Seducing with words

The role of language in the pick-up artist’s make-believe

Fast food, fast relationships: pick-up artists claim to have discovered a shortcut. Image by Lyalya Bulanova, reproduced with permission of the artist

The idea that speaking in a certain way can make people do things — speech as a magic instrument, so to speak — has been around for a while.

In the Middle Ages, people believed that names held magic powers over things and human beings. The name and the object were inherently connected, so changing the name would change the object, as well. The Latin word form for wood (dat.pl.), lignis, contains the word for fire, ignis — that explains why wood burns. Call Rumpelstiltskin by his name and he will do your bidding.

A curious characteristic of language is that it has the power to, if not change the world, then to change how we perceive it. This characteristic is often harnessed by self-help books: “Face yourself in the mirror and say, I am a winner! I can do it!” Visualization, positive thinking and affirmations all support the adage that nothing is either intrinsically good or bad, but that it is our minds that make it so.

One example of wishful thinking when it comes to the power of language is the pick-up artist (PUA) movement.

Who they are and what they do

When my co-author Sofia Rüdiger and I were preparing our first article about pick-up artists, we ended up creating a shared file titled “Atrocious Quotes” just to offload all the awful things we had read.

Let me give you a taste:

[1] First off if you start thinking that this is a part of a process rather than hormones you will open the doors to your technique and what you are discovering in your techniques more. Way back when this guy Gunwitch (before he shot a woman in the face on New Years) said something like, “If a man and a woman are with each other sex is their natural state."
[2] One girl runs through the crowd up to me and asks me to dance. I look her up and down. I give her a gesture she to tell her to twirl so i can get a good look at her physique and see if she’s matable. she does. I ponder for a second before lifting my glorious cone to my mouth and scream,”You are but a peasant. BE GONE!” all the while giving her the shewing gesture.
[3] I tried pulling down her pants and she had LMR (Last Minute Resistance — DD).. But i was persistent.. And i started kissing her and sucking her neck even more to combat her resistance… And then we had sex.. I noticed that she didn’t invest enough in the sex,she was making me do all the work..

In case you didn’t know, “pick-up artists” is not an interest group in Wakefield Prison for convicted rapists. It’s an honest-to-God self-improvement community which promises to teach men how to attract women. The Wikipedia page calls it “speed seduction”. (If you think I am exaggerating the rapist bit, read this forum post from a public PUA website which has been shut down since).

All you need is the book and the formula. Image: Alexas Fotos, CC0

The community is very popular, too, with many successful gurus touring the world giving expensive lectures on how to get laid. For as little as USD 800, they’ll tell you about all the neurolinguistic-programming-based nonsense and turn your words into magic spells that women simply can’t resist.

Unfortunately, being actual linguists, we cannot write a straightforward paper about how terrible these people are. Instead, we try to sort of screw up our eyes very hard and then peek a little bit at the things that are interesting for the study of human communication. (Trying to forget for a moment that your neighbor could be a member of the PUA club out to rape you.)

So far, we’ve focused on a particular genre within the PUA community — a field report. Among pick-up artists, the whole process of searching for and attracting a mate is described as a game (see the title of the famous book by Neil Strauss). So, every time you go out there and try to talk to a woman, you are doing a trial run, kind of like sports practice, which needs to be followed by a discussion of successes and mistakes. This is done in the form of a field report, in which PUAs with varying degrees of literary skill recount their experiences of applying PUA techniques.

Using and abusing the power of language

It’s not that we cannot detach ourselves completely from the content and just look at the linguistic means of expression. Of course we can. This is what we do for a living. Over the course of several studies, we conducted corpus-based analyses of a collection of English-language forums and zoomed in on the ethics of the enterprise; on how PUAs tell stories about successes and failures, and generally on how they talk.

And if anything, field reports are a treasure trove of creative language usage.

As Angelika Kratzer writes in her 1981 paper on modality, “Worlds in which the normal course of events are realized are a complete bore, there are no adventures or surprises.” PUAs’ field reports are full of exciting surprises that will make any linguist forget her breakfast. There’s the whole pseudoscientific vocabulary that borrows from the realms of the military and sports to deliver such lovely terms as “anti-slut defense”, “attraction switch”, or “to eject from a set” (the last one simply means walking away from the women you’ve been talking to, whatever you might have thought of them).

We found that PUA-specific words make up 2.33% of their online talk. To give you an idea of how much this is, all the forms of the common verbs to do, to go, to think, and to have together make up almost the same share, 2.45%.

This elaborate terminology feeds into the myth that if you follow certain word-for-word routines correctly, the unpredictable and scary business of putting yourself out there and looking for a partner will turn into a clear-cut, algorithmically arranged process, like a cooking recipe.

Then there are random numerical scales measuring everything that can and cannot be measured to give the text a brainy air. Pick-up artists talk about rating their targets on a hot-babe scale that runs from 1 to 10. They also calculate a mean, median and mode of the amount of times they’ve spoken to a female. The so-called seduction scripts really amount to “misappropriating science” (Denes 2011), and quantifying love is an important part of it.

Pseudoscientific terms in pick-up artists’ online forums.

And finally, there is the famous “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP). The idea behind this pseudoscience is that if you use certain phrases in a certain way, our brains will short-circuit and make us do things. Kind of like fungus from The Girl with All the Gifts, but with sexy lingerie.

The myth of neurolinguistic programming

The issue of whether neurolinguistic programming as an instrument affecting human behavior has any validity would require an entire separate debate, although, in a nutshell, the answer is no.

The fact that the first scientific definition of neurolinguistic programming I could find comes from a book on pseudoscience in psychology is a big giveaway. It describes NLP as an “unvalidated therapeutic method that purports to ‘program’ brain functioning through a variety of techniques” (Wilson 2002). And when social scientists say “unvalidated,” they mean it. Many studies have tried, and failed, to show any effect of neurolinguistic programming techniques in experiments or in real life. Indeed, when watching two police officers interview a suspect, a scholar remarked, “My first impression was that both detectives were behaving strangely.” As it turned out later, the officers had been using the NLP mirroring technique. Not only did the whole situation look bizarre, but the technique was also useless because the suspect didn’t talk…

But funnily enough, this does not matter at all. The selling point of the PUA brand is not what it is but what it seems.

The ultimate trick of the pick-up artists is not making women have sex with them. It is making other aspiring pick-up artists believe that the system works.

The idea is ingenious, really: if you approach 100 women, one is going to say yes. But in the PUA world, it’s not because she likes your looks or the name of the band on your t-shirt, or because you finally stopped being a douche and let a bit of your personality slip from behind the shield of PUA nonsense — no, it’s because you used routine no. 17. On the other hand, the 99 women that blow you off don’t dent your confidence because you didn’t really like them — it was all a trial run, anyway, ball practice, a drill. Trick your mind into not being afraid of failure, and you achieve success.

A medieval guide to pick-up. Image from Bréviaire de Renaud de Bar/Public domain

Is the magic real?

In their text-based community, pick-up artists play the imitation game. With obvious signals such as scientific terms, they appeal to every man’s desire to appear competent in some arcane field. Although it might seem impenetrable at first glance, the lingo is very easy to master since there is no real knowledge framework behind it — in contrast to actual scientific terminology. Neurolinguistic programming provides an ideal reference point for the make-believe. It is just the right mix of folk psychology and miracle claims to appeal to the PUA audience.

By using pseudo-terminology, PUAs achieve a few things. Not only do they give the whole system a serious scientific air, they also draw a border between those who are “in the know” and those who are not. In the end, using the phrase “2set” instead of “two women” is a cry to belong: “I am or want to be a pick-up artist. See how familiar I am with the ways of the PUA.”

With a huge number of followers around the globe, the movement is a resounding success and a great example of how people can be manipulated with language. It is ironic that the victims of manipulation are the pick-up artists themselves.

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I am grateful to my partner on the PUA project Sofia Rüdiger for her comments, and for the moral support when it comes to researching pick-up artists.

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