The Entertaining One-Upmanship of the Zinger

Big Bird. Horses & Bayonets. Romnesia.

Tangy Verbal Punch


What’s the psychology behind zingers? Why do we love these verbal punches, these pithy “gotchas” so much? Isn’t a zinger just a veiled insult?

Don’t get me wrong – I love a good zinger. They’re the savory, spicy, falsely sweet, amuse-bouche of conversation. Zingers can help you win the battle, push back with a twist of wit and humor.
A zinger can be a sort of verbal guerilla warfare, a slyly creative intimidation – and it’s entertaining to boot.

It’s great when our hero beats the crap out of the villain and then gives him a succinct verbal lashing, effectively saying, “I’m not only righteous, strong, and a bad-ass… I’m smart, superior, and you’re a dumb-ass for thinking you could challenge me and win.” From Batman Begins:

Enormous Prisoner: You are in hell, little man!
[punches Bruce Wayne]
Enormous Prisoner: And I am the devil!
[punches him again]
Bruce Wayne: You’re not the devil. You’re practice.

At the same time, we love to love our villians as worthy opponents, real threats with teeth and style. A great Hero/Villian combo is Bruce Willis as officer John McClane and high-class robber Hans Gruber played by Alan Rickman in Diehard.

Hans Gruber: …you have me at a loss. You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?
John McClane: Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really like those sequined shirts.
Hans Gruber: Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?
John McClane: Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.

Zingers can be very satisfying and it feels good to identify with the person who comes out on top in the exchange. A snappy remark that exposes the soft underbelly of the other guy’s position – or better yet – the other guy’s ridiculousness, can expose a whole lot of blather and hot air for what it is. A zinger can drive home a point or take the other guy’s point away in a flash. A well-delivered riposte somehow gives us confidence that we – or the guy we’re rooting for – has a handle on things. The felt truth of a zinger can encapsulate what a long-winded explanation couldn’t. Plus, tallying up the stinging comebacks has become our way of keeping score.

On the flip side, a zinger can distract from the real point of the whole exchange and stop the conversation dead in its tracks in service to one-upmanship. If you’re focused on taking the other guy down – which unfortunately seems to be what our politics have become about in the desperate days right before election day – then not much substantial information comes to light. The dialogue might have energy, but lack in revelation or meaningful insight with which to build understanding.

It seems to me that what we expect and respect on the political stage tells us something about how we handle our personal conflicts. I would bet that most of us have used this tactic of caustic remarks in our arguments with loved ones. When we’re hurt, we want to hurt back.

Zingers help us combat feeling powerless, vulnerable, and transparent. It’s difficult to say your truth with vulnerability instead of humor because it leaves you nowhere to hide emotionally. Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth in the veiled insult of a zinger that might go unsaid otherwise. An unvarnished perspective makes it harder to claim being misunderstood. A straight statement of what you think or feel makes it more difficult to back-pedal or distance yourself with explanations of “what I really meant was…”

I don’t expect the form of our political discourse to change any time soon. We’ll all be – myself included – counting up the clever bon mots to determine which candidate has the heat, the stinging silver tongue, to one-up the other guy and win our confidence and support.  The place we can attempt a meaningful difference is in our personal relationships. What would it be like to forego the half-playful, but-really-true, put-down in favor of a heartful telling of our truth?

Read more by Adele M. Stan–politics.html by Sophie Quinton by Nadja Popovich, Amanda Michel and Ruth Spencer by Jeff Ely by Carl M. Cannon by Clive Crook

The Normal Spin Zone…Or Just Normal Lying?

The current political discourse and fact-checking of the candidates got me thinking about our individual and collective cultures of the lie. It would seem that what is deemed a lie – and what kind of lie – is very contextual and nuanced.

Perception Puzzle

The lies that are acceptable and common practice in family culture may not coincide with community culture, workplace culture, or political culture. Even the word “lie” is uncomfortable. There’s an implication of consciousness, of intention, to be untruthful or even malicious in the word “lie,” so we use the word judiciously. It’s a judgmental word. But to compensate, we do have lots of language to express the concept of saying less than the truth without the jarring indictment of the word “lie.”

There are half-truths, known in my house growing up, as “fudging,” which entails conscious exaggeration or minimizing. There’s lying through your teeth, which involves outright fabrication with the added insult of being a lie to your face. There are the seemingly innocuous lies of omission and the soft-pedal of the fib. Lies can be flim-flam, hogwash, or a tall tale; white or bald-faced, also known as a barefaced lie. There’s horse hockey, horseshit, or just plain bullshit.

There’s even a word for lying electronically – the Butler Lie – a term researchers at Cornell University’s Social Media Lab came up with to describe things we say that aren’t true to end conversations and/or save face. For example, sending a text saying, “My battery is about to go” when it’s not, or, “Stuck in traffic” when you really just left the house. My grandmother used to refer to lies as “stories” and I think she was right. A lie is a story, a narrative, we tell to ourselves and other people.

We learn about lies, their uses and flavors, by watching our parents and other adults navigate the world, and thus learn what is an acceptable lie and what is not, as well as whom it is acceptable –or necessary – to lie to. We learn to make assessments of who can be trusted and what kind of conflict we can handle when it comes to the consequences of what we say. Lies not only let the teller off the hook, they can also give the listener an escape. Again, very contextual social and emotional terrain is involved.

We also learn to lie by our experiences of telling the truth. If the truth gets you in trouble… then, hell yeah, you learn to omit, agree with inaccurate assumptions, and creatively fabricate, as acts of self-preservation. To do otherwise might even be considered stupid.

So are the lies our politicians tell intelligent self-preservation or cowardly means to an end?

Needle of Truth...or Lie?

Needle of Truth…          or Lie?

Haystack lies seem to be the stock in trade of politicians. When a politician launches into a long, fast-paced answer or statement, our ears should perk up. A true fact may be embedded in there somewhere – the needle in the haystack. But the truth that may be included is difficult to detect and identify. Everything said might be taken as true-by-association with that one truth in the whole tangled mess. And the spin goes both ways. One inaccuracy or misstatement, one lie by any of its various names, can undermine the truth of everything else said.

The second presidential debate had its share of muddy assertions and omissions.
In the debate, Romney charged that Obama and the administration did not label the attack of our Benghazi U.S. consulate quickly and appropriately as a terrorist attack. In his Rose Garden speech regarding the attack President Obama concluded by stating that:

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,
alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

President Obama never made the direct statement that this was a terrorist attack. However, the context would lead us – and the world – to infer that yes, he was calling it a terrorist attack. Could it be that Obama was relying on the context and our predisposed assumptions to give his words their meaning and weight, and at the same time, reduce reactivity and the potential stir for immediate military action? Seems likely to me. Do I want the President of the United States to have this ability for nuance? Damn straight.

And then there’s Governor Romney’s binders full of women. I would love to parse it out, truly, honestly, I would. No lie. But there are no half-truths or hairs to split in Romney’s story. It’s just that. A story, made up to change our minds about who Romney is and where he stands when it comes to his track record and sensitivity on women’s issues.

But why is Obama’s minimizing and Romney’s tall-tale necessary? Do our politicians lie to us because they don’t trust us? What do we do – or not do – as citizens to earn or lose the trust of our public officials? If we shoot the messenger, then can we blame them for the verbal duck and weave? Do the consequences we mete out only serve to make them better liars?

Perhaps we might admit that dressing up or dumbing down the truth is sometimes a collaboration, an implicit deal, that allows everyone involved some degree of escape from conflict, consequences, and accountability. If the truth is being “finessed,” if the information we give and get is so carefully crafted and edited, then what does that say about our personal psyches and our collective identity as Americans?

I do believe that we evolve behaviors to adapt and fit in with our culture and environment. The protection our stories provide is sometimes necessary and even appropriate. I’m not saying we should abolish all of the not quite accurate stories or outright lies we tell ourselves and others. But I am in favor of more awareness and asking some questions, not just about what we’re hearing, but about our own part in the creation and maintenance of our individual, family, and collective narratives – that sometimes include lies.

Read More:


Uncle Joe & the Vice President Debate

I feel like I just watched my Uncle Joe play tug of war with the new Shar Pei puppy. You know, with the rope thingie, where the dog pulls back, shakes his head, growling a little. Uncle Joe laughs and gives it a shake himself, sort of dragging the dog around the living room by his mouth because the dog won’t let go of the toy. The puppy keeps his eyes on Uncle Joe, those big eyes following his every move, emphasizing that adorable perpetual wrinkle of his forehead.

And when the puppy snaps a little, shows his teeth thinking he’s a Doberman for a second? Uncle gives him a tap on the nose to let him know who’s the big dog in the house. You gotta train a puppy so he knows the house rules. The dog thinks he’s doing okay, it’s all playing, right? Uncle Joe is having a good time playing… except, you know, Uncle Joe can get a little rough sometimes. He raises his voice a little more in happy and a little more in frustration than the rest of your uncles. But you wouldn’t trade Uncle Joe for the world because he doesn’t put up with malarkey.

I could go on like this for my own entertainment. The bottom line is that all of us who already loved Uncle Joe Biden still love him, still respect his knowledge, experience, and his command of the issues, and give him a pass on any bluster that sneaks out when he feels like you’re trying to put one over on him – and on us. Overall, it seemed to me, that Biden was trying to let us know the consequences “malarkey” and “loose talk” would have on our economy and our middle-east involvement, particularly with regard to policy on Iran.

As for Congressman Ryan, he kept his composure, offering thin-lipped, almost smiles and grimaces, coloring within the lines as Biden responded. Ryan didn’t make any big gaffes – unless you count referring to Romney as “a car guy.” Ryan seemed to have a grasp of the issues, though we still did not get specifics about how the math would work on a tax cut. What struck me most, was that I didn’t perceive that Ryan had any understanding or insight into the consequences of the Republican/Romney stance with regard to policy on Iran.

If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know that I am an Obama/Biden supporter. But I support the Democratic candidates not just because I believe they have an understanding of the issues that makes sense to me. I support Obama/Biden because they embrace measured, holistic thinking about the issues, and reject reckless talk and rash actions.

While talking about Medicare, Ryan said:

“This is what politicians do…try to scare people from voting for you.”

It is not what Obama and Biden are saying about Romney and Ryan and their policies that scare me.

It is Romney and Ryan’s proposed policies and what they themselves say that scares me.

More on both sides:

Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Biden wins debate, proves Romney-Ryan ticket is a joke by Georgia Logothetis

Analysis: In vice presidential debate, “tie goes to the incumbent” by Andy Sullivan

Biden Upstages Biden In Debate; Ryan Wins By Default by Tom Domke

Bait & Switch vs. Gaslighting: What’s the Difference?

Optical illusions and Gaslighters
play with what we perceive.

In a word, the difference is consciousness.

Bait & switch has it. Gaslighting… not so much.

You know bait & switch is happening when a product is so great, the deal being offered is so appealing, that your head cocks to the side, you say, “Hmmm,” with that little upward lilt, and you want to know more.

That’s the bait part.

You make a direct inquiry and ask for specifics, and the deal changes. They’ve got your attention, they’ve identified that you have a need or desire that’s made respond in some way, and now the full press is on to get you to accept what’s actually being offered – which is not the product or deal so convincingly touted.

That’s the switch part.

Not to beat a dead horse, but it’s slippery, this bait & switch turned gaslighting.

With bait & switch, you’re being persuaded, cajoled, or sometimes steamrolled into dumbing down your needs and expectations to fit the product. There is a conversation between you and the “salesman,” that prompts a conversation in your head, regarding the advertised vs. actual product and how it might be “good enough.”

It sounds something like this:

“Look, it’s better to have something rather than nothing. There is no bell, but there is a whistle. And while we don’t carry the ruby color anymore, the puce has its merits. I know I promised immediate delivery, but we can get it to you Tuesday. You can see this is what we’ve got, look it over. “

On the other hand, gaslighting sounds something like this:

“There was never a bell, only whistles. Why do you keep asking about a bell? I told you, never any bells. This puce color you keep bringing up, I don’t know where you got that from. You’re simply mistaken. I have always offered ruby red and this is it, right here. Delivery depends on the supply chain, details and tracking? – what?

I’ve told you what’s in the box. You can’t see through the box? I can see it.

With gaslighting, the persuading, cajoling, and steamrolling has nothing to do with the product and everything to do with your perception and understanding. There is no conversation between you and the “salesman,” only statements of his reality — which short-circuits your thought process.

The gaslighter invests adamantly in his or her reality because to do otherwise would be to fall short of their own version and vision of themselves – which means you would also see them clearly. For a gaslighter, being wrong equals the invalidation of their very Self.

Even if the gaslighter switches and revises their reality to be more in line with yours, there will never be a direct, full-on acknowledgment that they ever believed their previous reality. Romney’s statement about the 47% and subsequent apology that came two weeks later is a perfect example. In the video, Mr Romney said:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what...who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.”

He then added: “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them, they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

The so-called apology happened with Hannity on Fox:

“Now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right.”

“In this case, I said something that was just completely wrong,” he said.

“I absolutely believe however that my life has shown that I care about 100%. And that’s been demonstrated throughout my life. This whole campaign is about the 100%. When I become president, it will be about helping the 100%,” he added.

Exactly what did he apologize for? What is the “something that was just completely wrong?” Is the number 47% wrong? Was he wrong to believe that 47% of people are dependent on government, see themselves as victims, and want Uncle Sam to care for them? Was he wrong to believe he could never convince this 47% they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives?

And, yes, politicians are people, and people screw-up. It’s what you do with the screw-up that makes the difference. After listening several times and reading the transcript, the best I can tell, he’s apologizing for being inarticulate. To date, there has been no acknowledgement or explanation of his thinking. The implication is that a box marked “apology” is enough – never mind what’s inside.

Mitt Romney apologizes for ‘just completely wrong’ 47% remarks” by Steve Holland, Reuters, Oct 5, 2012

MSNBC: Romney double-downs on his remarks.

Why Romney’s 47% ‘apology’ is rather alarming—beware!” By superseiyan

Examples of Bait & Switch Advertising” by Arnold Anderson

Bait. Switch. Lie To 65 Million People. All In A Night’s Work For Mitt Romney

We are all being gaslighted by Mitt Romney

The presidential election cycle, with all its relentless focus on personality and the tactics of persuasion that bombard us up to November, is fascinating. At least to me, it’s fascinating, and every four years I watch both conventions and every debate. This election cycle, after graduating in 2010 with my Masters degree in psychology, I feel I am seeing more than what the candidates are presenting. I’d like to share what I’m seeing with anyone who will listen.

We are all being gaslighted by Mitt Romney.

What is gaslighting?

The term derives from the 1938 stage play turned movie, “Gas Light” in which a newlywed woman is driven slowly insane by her husband in order to gain her inheritance. The husband manipulates elements of their environment, and insists the wife is mistaken or misremembering when she points out these changes. The title refers to the husband’s subtle dimming of the house’s gas lights, which she accurately notices and which the husband insists she’s imagining.

Gaslighting can happen in any relationship, marital, work, sibling, etc. In this case, we’re talking about the relationship between Mitt Romney and the American electorate.

Gaslighters leave you feeling drained, confused, and second-guessing yourself. Something is out of whack, but you can’t put your finger on what. Proficient gaslighters work their way up to full alterations of reality. Gaslighters can be relentless when they invest fully in a certain “reality,” and it’s worse when they are a powerful person, emotionally engaged with you, or have authority over you.

Typical of gaslighters are the following ideas, if not outright assertions, they make:

“Only my ideas are valid.”
“I’m not what they say I am.”
“Your efforts are never enough.”

Governor Romney successfully used all these assertions in implicit or explicit terms on Wednesday night in the debate against President Obama. The difficulty it seemed President Obama was having in debating Romney has nothing to do with Romney’s grasp of policy, facts, or brilliant ideas. Romney is difficult to debate because he does not stand behind anything he has ever said previous to what he is saying in the present moment. Etch-a-sketch candidate, indeed.

President Obama’s well-considered, logical explanations of policy, issues, and his point of view seemed to take a beating at times. Not because he was doing a bad job communicating – but because Romney simply bypassed directly engaging with any point of fact and refused to own any position he has previously espoused. Romney’s condescending tone of voice, emotionally outraged undercurrent, and assertions that he is being misunderstood at best and lied about at worst, are typical gaslighter tactics.

So what to do? How do you engage someone on who they are and what they stand for, when they simply bypass, overlook, ignore, and condescend their way around anything that puts them in a bad light or calls them into question? What do you do when anything said to point out their inconsistent behavior or words, is ignored or twisted, and turned back on you? A few starter suggestions are as follows:

1)   Keep it short. Real short. Gaslighters are masters of confusion. The more nuanced and multi-faceted your logic and reasoning, the more opportunities there are for a gaslighter to create confusion.

2)   Slow down. Don’t be so eager to get your own point across. Instead, take apart what the gaslighter just said. Granted, this is tough in the moment – especially when you only have two minutes to respond as millions of people watch.

3)   Form over content. Verifiable, honest-to-goodness facts and arithmetic will not make a dent in a gaslighter’s argument. Your content is rendered mute by the gaslighter’s form and emotion. Your form, your style, your emotion is the only antidote to the confusion created by the gaslighter. Basically, you have to co-opt his game – without losing your temper.

President Obama did have one moment of calling Romney on who he is, one moment in which his emotion and frustration was allowed to come out and resonated as true. This one point, it seems to me, that President Obama made successfully had nothing to do with issues and logic and everything to do with character. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, President Obama said that Governor Romney does not have the backbone to stand up for anything and say “NO” or “YES” on principle. I think President Obama is correct.

We saw this in the primary, when Romney was weaving all over the road, searching for what would get him past the convention and into the general election. Ironically, Romney’s success in Massachusetts can be attributed to this same tendency to careen all over the road and, finally, fall in with the majority – hence the accomplishments, not so much of Romney, but of the Democratic Legislature during Romney’s term as governor.

It was difficult, watching the first 2012 Presidential debate and realizing Governor Romney was successfully gaslighting President Obama – and therefore all of us. Let’s hope President Obama’s cadre of coaches and advisers can recognize a gaslighter when they see one.

For more information and coping tools, check out The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life – by Dr. Robin Stern