“Excuse me,” I told the 7-11 coffee guy, “could I get in there?” I knew this guy. I was in line behind him twice before. I knew his routine, and I knew it was not courteous. The last time I was behind him, I swore that I would say something next time. I knew he would fill his cup, sip on it, and fill it again. I wondered if he was the type to calculate how much free coffee he attained in those little sips over the years. Once the cup was finally full, he would grab a sugar packet, tear it open and fill the cup with it, without taking the obligatory step to the side.
I put some of the blame on 7-11. They should put the sugar packets in a location that required a step to the side. Numerous other franchises do this for their impatient customers. This 7-11 did not.
As for the 7-11 coffee guy, I considered him a narcissist. For who, other than a complete narcissist, has no awareness of the people around him? I guess that’s the question isn’t it, I thought staring at his back, is a narcissist aware of his surroundings, and he chooses to ignore them, or is he blissfully unaware?
He has to be aware that others are waiting behind him, I thought, but as far as I could tell, he didn’t consider us in anyway. Maybe he’s not a narcissist. Maybe he’s just inconsiderate. Is there a difference?
In the midst of his sugar pouring, I hit him with my request that he step aside, and I was astounded by his response. He said, “What? Oh sorry,” as if it never occurred to him that people might be behind him in line. I was ready for a confrontation. I was ready for him to consider me rude. I had two to three lines ready for him. He didn’t know. I was so ready for what I felt sure to follow that I was a little disappointed. What really got to me was that there were three people behind me and two of them were chatting, making noise that should’ve made this man aware that other people were waiting for him to finish.
I wondered if the others in line considered this man rude, inconsiderate, or narcissistic. I wondered if any of them thought this might be some sort of psychological game this man played to achieve some sort of subtle dominance in our little 7-11 world. Most people don’t wake it this far, and even fewer would suggest that it was a psychological operation on par with that military term. Anyone who thinks this way should probably be checked out, is something the three of them might say. If a person goes that far, and they have all of their facilities, they might have way too much time on their hands, they may think too much, and they might overanalyze simple situations too much. It is an overreach to illustrate a point, I decided, but how many of these naysayers get obliterated in the psychological field of battle without recognizing that a shot was even fired?
When my turn to fill a cup finally arrived, I couldn’t keep my mind’s eye off that guy now stirring sugar into his coffee. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the man’s deliberate actions should be penalized. Our anti-climactic conclusion left me with the thought that I should add something more confrontational, just to have the exchange live up to the billing. ‘Well, be more considerate of others,’ is something I thought of saying, ‘from now on.’ I thought of two or three more things to say, as I poured my sugar in, but I decided to just let it die. The guy obviously didn’t mean to be inconsiderate, I realized, and there was nothing to be gained from further confrontation.
“Could you at least step aside to pour your sugar in,” one of the guys behind me said, “so we can get our coffee?” The irony of that question didn’t hit me in the moment. I was so focused on the first guy that the third guy in line woke me out of my thoughts.
It wasn’t until I said, “What? Oh sorry,” as I stepped to the side that the full breadth of the irony struck me. It dawned on me that the most vociferous complaints I heard about narcissists were often made by those who are so narcissistic that they never flirted with the idea that they might be a narcissist. This hall of mirrors was, at the very least, embarrassing, and at most a worrisome display of contradictions that could lead to a full-blown identity crisis. I didn’t have time for an identity crisis, I was late for work.
The moment wasn’t dramatic enough for an identity crisis either. It was just a couple of guys who were impatient, and once the matter was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction we all moved on without another word. I would’ve been able to put the matter behind me as quickly as it confronted me, were it not for the two men chatting. Those two men, number four and five in line, who were chatting so much that I couldn’t believe the first coffee pourer didn’t acknowledge their presence, were still chatting. That wobbled me a little more, as I stood there, but I knew I couldn’t stand there forever contemplating my place in the world, because I was late for work. Actually, I realized, I was on schedule for being on time for work, with what I considered enough time to allow for traffic delays.
Before entirely putting the matter behind me, I wondered how many identity crises are averted because a person is late for work. Is this why so few people are reflective, I wondered, while putting my keys in the ignition. Is this why so many people are so much happier than me? Is this how a narcissist misses their own narcissistic tendencies when they complain about another’s narcissistic characteristics? Is it psychological projection, or is it easier to spot another’s faults when we suffer the same? Do we need to be more reflective on matters such as these, or am I too reflective? Do I sweat the small stuff too much? These people don’t care about your contradictions, or that you may be hypocritical, they just want you to move aside, so they can get some coffee. Is there a fine line between being reflective and too reflective, and how many reflective types are so reflective that they’re almost afraid to leave their homes, lest they reveal a contradiction? If reflective artists like Kurt Cobain picked up a part-time job working the drive-thru at Arby’s, might he still be alive? Does a busy work schedule fill the empty spaces in one’s soul in such a way that they don’t obsess over obvious contradictions in their character?
Social Psychological Operations
Regardless how such moments play out, there are often some sort of psych ops (psychological operations) games at play in even the most mundane interactions.
The term psych ops is most notably associated with military operations, but it could be said that we engage in various forms of psychological operations every day. For the purpose of distinguishing the two, we’ll call the latter social psych ops, as opposed to military psych ops. This allows us to distinguish day-to-day, conversational psych ops from those that may eventuate in death.
If the third customer’s complaint affected us in such a way that we recognize the contradiction in our being, how do we react? In the interaction with the third guy, I was as nonplussed as the first guy, and I was as genuinely as apologetic. That’s really all you can do. The alternative is cleanse our soul and provide a detailed account for the how he revealed our contradiction on this subject. His response would probably be something along the lines of:
“Listen, I don’t want to get physical here, so I’m going to ask you once again to please step aside.”
The genuine apology allows everyone to move on. No harm no foul. Unless we happened to notice the clothes number three was wearing, the manner in which he parted his hair, the way he tied his tie, the way he licked his lips before speaking, or the brand of coffee he chose. If we noticed any of the above, we did so to counter their brief evaluation of our character, and the points we gained by noticing their flaws are often innocuous, and they do little-to-nothing substantial for our psychology, and we forget all about them the moment our coffee cup is full, because the likelihood of running into any of these 7-11 customers again is negligible.
Most true points, scored in social psychological operations such as these, involve encountering an opponent more than once, remembering the points we scored in previous encounters and using them in the future.
Let’s say that that the interaction we have at the coffee machine is not at a 7-11 involving complete strangers, but one that occurs in refreshment center of the office. Let’s say the person we encounter is one with whom we have an ongoing, work-related relationship. Let’s say the two combatants know superficial, something somethings about each other, but that they keep that information close to the vest. We might know some things about them, but we would consider it a violation of protocol to use that information against them. If that’s the case, a ‘How you doing?’ intro can take on altogether different meaning. They might say this in a benign manner, but it’s not as innocuous as our brief 7-11 interactions were.
“I’m doing fine,” we say. “Thank you for asking.”
“That’s great to hear,” they say. “How’s the wife?” It’s possible, and likely in most occasions, that these introductory questions are benign. Even the most cynical mind knows that’s possible, but we might also wonder if it’s as strategically innocuous as it appears to be. Why didn’t they choose to speak of the quality of coffee the company offers in the refreshment center, or the pizza they serve in the cafeteria? They could choose to speak about our boss, “I hear you have Mr. Druthers as a boss. I had him once, he’s a real ball buster.” They didn’t chose to speak about any of this. They chose to speak about our wife. Yet, we can’t openly psychoanalyze our interrogators, for there’s no defense to taking umbrage with relatively innocuous questions.
“Hey, I just asked how she was doing,” is what they say. We both know that anytime one assigns motive to a piece of conversation, that’s an excellent out. We all know that most such conversation points are innocuous attempts at polite conversation, but the cynical among us can’t help but think that some statements are strategically placed to put the subject in a place of feeling too sensitive.
Some of us believe that this tactic can be located somewhere in the devious chapter of their social psych OPS playbook, for we know they have no real interest in our wife’s condition. They may think that their wife is better looking, or in some way superior, to ours. They may also know that our wife is something of a nag, and that we have had some resultant, marital problems as a result that permits them some feeling of dominance through comparative analysis. It’s also possible that this is not an overt attempt to be devious, but that they just feel more comfortable discussing wives with us. The question we ask ourselves is why do they feel more comfortable talking about our wife?
“How are the kids?” is another question they may ask. “How’s your kid’s soccer game going?”
All of the same questions and answers apply to this question. They know our kid has had some challenges when it comes to displaying athletic prowess, and they have had no such difficulties with their kid. They know that they have a lot of social psych op points on us on this page, and they enjoy displaying them whenever the two of us interact in the refreshment center. It gives them a little lift for that day to know that while their lives are not what anyone would call intact, at least it isn’t as bad as ours.
Whether the subject of the conversation revolves around kids, or wives, most people do not concoct conversations with us for the sole purpose of proving superiority, and most of them do not take overt glee in whatever causes us stress, but they just feel comfortable speaking to us on certain subjects. They may not want to start a conversation about productivity numbers, for example, because that is where we have proven superiority. We may try to change the subject to productivity numbers, because that is where we feel most comfortable, and we may not take overt glee from their troubles in this area, but we feel that we’re in some sort of psychological arm wrestle.
“What do you think of that Jones fella?” they ask. “He’s such a blow hard, always going off about how great his kids are, and how great his wife is, and how much money he makes.” By saying this, they’re telling us that they like us because we’re humble, self-effacing, and self-deprecating, and they find our comments endearing. Nobody likes a blowhard, who doesn’t know how to laugh at themselves, and we all consider humility a virtue, but why do we prefer humble people? Is it because we don’t like playing these games, or does it have something to do with the idea that we don’t like playing these games with this Jones character, because he defeats us on most of our bullet points?
We tried being self-effacing around this Jones character once. He didn’t get it. He immediately went about telling us that he had no such problems in that area. We said what we said to be funny, but he used that occasion to take a leg up on us. That’s just who that Jones character is, we decide.
“As for that all that money he talks about,” our refreshment center friend adds. “I heard it from a bird, who heard it from another bird that Mr. and Mrs. Jones cannot afford that house they live in. Yeah, everyone thinks he has it all, but I’m here to tell you that the Jones clan is deep in debt, and they’re playing it day-to-day.”
The two of us know that Jones has a beautiful house, and we both hate him for the beautiful, well-rounded family he has. There’s got to be more to it, we say, searching for a taint in the man’s glorious armor. Knowing the man can’t afford the lifestyle he lives gives us both a lift for the day. Even if all we’re doing is speculating with each other about Jones’ situation, we feel a little better about our comparative situations.
“I could live like that too,” we add with a laugh, “if I didn’t mind living in debt.”
The two of us have just compiled some much needed points on the Jones fella that we can keep close to the vest the next time we see him. We thank this work associate for that information, because we needed that lift. We needed the social psych op points.
Strategic Psych Ops
The previous scenarios detail the strategy chapter of the social psych op playbook. In this chapter, the psych ops soldier is involved in information gathering activities on those outside their immediate sphere of influence.
The accumulation might begin with a simple attempt to understand our likes and dislikes, but they evolve this conversation into an attempt to understand why we have these likes and dislikes, until they have a snapshot of our soul, and our sense of life. They may not be engaging in warfare in the truest sense of the word, but the knowledge they gain in this basic training phase will help them establish some form of dominance in preparation for any for social warfare that erupts in the future.
“But I don’t do any of this,” some of our friends will complain, if we present them with social psych ops theories, “and I don’t know anyone who does.” When we hold them to account, by repeating to them some instances where they did, they say, “I wasn’t dressing you down. I just wanted to know how your wife and kids were doing. I was making conversation for the love of St. Francis of Assisi. I just wanted to know how your family was doing. Nothing more. I had no ulterior motives. I just wanted to get to know you better. Sheesh, maybe you need to get out more.”
It is possible that some people think this way. It is possible that their “How is your day?” conversation starter was totally benign? It’s also possible that their search for dominance was occurring on a subconscious level for which they are not even aware, but no one ever considers the idea that this attempt to tell you that they don’t play such games is a game in and of itself.
The follow up sentence to further condemn you to a few moments beneath their heel would be, “And I can’t believe you do … play games like these.”
Such a characterization might be daunting, in that it makes us think we might be an incurable cynic, and we should evaluate ourselves to see if we mischaracterize some comments, but some of the times they use such vulnerable moments to score future points on us.
It’s possible we might never know the difference. It’s also just as possible that they might engage in a similar tactic later on down the road, with the knowledge that we are now vulnerable to the cynicism charge. The latter occurs when we reflect back on the initial charge and realize that they were engaging in a social psychological operation that is foreign to us, one steeped in passive aggressions. We may believe that, on some level, they were lying, and we may believe we have just gained some insight into who they are, and that we have gained some points in the social psych ops playbook with that knowledge.
But, and this is a crucial element to understanding how other people’s minds work, they may not be deceiving us in any way. They may believe that they never engage in social psych ops. They may believe that they’re just nice people working their way through a day, trying to make as many friends as possible, but they might turn around, not five minutes later, and inform us of a conversation they had with Mary in accounting.
Some suggest that only 2% reflect on themselves objectively and that the rest of us have a subjective perspective of who we think we are. Thus, they don’t view their conversation with Mary in accounting the same way we do. They may see it as a simple conversation that the two of them had, and if we see something more in it, that’s on us. They may see Mary in accounting as the hoebag that she is, and the fact that Mary just happened to tell one of her hoebag stories to them was done without any prompting on their part, but the fact that they told us about it means that they think they scored some points on Mary.
The latter description is the true definition of social psych ops, for most of them occur without either party’s knowledge. Most social psych ops occur when we notice the clothes someone wears, the coffee they drink, their inferior hygienic practices, the manner in which they entered into our conversation or exited it, how often they swear, or how they part their hair, how they tell a joke, if they’re hip to the latest music, or if they’re too hip and conformed to marketing manipulation, how they get emotional, or if they do, what they eat, and how they eat, if they’re too random, or too calculating, and where we fit into all those social paradigms. Those are the social psych ops that we engage in every day whether we know it or not.
Like military psychological operations, social psych ops are conducted to convey select information and indicators to an audience to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of groups and individuals.
The mission of these operations is to inform our audience that we are superior to them in some way shape or form, or if that’s not the case, we hope to at least take something away from the interactions. The latter may be more important, for it is in these bumper car-type interactions, with opposing forces that we tend to locate some definition of our character. It is also by engaging in these interactions that we become more equipped to deal with them in the future. They can be practiced in wartime situations, and in peace, and they can be used to define or malign, but best practices dictate that we, at least, acknowledge how often they are in play with everyone from our fiercest opponents to our good friends so that we are prepared.
As with any exercise of this sort, our opponent will attempt to survey the battlefield before engaging. He will try to locate our insecurities and place his best forces there. The best social psych ops general will also have knowledge of his weaknesses, and either place some forces there, or cede ground. There’s nothing wrong with temporary, strategic surrender, as long as we recognize our opponent’s attack strategy for what it is. As with most martial arts training, self-defense is the optimal use of social psychological operations.
Those equipped with a brain that requires more processing, may need to concede ground to those who are blessed with quick-wits for a time. If we are the types who require more processing time, consider the fact that our life will be filled with social psychological operations from all quarters, and we will need to learn how to react to them. Accept defeats for what they are, recognize these psychological ploys for what they are, no matter what excuses are given for deployment –and there will always be excuses given for few openly admit their strategy– and develop counter attacks that may foil or prevent future attacks.
All attacks and counterattacks are situational, of course, but one needs to establish reference points for their opponents that they can use to counterattack. This universal frame of reference is vital to a psychological operations soldier, for once we’ve established ourselves in a given area our antagonists will attempt to switch the playing field on us. They might choose politics or sports, because their team has a recent history of beating ours in these arenas. They may choose the department of the company they work in, or our inferior position in the company. The might speak of the type of dog they own that is superior in a physical sense, or the shows we watch that are not as funny as theirs, or any psychological vine they cling to, as they hang off the cliff with all of their inferiorities dangling out for the world to see because they forgot to wear their psychological support hose.
One might think that those who engage in strategic, information often rely on professorial and clinical psychological study, but most of it relies on the incidental research we perform on friends and family to achieve active dominance on the battleground. It is the latter that we will concentrate on in our conversations here, for if a reader’s interests lie in the more clinical and professorial arenas there are countless books and blogs that will educate and entertain in this fashion, but we know what we know. For the rest, the reader must go … elsewhere.
Operational Psych Ops
To this point in our psych ops training, we have focused on some unknown strategic ploys and information gathering exercises of social psych ops warfare. All of this is key to understanding how these psych ops are employed, of course, but no amount of theoretical discussion will help a reader understand what they’re up against better than witnessing these practices deployed in live action.
Operational psych ops involve putting that which was gathered during the information gathering exercises of social psychological operations into play. It is an informed approach that the social psych op soldier uses to attack fellow psych op soldiers in what could loosely be termed a training exercise.
Have you ever confided a weakness to a friend? “I have a fundamental weakness about me that no one knows about, but don’t tell anyone else about it.” We provide these people excruciatingly painful details about our weakness, only to have them divulge it. We’re angry and vulnerable. “I confided that information to you in strict confidence!”
“If I knew it meant that much to you, I wouldn’t have said anything,” they say to our surprise. If you have been in this situation a number of times, you know the U-bend pipe defense that psych ops soldiers employ in a manner Buggs Bunny did against Yosemite Sam did to return gunfire.
“I told you that in strict confidence,” we say. “I said the words don’t tell anyone too.”
“Don’t be so sensitive,” they might say, or “Don’t be so defensive.” They may word their responses a number of ways, of course, but the point of their responses is that it’s incumbent on us to get over their violation of our trust.
Inherent in such messages is this idea that we’re naïve. “So, you can lie to me, break my trust, and twist my mind up with your tactics, and I’m the one who needs enough cultural awareness to accept these things for what they aren’t?” These responses are the type we don’t think of in the moment. Too often, we accept these evaluations at face value, and we walk away feeling too defensive and too sensitive.
The idea that a strategic operational campaign can occur without our knowledge is not only possible, it is likely, for they will often occur in pot shot fashion, similar to guerrilla warfare. This may appear to be a training exercise to all parties concerned, but watch what is said during training exercises, for they can evolve into a live-fire training exercise when we least expect it.
Tactical Psych Ops
Tactical psych ops are the culmination of all that was learned in the previous two phases of the social psychological operations, in that they are conducted in an arena assigned by the individual across a wide range of psychological operations to support the tactical mission against opposing forces. When the psych ops soldier exploited our weakness in the training exercises, they were testing our vulnerabilities, and gauging our reactions to see if the material could be used later, before the opposite sex, or in any arena that involves an individual that the psychological operations soldier is trying to impress.
One may not experience tactical operations from their closest friends for years, until such time that the individual uses all that they have learned in live exercises to impress that one person who means something to them. The victim might be surprised by an attack that appears to come from nowhere and didn’t appear to establish anything beyond what could be termed humorous and insignificant. For the operational soldier, however, the tactical use of psychological warfare is the end game. It’s the reason they invited you to this particular outing, it’s the reason they engaged in all those private, training exercises with us, and it’s the reason they continue to call us a friend.
One popular tactical psych ops weapon is the Dumb-Fire Missile. The Dumb-Fire Missile has no targeting or maneuvering capability of its own, and it is often used to counter attack a counter attack. It can be something as relatively benign as:
“But I was only kidding,” they say when we effectively counter their assault with the meanest thing we can possibly think of to counter their act of revealing information about us. A fight starts of course, and during the aerial assault, they say, “You meant it, but I was only kidding. Sheesh!”
The stealth effectiveness of the Dumb-Fire Missile occurs when it goes beyond dismantling the defenses of its opponent to persuasively encouraging popular discontent against our counter attack. The interpretation is that when they engaged in a powerful attack against you, they were only kidding, or they weren’t aware that it meant that much to you. “You can call me dumb for not knowing that it meant that much to you, but your counter-attack was just mean.” When you counter-attacked, it was obvious to all that your comment was the result of wounded soldier, laying on the battlefield, desperately trying to salvage their standing. Used often enough, the Dumb-Fire Missile can effectively degrade an adversary’s ability to conduct, or sustain, future operations against them in the future.
The Dumb-Fire Missile is similar to the U-bend pipe defense in that it returns fire, but it is more effective in disrupting and confusing the adversary’s decision-making process by undermining their command and control with the idea that we might never know when they’re truly serious. Most of those who don’t regard normal human interactions as social psychological operations think that these soldiers aren’t serious, and they will attempt to laugh as hard as others, because they don’t take themselves all that serious, and they’re perfectly capable of laughing at themselves, because they’re wary of being perceived as too defensive or too sensitive.
A successful deployment of this strategy, followed by the Dumb-Fire Missile, has the potential to procure enjoyment of foreign forces to a point that the social psych ops adversary loses the will to fight. By lowering the adversary’s morale, and then its efficiency, these operations can also discourage aggressive reactions by creating disaffection within their ranks, ultimately leading to total surrender.
The integrated deployment of the core capabilities of social operations warfare, involve psychological operations, personal deception, and a display of security in concert with providing support. These attacks can be launched under the guise of the aggressor pretending that these attacks are performed in a humorous vein, and you shouldn’t get so upset at that which they deem to be insignificant. It is a passive-aggressive approach that they use to undermine our base that makes us feel foolish for believing that we see ulterior motives. Once we understand that this is not so serious, any furtherance will influence us to side with them while they are attacking us, in a manner that will disrupt our normal reactions, and corrupt or usurp our normal adversarial decision making processes all while protecting them from current or future attacks on the topic in question.