How to Smoke a Gaslighter

Let them see there’s nothing under your skin.

Sometimes, a troll shows up in a suit and tie. Like when a professorial type found me waiting outside an art museum in New York before hours. “This line is for distinguished members,” he started in. “Are you a distinguished member?” We were the only two people.

So it didn’t matter.

But he wanted me to wait under the right little sign.

So I moved.

But that wasn’t enough. He wanted to quiz me on art history. And then he wanted to know where I bought my coat.

“Target,” I said, with a sigh.

You could almost hear the smugness spread across his face. “Well,” he said in a chipper tone. “At least you’re first in line.”

Fortunately, I hadn’t come to New York alone. It was MLA job season, and the academic circus was in town. Friends met up with me later, and we decided to track down a new coat.

That’s right, I let some asshole gaslight me into spending two hundred bucks on a nicer winter coat, from some markdown place that sold surplus fashion. Got a great deal. My new coat had originally gone for something like five hundred. The rest of the trip, part of me hoped we’d run into that posh troll again. He’d see my new coat and realize what a fool he’d been to mock me outside an art museum.

One of my friends let another professor gaslight her the next morning. He came up to us at a cafe to say hello. This guy wasn’t a stranger. We’d both had him for Restoration Comedy.

Five seconds in, he guffawed at her breakfast plate. French toast, eggs, oatmeal. Otherwise known to men as a regular meal.

But our professor made a production out of it.

Pun intended.

“Wow, you must be starving!”

He’d done this to my friend before, it turns out.

Several months ago, he’d attended a banquet with us and took it upon himself to comment on her dessert. “Wow, you really ate that entire slice of cheesecake. You’re amazing!” But not really.

He just wanted to mock her while hiding from it.

Gaslighting is such a fantastic phrase, because it describes what happens so often. Passive-aggressive jeering doesn’t do justice to the level of embarrassment and humility some trolls go out of their way to direct at people who are mainly trying to mind their own business.

Since that trip to New York, I’ve gotten better at how I respond to gaslights. Foremost, I’ve realized gaslighting involves two willing parties.

You need a gaslighter.

But you also need a gaslightee — someone who responds directly or indirectly, by allowing the gaslighter to shame them.

You can extinguish a gaslighter pretty easily. First, call them out. You don’t have to confront them head on. But the way you react can convey that you know what they’re up to. Usually, that’s enough.

One precious 20-something tried to gaslight me a few years ago, at a conference that I had to organize. She cornered me at the lunch buffet and pretended to compliment me in front of half the attendees.

“I just love all the gaping white space in your program,” she said and smiled. “It’s so hands-on. Did you design it yourself?”

Flame on.

There were lots of ways to respond. Most of them would’ve played into her end game — embarrassing me, and making herself look smart.

Truth: I honestly didn’t care what she thought about the program, just like I shouldn’t have cared what that professor outside the art museum thought about my coat from Target.

In fact, I hadn’t designed the program myself.

And I knew it had too much white space.

None of this mattered to the 20-something. She’d simply found something to criticize, and wanted to go about it in the least mature way.

So I just stared at her for a few seconds, considering all my options. That alone made her uncomfortable. And then something amazing happened. She started to apologize. “Sorry, that came off as a little rude...”

To which I said, “Enjoy the conference.” Sometimes, the bitch in a phrase can be silent.

I refilled my coffee, and went to chair the next panel.

For sure, my autism comes in handy with gaslighters. I’ve learned to stop hiding it so much. For example, a student — or another faculty member — sometimes stops me with the gaslightingest question of all: “Why are we doing this?” Or its cousin: “I’m not sure why this matters.”

The best way to respond here is how I naturally feel inclined: To assume they honestly don’t know, and explain it to them as if they’re a kindergartner. Nothing puts out a gaslighter like mind-numbing literalness.

What gaslighters want is a timid defense of my agenda. Something that they can then interrogate and tear apart.

It’s not something they get anymore.

Depending on my mood, I’ll preface my answer: “Do you honestly not know, or are you trying to say something else?”

Gets ’em every time.

Turns out, one of my greatest strengths was my obliviousness to gaslighting. It took me a long time to figure out someone was trying to get under my skin. Sometimes, their motives didn’t dawn on me until days later.

When I got better at reading people’s sarcasm, it took me another couple of years to figure out the perfect response is still obliviousness.

Now, I offer obliviousness with a little attitude.

We may never understand what exactly motivates gaslighting. The gaslighter almost always feels compelled by some sense of insecurity. Most of us deal with fault lines in our confidence, but we do it in less toxic ways.

Gaslighters never deserve your respect. But you should give it to them anyway, because nothing gaslights a gaslighter like practiced, polite indifference and a shrug.