and the opportunity to amuse myself by responding to angry e-mails on that subject by replying, “Wait, I’m confused, are you actually upset about what I’ve written or are you just trying to neg me?”

But mostly I am delighted that I’ve prompted Reihan, Bob Wright and Mickey Kaus to expound on their respective pickup codes of ethics — and they’ve all done so in video clips!

I’ll first address Reihan’s comment that “the neg or the tease is a really useful thing.” Do watch the video. His monologue is characteristically insightful. What I’d object to is the parallel he draws between teasing and “negging” — the former seems to me a perfectly defensible kind of human interaction, and one that is quite distinct from the latter. Teasing can be good natured. We’ve all affectionately teased someone in a way that they’ve enjoyed, and been teased ourselves in a way we didn’t mind. Social skill plays a role, as does the intention of the teaser. Friends can tease one another more easily than strangers due to the knowledge that they’re generally fond of the person being teased. In a pickup situation, however, it takes far greater social skill to tease successfully because one’s opening comment is the entirety of the relationship between the man and the woman.

The pickup artist community, composed mostly of males who’ve turned to its techniques because they don’t have finely tuned social skills, in fact teases people with bad intentions, or so I’m led to believe by the e-mails that they’ve sent me. It isn’t that they’re intending to tease a woman as a friend might in a spirit of affection, or as a suitor might as a flirty way to simulate a friend’s affection, or as Reihan suggests, as a way to gauge how seriously a woman takes herself as a proxy for whether he ought to be interested — by their own account, the “pickup artist” uses the neg to “knock a woman off her pedestal” so that she’s “on the same level” as the beta male trying to pick her up. This is evidenced by the fact that “pickup artists” recommend “negging” more intensely the prettier a woman is. The intention is to reduce her self-esteem, or even worse to play on her insecurities with the knowledge that some women react to that technique by having sex or hooking up as a coping mechanism.

Put succinctly, the difference between “teasing” and “negging” is that “the neg” is by definition and design a technique of negativity. When Reihan says that the neg is a poor simulacrum of the tease, I’d say that maybe that is the theory behind it, but that in fact the two differ not just in degree but in kind. There are crappy ways one could tease a friend about being small, and other, better ways, Reihan says, and I’d agree, adding only that one crappy way is the neg.

On to Bob and Mickey, whose exchange I’ll embed:

Mickey rightly points out that it’s creepy to lower someone’s self-esteem, then adds “because serotonin is good, and people generally perform better when their serotonin is high.” I’d say it’s creepy for Kantian, Christian, and maybe even Aristotelian reasons.

Bob asks, “What is the ethical difference between the neg and playing hard to get,” presumably because both involve calculated attempts to manipulate someone in a way that makes them feel less good than they otherwise would. The answer seems obvious to me. Would you rather have a person of the opposite sex play hard to get, or make negative comments about your appearance and/or personality?

It is one thing for a woman to conclude that, for some unknown reason, a man isn’t interested in her. This happens to everyone. It needn’t be a self-esteem lowering experience, or at least not a significant one, since no one expects that everyone they encounter is going to be attracted to them, and general social experience teaches that de facto rejection is a common enough thing.

Far less common is for someone to actively comment negatively on some aspect of your appearance or personality. That act can lower self-esteem in a significant way. The neg entails commenting on something specific to the person you’re trying to pick-up, which makes it particularly pointed, and because it is so unusual to be insulted — the fact that it is unexpected is cited by the pickup artist community as an explanation for its effectiveness — it is easy to conclude that you possess a flaw that is unusually noticeable or extreme, or else that unlike other people your feelings aren’t worth sparing. Contra Mickey, it is quite consistent to abhor the neg and accept playing hard to get.

I do think Mickey is right when he notes that if you’re trying to pickup women in bars you’re “in a select group” and “playing a weird game” — I imagine most men have tried to talk to a female stranger in a bar sometime, as have I, but that contra conventional wisdom this is actually the exception rather than the rule for where men meet women.

“What is the meaning of pickups?” Bob asks.

“Well you get her number and go on dates,” Mickey replies.

Either I am cynical or that is charmingly naive, because I’m pretty sure a lot of guys in the “pickup artist” community would say that the meaning of pickups is that you take a woman home from the bar and have sex with her. Anyhow, Mickey then says, “If you read Conor’s stuff, it’s almost as if he actually goes around meeting women in bars, and that’s the only way he’s thought of meeting women. It seems to me that it’s only ten percent of men and women who meet each other in bars. You can go to blogger parties, for example.”

Oh sweet Jesus, I hope the general response to my “pickup artist” posts isn’t to assume that I meet women in bars exclusively, and haven’t thought of any other way — my travels abroad excepted, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a woman in a bar who I didn’t already know through friends (indeed I recently dated someone for over a year who I met at what could be termed a blogger party — the birthday celebration of Megan McArdle, as it happens). If pressed, I’d say my approach to women who catch my eye is to talk to them. Given a book deal I could explain at length how this technique works sometimes!

But our time is better spent on Mickey’s keen observation that the “pickup artist” community is obsessed with making beta males into alpha males, even though there are perfectly good ways for beta males to successfully meet women while being themselves. (See Hugh Grant, Adam Brody, Michael Cera, etc.) In response, Bob notes that there are some men who get shut out of the reproductive sweepstakes altogether. True! Mickey then encourages Bob to write “The Beta Male Pickup Handbook.” If a blog post I wrote inspired that undertaking I’d count my journalistic career a success, retire to California, and open a burrito stand on a pier somewhere.

Though they defend “the neg,” I actually find it impossible to imagine Reihan, Bob or Mickey employing the technique, despite the fact that they are all quick-witted men adept at good-naturedly teasing others in social situations. But I hope our disagreement persists and spreads, ultimately growing into a Slate spinoff called The XY Factor, where Michael Lewis, Ross Douthat and Rick Hertzberg expound on their domestic habits, James Poulos and Will Wilkinson argue about how marriage should be rightly conceived, Jim Manzi writes the first quantitatively informed advice column and James Lileks is given the Web magazine equivalent of the back page.