"Negging": the anatomy of a dating trend

Ever been insulted in a bar? It's possible you were being "negged".

A woman is drinking at a bar. She is alone; perhaps she is waiting for a friend. A man sidles up to her. He is nervous, unsure of himself. He is not a classic lothario, nor is he classically cool. He is probably alone too. “Your roots are showing,” he says.

She looks round, confused. Perhaps she has misheard. “Your roots are showing,” he says again, gesturing weakly at her hair. She furrows her brow. “Excuse me?”

The guy tries a different tack. He is sweating. “You know,” he says, “you look just like my little sister.”

You may never have come across this bizarre phenomenon before, but in various forms it is being practised as a seduction technique around the world. Negging, as it is called, is in essence a trick. The idea is to undermine a woman's confidence by making backhanded or snide remarks – give a compliment with one hand, and take away with the other. It is about control, putting the man in charge of the interaction by pushing the woman to earn his approval.

Someone appears to have given an implicit promise: verbal negativity means sexual success. Those two lines in the opening scenario are both real approaches recommended by seductionscience.com, one of a massive range of websites giving advice on this and other pick-up techniques.

Here are a few lines that women I interview have had used on them. “You look amazing. What have you done?” “If your face was as good as your legs I'd have to marry you.” “Nice eyes – even though one is bigger than the other.” “How brave of you to wear an outfit like that,” and even: “You have a great body. Are you bulimic?” (The last interviewee adds that she was, at the time, bulimic.)

A day spent browsing seductionscience.com – which is full of pleasant little tidbits like: “all women will turn into whores and gang-bang the whole football team if you can bring down her anti-slut defense” – is not a happy day. It offers more stock lines, like “I like that outfit you’ve got on, but your shoes don’t really match.” “Your nose is a little red. You’re like an Eskimo.” It explains: “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.”

It seems, though, that these tactics can sometimes work. I speak to Rebecca*, who admits that she fell for negging when it was used on her in a bar. “I had been feeling quite low, as had recently ended a long-term relationship, and he came up to me and said something like 'you're a bit less hot than your friend, but it's OK, because I fancy you.' Obviously I am a smart, intelligent, confident and successful woman, so should have thrown something at him; but instead I was charmed.

“Anyway, at his house I found he had a spreadsheet of all the women he was seeing, colour coded with days and nights. Do I think he was using those techniques sociopathically, instead of natural charm? Yes. I think he was terrified of having a typical relationship, and he had set lines so he didn't have to risk actual intimacy.”

"Negging" and the pick-up artist was born on internet message-boards in the early '90s, and became a vast subculture, with varying strategies and tribes. It became a global phenomenon following the publication of a book by a music journalist, Neil Strauss. The book was called The Game, and it chronicles Strauss's headlong journey through this peculiar world just as it was starting to gain momentum, and his own metamorphosis into a pick-up master, teacher and guru.

The internet age taught the nerdy kid who was picked on at school that the world was theirs for the taking. The geek shall inherit the earth. Women, who retained an untamed sense of mystery, didn’t fit the matrix. So this community turned the opposite sex into a logical problem which could be solved. These men went online and started comparing notes and running experiments. They stole aspects of neuro-linguistic programming, evolutionary psychology, and some of the techniques of the salesman – the “close”, and so on. Then they hit “the field” looking for “targets”. They wrote field reports detailing what worked, and what didn't. From this, the early pick-up artists were born.

I put out an appeal online to look for someone who had successfully used negging and would be willing to defend it, and get an immediate response from Dan. “Yes, of course it works,” Dan tells me. “I like to think of it like currency: every insult increases the value of my compliment stock - which I then choose to spent wisely at maximum value and the most opportune moment for maximum effect to make my acquisition.”

There it is: “acquisition”. The lingua franca of scientific seduction is pretty unpleasant. Talk of “targets”, “acquisitions”, “sets” and so on put my teeth on edge. Language has power, and if every interaction with the opposite sex is coloured by a certain vernacular set – in this case the metaphors are all militaristic or hunting ones, perhaps with video games as their origin – then that is likely to colour the way the people who use it think about women at a fundamental level, even if they did not already think of them in this way.

But, there is another truth here. The description might be unpleasant, but what is being described is actually quite close to how ordinary flirtatious conversation works. “Writing this kind of stuff down as if its some kind of sensational trick just gives women a reason to get suspicious about a totally normal part of human interaction,” says a (male) commenter on the discussion thread I started. “It's nothing more than good natured teasing, that someone decided to coin as 'negging'. It's just a normal part of flirting. What's the big deal?”

How many of us have teased, or been cheeky, or been the recipient of such, without thinking? The problem I have is with the systematising, the same as explaining a joke scientifically – it kills it. Flirtation is not a war, requiring battle-plans and set-pieces, it is just a part of how humans interact with each other. The systematisation of this natural interaction, however, turns it into a manipulative deception.

There are really three levels of negging users. The first are the proper pick-up artists featured in The Game, who use neuro-linguistic and other more serious tricks, a sort of mind-control for seduction, which is creepy because it undermines female agency of choice and control – but also because it appears, at least superficially, to work. “I suppose I would like to think I am an individual,” says Rebecca, who fell for the pick-up artist, “but it turns out in emotional terms I'm depressingly predictable.”

The second are those like Dan, who sees himself as using his extant charm as a basis, and simply spicing it up with a few tricks here and there. The third and most common level consists of the people don't quite understand these theories, but are too shy to approach anyone any other way than with rote lines. Those are the ones who are making fools of themselves in bars, with clumsy attempts at negs.

The clichés are no longer “do you come here often”, or “nice ass” or “hey baby”; now, especially since the publication of The Game, negs are the new passé. Some of the creepier or more aggressive users have been on the more unpleasant websites, and have used the inherent hatred of women they found there to confirm their loneliness. It can be a downward spiral of misogynistic confirmation-bias.

Dan makes one last appeal for the defence. He admits that there are aspects of the community that have little respect for women. But, he says: “at the same time, there are decent, well-meaning guys out there who want to have meaningful relationships, and who get very sad that things keep going wrong for them, who just need a few pointers about how their behaviour is perceived – and what kinds of approaches would work better; and why.”

Perhaps the hypothetical shy, awkward guy in the bar I described at the beginning of the piece is looking for just that, and perhaps he has a better chance of finding it with this framework around him. But, I feel, it is more likely that framework will help him cement the idea of women as a different, inferior species, to be manipulated, hit with "negs", and preyed-upon.

The really odd thing is that the conclusion Strauss reaches in The Game, the holy bible of pick-up artists, is that picking up women is a lonely, empty, mechanical life. Strauss ends the book in a healthy relationship, which he is clear he arrived at despite – not because of – his tactical approach. The subculture that still worships him ignores this fact, feasting on the beginning of the book and ignoring the personal development at the end. Strauss's final line is: “it was time. . .to leave the community behind. Real life beckoned”.

*some names have been changed

Nicky Woolf tweets as @NickyWoolf

Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.