My first lesson in manipulation

I can vividly recall the first time that someone successfully pulled my strings. I also recall how I fell for their manipulation—hook, line, and sinker.

It was the summer of 1985, and I was in rural West Virginia for a very specific purpose. My Catholic high school had a “social justice” requirement. (This was, I should note, decades before the term “social justice” acquired its present, odious connotations.)

Basically, you had to complete so many hours of community service in order to graduate. There were various options available to you for doing this.

The one I chose entailed spending a week in West Virginia, during the summer between my junior and senior years, performing home repairs and working on small-scale building projects. Kind of a Catholic version of Habitat for Humanity. (This was all done under the auspices of the Nazareth Farm organization, which—I’m pleased to learn—still exists at the time of this writing.)

That was an interesting week. I was a seventeen year-old kid from the suburbs of Cincinnati. This was the first time that I’d actually had to use an outhouse for an entire week, or make due with baths from a creek.

The adult volunteer counselors for that particular week were slave drivers, as I recall. West Virginia is hot and humid in the middle of July, and we worked long hours.

But I was only seventeen years old, and the whole thing was kind of an adventure. I was in the presence of several dozen other teenagers from the eastern half of the United States. (I have fond memories of one particular girl from Syracuse, New York…but that’s another story for another time.) And it was all for a good cause.

Anyway, towards the end of that week, we were given a treat. They loaded us into several vans and took us to a community pool that was located in the closest town of any reasonable size. (I do not remember the name of the town, and I would just be guessing if I attempted to locate it on a map today.)

We were hot, dirty, exhausted. We’d been laboring in the sun all week, after all. Now we had a chance to swim for a few hours. Party!

But before we entered the pool, we had to take showers.

The showers, however, lacked hot water. The water was cold, and I mean ice cold.

Now, some of you may love cold showers. Good for you! Most of us don’t. (When I try to take a cold shower today—at the age of fifty, rather than seventeen—every muscle in my body cramps up in about two seconds.)

We were kids from the suburbs, most of us. When we headed into the men’s shower and learned that there was no hot water, and the only option was to shower in ice water, we balked.

Then one of the adult male counselors said to us, “Come on, just take your shower. Be a man.”

Every one of us (me included) immediately proceeded to douse ourselves with ice water from some West Virginia mountain spring.

The incident would have passed unremembered, if not for an aside that I overheard between the adult male counselors. (I believe there were only two of them.) The one who had successfully sent us beneath the ice water showers with the phrase, “Be a man”, noted to his companion:

“See? That line always works.”

And in that moment I realized, as I was turning blue in the near-freezing water: That guy just pulled my strings. And I fell for it completely. I didn’t even hesitate to do what he wanted me to do.

Because he told me to “be a man”…and implied that I would be “less than a man” if I failed to accede to his wishes.

It isn’t my intention to depict this incident as more sinister than it actually was. I survived the shower, of course—as did all of my teenage companions. And we would never have made it to the pool otherwise.

But this early lesson in manipulation (however benign) made me attuned to the process of manipulation, with all its many subtleties.

I noticed, for example, that the counselor addressed us in the singular (“Be a man,”—and not, “Be men,”) even though there were at least four or five of us.

This was by design—in order to make the manipulation more visceral and personal. Manipulation meets “divide and conquer”.

That was a valuable lesson. Manipulation—and various attempts at it—are everywhere in the adult world.

During one phase in my corporate career, I worked in sales. I learned all the ways in which salespeople are trained to manipulate prospects.

They often phrase questions as suppositions: “When would be a good time for me to call on you?”…and not, “May I call on you?”

About two months ago, a young guy, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five years old, knocked on my door selling exterminator services. He kept calling me “dude”, and he was more than a little on the cocky side.

Nevertheless, I have had some issues with carpenter bees on my deck, so I heard him out.

All I wanted was a one-time decimation of the carpenter bees. I’d purchased that service before at a previous house, and the entire bill came to less than $90. Bees gone, end of story.

Then I learned that this fellow had something entirely different in mind. His company’s business model was based on selling $70 and $100 monthly plans (“basic” and “deluxe”). And—of course—they locked you in for at least one full year.

No less than three times, I told the sales dude that I was only interested in a one-time service, and each time, he told me how great the monthly plans were.

Then he said, “So: should I sign you up for the basic or deluxe monthly plan, and how would you like to pay for that?”

As the reader may have guessed, I didn’t fall for the maneuver. My own sales training, and that camp counselor in West Virginia, had prepared me too well.

But I later learned that three of my immediate neighbors did fall for the sales dude’s spiel, and got locked into annual exterminator plans that cost either $840 or $1200 per annum. That’s highway robbery for killing a few bugs.

(By the way: I finally got rid of my carpenter bees by purchasing a can of termite-killing foam from Home Depot. I sprayed the foam into the carpenter bees’ holes, and that was the end of them. Cost me less than $20.)


Manipulation increases exponentially once you establish a presence on the Internet, with our contentious politics, byzantine speech codes, and marginally psychotic online mobs.

There are variations of this manipulation to suit any ideological persuasion. If you’re a conservative, and you criticize the latest mouthpiece of the alt right, then you’re a “cuckservative”. If you express an opinion about race/gender/sexual orientation that doesn’t jibe with the fashionably left establishment orthodoxy, then you’ll be denounced as a racist/sexist/homophobe. If you actually liked the last few Star Wars films—their contrived and pretentious diversity notwithstanding—then you must be an “SJW”.

Whatever happened to just saying what you think, and having your own opinions? That isn’t okay with many of the Internet’s manipulators. And some of these manipulators command hordes of rabid followers.


Manipulation is a fact of life, and I suspect that it is as old as society itself.

Perhaps we should end with an attempt at a working definition. Manipulation is communication that falls short of a physical threat, but is far more intrusive than ordinary attempts at persuasion.

If a police officer drives up behind you and orders you to pull over, that isn’t manipulation, because the police officer has the law—and the ultimate threat of physical coercion—on his side. You don’t have any choice, in practical terms.

Manipulation relies on two of our predictable human impulses: to seek the approval of others, and to avoid conflict.

We don’t want to be unpopular. We don’t want to tell someone “no”. (A lot of people are uncomfortable saying no—and I mean, a lot of people.) We don’t want to say what we really think about a controversial issue, because we’ll be labeled a racist/sexist/feminist/SJW/cuckservative.

And so we pick the path of least resistance: We do what someone else wants us to do. Or we refrain from doing/speaking according to our own individual wills.

Sometimes, in some situations, that’s okay. I would be the first to acknowledge that there are some battles not worth fighting, some arguments best left alone.

But manipulation is pernicious. Each of us should develop the habit of being aware of it, at the very least.

Then you can decide if you want to let the other person believe that they are pulling your strings—or if you want to tug back hard, in the opposite direction.