Machiavellian Advance Detection and Resistance is a set of skills for outwitting master manipulators, especially during the holidays.
If you remain alert for manipulative behavior this holiday season, according to published reports, you’ll probably spot some or all of the following during get-togethers. Here are six common tactics:
Gaslighting: There were so many searches for this term that Merriam-Webster named it their “word of the year.” It’s a type of deception intended to cause someone to question what is real or factual or to question his or her judgment. For example, a relative who repeatedly drops hints that a woman is overweight or eating too much when her weight and appetite are normal might be gaslighting her.
The silent treatment: This is another passive-aggressive affront. Anything you might do in response allows the perpetrator to feign surprise and blame you for being “overly sensitive.” Usually, the best response is not to change your behavior in the slightest. Ignore their behavior and give the offending person no satisfaction. However, if the silence can’t be ignored (e.g. when the one shunning you is the host, one’s spouse, or a guest in one’s home), then dealing with it may be the only option. Leaving (or asking the guest to leave) is probably best. You might politely inquire about their muteness, but any response will likely be defensive and not amenable to resolving the matter.
Triangulation: When children squabble with their siblings, they sometimes appeal to a parent to take their side against their brothers or sisters. This is a familiar version of triangulation: recruiting a third party as leverage in a relationship or a dispute. Some adult siblings are not immune to using this technique, especially if there has been a lifelong pattern of triangulation within the family. This kind of intra-family triangulation has a specific name: the Karpman drama triangle. Political and religious arguments (the bane of family gatherings this time of year) are especially prone to triangulation.
When you’re subjected to manipulative behavior, confrontation is usually the worst possible response. Minimal offenses (e.g., “How much did you pay for your car?”) are best met with silence or a deflecting remark: “Oh, the usual price—an arm and a leg.” If you must attend an event with problematic people, you can always leave—and “leaving” can simply mean retiring to a different room away from your provocateur. You, not the offensive person, remain in charge of your reactions. If you let someone provoke you to overreact, you’ve given him or her a victory. Prepare yourself mentally, as the Desiderata advises: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” I wish you a tranquil and contented holiday season.
Backhanded compliments: You’ve probably heard the old gag about a socially awkward boy complimenting his date by saying, “You don’t sweat much for a fat girl.” That’s a backhanded compliment. A more realistic one might be, “You seem happier now that you’re finally employed,” or “You look good in that dress. I had one like it, but I gave it to Goodwill.”
Pushing your buttons: My former brother-in-law’s habitual lateness for family meals was his way of pushing my buttons and those of my ex-wife. I was able to put an end to his passive-aggressive game by using the right countermeasure at the right time. MADAR, or Machiavellian Advance Detection and Resistance, is a set of skills for recognizing and outwitting master manipulators. MADAR is explained in my book, Machiavellians: Gulling the Rubes. One of these skills is leverage, which is what I used against my intentionally tardy brother-in-law. Matching the right tactic to each situation is essential to the effective use of MADAR.
Boundary blindness: Some boundaries are legally enforceable. For example, if I hit you, I can be charged with a crime. But most of our boundaries aren’t legally protected. Someone talking loudly on their phone in a public place, for example, requires that we either endure it, leave the area, or risk a possible confrontation by saying something to the loud-talker. What are your options when someone absent-mindedly drums his or her fingers on the table during a meeting or keeps whispering in a theater? These inconsiderate individuals are blind to other people’s boundaries. You might encounter these kinds of intrusive questions and behaviors during the holidays: “So, when are you two going to get married?” “Wow, that’s a nice car. How much did you pay for it?” “Here, have some more eggnog. No, I insist. Don’t be a party pooper.”