Friday, February 17, 2006

The Art of Manipulation

An ex-girlfriend once told me that I was 'guileless.' I was never sure how she meant that, but I took it as a compliment. I hope she intended it that way. I have never liked the idea of manipulating people in an underhanded way and try very hard not to do so.

During high school, I took some time off a to 'find myself.' Back at school after a few months away, the vice-principal approached me in a hallway and asked me what I had been up to. I told him of my (mis)adventures. He asked me if I had taken any courses while away, and I admitted that I had taken a correspondence course. I have no idea why, but he asked me if the course had been one of the 'How to make friends and influence people' variety, popularized by Dale Carnegie. I had never heard of such a course at that time, but could surmise from its title its basic premise. I answered: "No. I believe in winning using my own strengths, not by exploiting others' weaknesses."

I still feel that way. There are courses, seminars, workshops and programs advertised everywhere, all designed to help you close that big business deal or bed that sexy redhead down the street. These systems work to greater or lesser degree by teaching how to manipulate others. I don't know about you, but I hate being played.

I chuckle to myself sometimes (just before I get really pissed off) when someone comes to my office and tries to sell me something I don't want and have no use for. The tricks used to disarm a potential purchaser are many, and I have seen most of them. They range from the fairly benign feigned interest in your wife, children or pets, to any variety of ways that can be quite devious and annoying. If I feel that I am being played, I get rid of the salesperson and will never deal with him or her again. I want to learn about the features and benefits of whatever they are trying to sell and that is about it. No idle chit chat. No pushing. No bullshit. No manipulation.

I remember reading, decades ago, of one system used to manipulate a sales prospect. One facet of that system basically consists of mirroring or mimicking the body language of your target. I thought to myself at the time that this sort of thing was nonsense, and that surely no-one would fall for it, much less actually try to use it as a tool. I then started observing the body language of people who were trying to sell me something. Some of the real sales pros will mimic everything you do. If you lean forward in your chair, they will lean forward too. If you put your arms behind your head, they will mimic that action. It can get to be quite comical. Whenever someone tries this routine on me, I first go through a bunch of physical gyrations and laugh to myself as he (I've never seen a woman pull this trick) tries to keep up. Then I get rid of him.

I think of this sort of thing whenever I read that the solution to the world's problems is diplomacy. You put a bunch of taking heads in a room and let them sort things out. It has worked real well so far, hasn't it? Last time I looked there were still wars, border disputes, unfair trade practices, human rights violations and scores of other problems large and small. Diplomacy is overrated.

And then there's compromise, the other great solution to the world's ills. We compromise and compromise and compromise, and suddenly we discover that in spite of the compromises, nothing has changed. The more pliable partner, whether individual or nation, might have changed but the other partner hasn't. Compromise is overrated.

If there were a surefire, guaranteed, foolproof, infallible method to isolate and protect the innocent in every conceivable situation, I humbly suggest that sometimes the only answer is to kick the crap out of the not-so-innocent.

There is, however, no surefire, guaranteed, foolproof, infallible method to isolate and protect the innocent in every conceivable situation, so we're stuck with the status quo. I guess that means whether we are being irritated by sleazy salespersons or being manipulated by sleazy governments, we simply have to put up with it.

Or... we could just take our bat and ball and go home. We could refuse to play the game. Why should we try to make honourable agreements with nations led by men or women with no concept of honour? How much money are we, in North America, pissing away on foreign aid to various African and mid-Eastern countries, knowing full-well that half of the money will disappear into Swiss bank accounts and the other half into arms purchases?

An unethical salesperson may leave our office with an unwanted widget and reeking of cheap cologne. An unethical nation, as recipient of our foreign aid, will leave us with an unwanted and unworkable national debt and the stench of corruption.

We can only be manipulated if we allow it. Let's stop the foolishness, now.


  1. I've been mimicked. I've hated it, too and thought the person across from me must have completely lost their sense of identity and thus I became disgusted by their obvious lack of self. And what is worse, it's hard to hide disgust and a lot easier to remove yourself quickly from the situation, leaving people feeling strangley, uncomfortably alone and you with a misplaced sense of guilt.

    Mimickry never worked on me. But, I don't buy a lot of things.

    "Guileless".. I do believe, Atavist, that you complimented me with "lack of guile" once, and I, like you, quite enjoyed that comment.

    PS.. Status Quo, by definition, can never not exist as it is, even among those despising it, just as a quorum is quite easily any two people in any interaction.. It's our ambivalence, acceptance, perception, motivation, determination and iconoclasms that keep us as, or from being, victim of the 'status quo', though in stating 'screw the status quo' one is really living right up to the damn thing, isn't he or she, in whatever quorum is listening at the time..

    It's been a while.. but, I love to read you.. forgive me if I sound a bit manic. I'm not, actually.

    You must have been a great guy with whom to attend school.

  2. Thanks, Penny. Nice to 'see' you again. Forgive the semantic shortcuts in the post. Guilty as charged.

  3. Superb post: An excellent diagnostic to one of the errors of our floundering Western un-civilization.
    The politricksters responsible for much of the diplomatically compromised manipulations from which the world is still suffering would do well to learn that "When you tell a lie, don't think for a moment it's just the one to whom it's told who is deceived."