Negging. What it is, how to respond.

Because hurt people hurt people.

Negging has come enough that I figured it deserved a bit of an article and explanation. The term was born of the OG 90s internet message boards where the menfolks that wanted to have sexitimes with womenfolks converged to share “tricks.” 

It became very much a thing when the book by music journalist Neil Strauss published his book “The Game” which was about his metamorphosis into being the ultimate pick-up artist  and eventually the guru to followers who wanted to learn his skills. Like a lot of coaching programs that catches public interest it consists of a mish-mash of ideas like evolutionary psych, sales techniques (“closing the deal” -- like we aren’t discussing a human relationship or something), and neuro-lingustic programming. 

But essentially, if dating was a game, women were then something to be acquired. Strategy wasn’t enough, manipulation was vital. Making someone feel shitty about themselves, put the game-player in the role of rescuing them from the bad feeling.

As BIll the Cat says: Ack.

Negging is about throwing the person you are interested in off balance, to take them down a notch, confuse them, to undermine their confidence in such a way that puts the individual delivering the neg in the position of power. If someone feels like crap about themselves, they may go after approval from the person who made them feel like crap, right? 

The idea is that it puts you in the position to score outside of your league, so to speak. There are plenty of websites out there that still peddle this bullshit, with gems like.

“Negging women is ideal for really hot girls – 8s, 9s, and 10s. For an average girl (6s, 7s), you don’t want to use value zingers. All you need to do is demonstrate social value – you don’t need to lower hers. Hers wasn’t that high to begin with.”

In a nutshell, all compliments are backhanded. Stuff like “You’d be smoking hot if you worked out” or “I think it’s brave to be on a dating app competing with so many women that are so much younger than you.” There are other tricky ways of delivering a neg, as well. Like being compared to others (“You’re probably used to hearing that your friends are hotter than you, but you’re cute in your own way.”) or being offered constructive criticism (“Your legs would look so much hotter if you wore high heels”). 

Written out it feels stark and obvious, but if you are already feeling not-great about yourself and you’re in a social situation, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that getting thrown off balance can have the desired effect.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have confidence in a social situation, to have a little bit of “game” to help break the ice. Flirting and teasing doesn’t have to be mean. A friend of mine who considers himself a pretty good PUA would approach women and ask them if they were waiting for their date, giving them an easy out if they weren’t interested (no pressure, important opening gambit). If they replied that they were with friends/waiting on friends/alone/etc his follow up would be “Is it OK if I flirt with you for a minute then?”

I had a guy sending me a dating app message that referenced the line in my profile that stated that my blood type was coffee. His message? “I’m really going to need your information. We share blood types and I may need a transfusion one day.”

Both my friend and coffee-guy are men who don’t have natural swag (read: both could be classified as species: dorkopotomous), who were looking for strategies to open a conversation but also managed to avoid making people feel like shit about themselves in the process.  I understand flirting can be stressful, but it shouldn’t turn you into a manipulative asshole. It is  actually possible to flirt successfully without being a dick.

But negging isn’t limited to how men hit on women. Or even dating rituals in general. Negging is just an internet-born term that put a face on something humans have been doing to each other for millenia. Making someone else feel bad so we can feel better is a common (and shitty) human trick.

Chances are you’ve been negged not just by a stranger hoping to get your naked but by an established partner, a friend, a coworker, a supervisor, a family member. Backhanded compliments, constructive criticism, comparisons to others? We’ve probably experienced far more of these behaviors from people we are close to, than strangers in a dating scene.

And while it might feel like crap, it may not be intentional. In any relationship, we should pay attention to how often the behavior happens and it what kinds of situations. Someone negging us may not be embarking on a considered campaign of making us feel like shit...or you may realize that’s exactly what’s been going on once you start paying attention to it.

The good(?) news is that any for of negging can be handled with essentially the same tools no matter who is delivering the neg. Here are my go-tos:

  1. Act confused and/or ask for explanation. “What did you mean by that?” and “I don’t get it.” work wonders.

  2. Call it out and question the intent. “That was pretty mean, did you intend to be mean?”

  3. Call it out and dismiss it. Chuckle a little and say “Ok, that was harsh.”

  4. Non-response. “Mmmmm, okay.” “Ah, interesting.” and the like are non-starters.

All of these strategies show that the neg didn’t have the intended effect of throwing you off-kilter or hurting your feelings. (I mean, it may still have hurt your feelings, but you definitely aren’t going to let anyone score points in the process.) And if you are dealing with someone you have an ongoing relationship with, especially with someone who you don’t have much choice in having a relationship with (family, bosses, etc.) these are the types of responses that don’t give someone spoiling for a fight much to work with.

Neil Strauss would likely agree. In 2015 he published The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, about his difficulties in building and maintaining a relationship with his then-spouse. He admitted that  the culture that was created around his original book was deeply problematic. But he also did us a favor, in a way. The mechanism around this behavior has been exposed for what it is and how it is used to hurt and manipulate others. Not just in dating and hook-up culture, but in all human relationships. Negging and similar toxic behaviors are the work of individuals who don’t want to take accountability for their traumatic histories and problematic expectations. To do so would mean having to be a vulnerable and authentic human.

We can recognize it when we see it, challenge it when safe to do so, and not take on the ideas about ourselves that are offered only with the intent to wound or damage.