Updated: Jul 4
The dark screen suddenly flickers with a new message notification. R opens her Instagram inbox to find a slew of messages from a guy she has been crushing for a little over a week. They initially bumped into each other on a dating app and decided to shift the conversation to Instagram for ease of interaction. Excitedly, she runs through the messages. As she reads further, her excitation starts to transform into agitation and anxiety. The comments are negative, intrusive and mocking. They are also not-so cleverly disguised as a form “dark sarcasm” and are punctuated by emojis that betray the content of the commentary. From making snide remarks about her weight and dress in one of the photos to casual slut-shaming about a post where she is hanging out with a group of male friends, this guy clearly assumes he has the right to bring R a peg down.
“I was going to ask you for a swimming date but you probably don’t swim. That much makeup is gonna make the pool turn a different color!”
“That was a short &hot dress! So did you get any action the other night? So many drunk guys at the party at least one would have been just the right amount of drunk to get down and dirty with you! lol!”
R put the phone aside and folded her arms around herself, she could feel herself shrink.
Negging is a tactic originally popularized by make pick-up artists as a form controlling and manipulative style of flirting that uses passive-aggressive language to belittle, humiliate and tokenize women while offering “back-handed” compliments. Psychologists and mental health experts often categorise it as a form of emotionally abusive behaviour intended to make someone feel small and insecure. While opinions might differ on whether it is an insult, in the very least, it can be classified as a negative value judgment about another individual based on superficial assumptions and/or social stereotypes. Some male pick-up artists claim that there is a fine line between hurting and flirting, this line is often too blurred and indiscriminate when it comes to real life interactions.
Social psychologist Elaine Walster Hatfield conducted research on the correlation between lowered self-esteem and attractiveness in a potential suitor or prospective partner. As per the study, when female participants’ sense of self-worth was temporarily lowered, they found the male research assistant more appealing or attractive. This was in stark contrast to those women in the study who didn’t feel a lowering of their self-esteem. What is important to be understood from this trial is that when people feel less worthy, there is an increase in their need to be accepted and experience affection or to feel attractive.
This is a primary reason why negging as a form of flirting always errs on the side of psychological manipulation.
In order to understand this a step further, we need to examine a term frequently used by psychologists and sociologists: social-desirability bias. In the simplest terms possible, it can be defined as the human need and desire to look favourable and appealing to others. For example, when people are asked to fill a survey form containing questions that might be considered socially or culturally inappropriate, people are tempted to respond with answers that might find greater favour among those reading the answers to the questionnaire than state their authentic views.
In a paper by Ted L. Hudson titled “Ambiguity of acceptance, social desirability and dating choice”, the researcher states – “Highly physically attractive subjects estimated their chances of acceptance as better than did subjects who considered themselves low in physical attractiveness.”
This might shed some light on why negging is often used as a tool to bring down a person a few notches. It is a way to make them feel less desirable and thereby open them up to accepting a potential suitor that they otherwise might not have accepted.
In an ironic way, negging also displays a sheer lack of self-confidence and dignity on the part of the individual engaging in it.
What are some clearly observable signs of negging?
Unwanted and unasked for “constructive criticism” – “You are a pretty girl for your size. Maybe think a bit about what fits your body better. Do you really want your love handles all over social media? Not a good sight, babe!” You didn’t ask for this feedback. You weren’t looking for this feedback but here it is – unsought, objectionable and sometimes, downright dehumanising. If someone keeps offering these stale nuggets of appraisal, firmly ask them to stop. Let them know that their so-called feedback comes across as destructive and self-involved not helpful.
Back-handed compliments – “You are except for that masculine jawline.” “You look so much hotter when you smile instead of that resting bitch face you have got going most of the time”. These are obviously not compliments but the way they are packaged can create a moment of dissonance for someone at the receiving end. These so-called compliments often sink their hooks in something that is perceived as a visible insecurity. This is also a primary reason for never putting yourself down in front of anyone because reprehensible people can easily weaponize your minor self-doubts against you. Reject these “compliments” and replace them with a better circle of people as well as self-affirming possibilities for yourself and your love life.
Parading harassment as a practical, universally acceptable form of interaction – In a more vicious form of negging, the rising levels of harassment are normalized as “good old-fashioned banter”. Occasionally if you try to establish boundaries, you might find a strong resistance in the form of “oh! you are too sensitive”. Flirting is not the same as hurting. Banter doesn’t need to be malicious. If a person finds verbal or non-verbal cues and signals to be disrespectful towards whatever is their threshold of acceptable social behaviours, it is reasonable to convey your dislike. Banter or not, no one is looking to be objectified and toyed with on a regular basis.
Narcissistic comparisons – “If I were you, I’d do/say…” these sentences rarely ever emerge from someone who is interested in engaging from a place of emotional maturity and consideration. The pick-up artist sub-culture is built on abject narcissism. As a result, it is tied in a knot of extreme grandiosity and self-pity. In a dating exchange, no one is supposed to play the role of a babysitter for another person’s ego. A healthy interaction is one which is devoid of unnecessary power-play and ego heroism.
At the end of the day, it is perceptive to notice that people who are interested in brutal honesty are most concerned with brutality than honesty.
We live in an age of knowledge and accessibility to information that can help us learn better about our own behaviours, intentions, and insecurities. There is no real excuse for why manipulation should be an easily acceptable part of a courtship or dating.