If you've ever been fooled by someone's apparent kindness, then you know how powerful a tool it can be for manipulators. I was reminded of this yesterday when a liquor store cashier used kindness to upsell me.
The exchange started when she scanned my bottle of wine. Instead of asking for payment, she sized me up, staring at me for a long second before asking to see my ID.
She glanced at it and then back up at me, perhaps confused by my mask.“No way,” she said. “You’re forty-nine? That can’t be right. I would have guessed thirty-two.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You’re my new best friend.”
She laughed as she rang me up. “Oh, we have a special for the cabernet on display behind you. Grab a bottle? Why not two?”
I followed her instructions, almost reflexively, adding two bottles to my purchase.
I’d like to think her compliment about my youthful appearance had nothing to do with her upsell. But I can’t say for sure because kindness, in all its forms, can serve as a useful tool for manipulators to persuade you, control you, or take from you. It works for two reasons:
- It’s difficult to distinguish genuine kindness from its manipulative counterpart.
- Even when we do recognize inauthentic niceties, we still feel an urge to respond in kind. There’s an old saying, “It’s hard to be mean to someone who gives you ice cream.”
Skilled manipulators exploit their understanding of this dynamic and weaponize kindness for personal gain. Fortunately, they’re easy to unmask once you’re aware of these four tactics.
1. They exploit the principle of reciprocity.
If you own a house, and your neighbor surprises you by mowing your lawn, you might have won the best neighbor ever jackpot. But prepare yourself for a knock on the door later that day.
He might want you to walk and feed his dog while he goes on vacation for ten days.
We see these manipulations for what they are. Still, we often give in to their request because it plays on what author Robert Cialdini called The Principle of Reciprocity in his book Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion.
When someone does you a favor, it’s hard to resist acting in kind, even if we know the other person performed their act for manipulative purposes.
Amateurs, like the neighbor in the above example, take the initiative. They’ll do you an unsolicited favor and then ask for one in return.
The sneaky ones take a more opportunistic approach. They’ll wait until a situation presents itself, like when you’re in a jam. Let’s suppose you’re traveling, and you mention you’re having trouble getting a car to take you to the airport. Your friend comes to the rescue by offering to drive you.
On your way to the airport, they ask you to be their date at a company gala. It’s uncomfortable because you’re relying on this person for a ride, and they’re simultaneously pressuring you to go out on a date.
If you feel uncomfortable saying no, try implying it by infusing a bit of humor.
“If I say no, will you still take me to the airport?”
“I’ll give you an answer once I’m out of your car.”
They might resent you for outing them, but that’s a good thing. You don’t need friends like that.
2. They use kindness to mold you into the partner or friend they desire.
When you’re short on friends, you sometimes latch onto the wrong people. That’s what happened to me in my late twenties. I became friends with a nice guy, my Thursday night drinking buddy, and Sunday afternoon football friend.
As friendly as he was to me, something didn’t click. He’d talk crap about his other friends, most of which I had never met. Eventually, I caught on to his scheme. Here’s the pattern.
First, he’d criticize his former friends for not meeting his impossibly high standards, and then in a mildly threatening tone, he’d say things like:
“But you would never do that, right?”
“I appreciate that you’re not like him.”
It got creepy, and it soon became evident that he used kindness as a tool to mold me into the kind of friend he wanted — a subordinate sidekick. It became exhausting, tiptoeing around his hang-ups to avoid stepping into one of his landmines.
When a friend acts kind towards you, but talks poorly of others, be wary.
3. They use niceness as a disarming tactic.
In my twenties, I worked in hotel management. An employee had skipped out on work, so my boss suspended him. The employee complained to the union, and my manager sent me to meet with the union leader, believing it a low-risk scenario for me to practice.
During the hours leading up to the meeting, I nearly puked out all my nervous energy. But when I met with the union rep, he shook my hand and greeted me with such warmth and friendliness, I immediately relaxed.
Twenty minutes later, I had conceded every point on his list.
This union leader demonstrated such kindness and gentleness; he disarmed me. I lowered my defenses and found myself eager to please him, intent on treating with him with the same courtesy. I had invited him into my mind and told him to take what he wanted, and he did, always smiling and gracious.
When someone acts too nice given the context of the situation, it may be genuine, but test them. Pretend to lower your guard and see if they seek out concessions or favors from you.
4. They deploy kindness strategically.
Have you ever met someone who acted like a pill when you first met them? Later, upon discovering you could do something for them, they transformed into your bestie. You found it confusing but assumed you had won them over with your charm.
That’s possible. But also consider what this person learned about you before they changed their attitude. Perhaps they discovered you worked at a company they wanted to pitch or were friends with someone they wanted to meet.
The conclusion of this plotline is almost cliché. When you‘re no longer useful to this person, they either disappear from your life or throw you just enough lifeline to keep you around for some future need.
People who exhibit authentic kindness do it consistently. They don’t think of it in a strategic sense. “She’s got connections to the CEO, so I’ll be nice and helpful to her, for now.”
Genuinely kind people display kindness because it’s in their character. They pepper it like an abundant resource to be shared, not a scarce commodity to be doled out for transactional purposes.
Trust your gut.
It’s easy to spot the villain who snarls, threatens, and intimidates. But the ones who smile and shower you with niceties prove more formidable. Even when you see through them, it’s hard to resist their overtures.
If someone’s good graces feel contrived, out of place, inappropriate, or inconsistent, trust your sixth sense. It’s probably right.