I’ve been re-reading Gone With the Wind lately, and there is no character in literature more skilled at the neg than Rhett Butler. Given that Rhett is dealing with one of the most self-absorbed and vain females in all of literature, his frame is (and must be, by necessity) concrete and the negs are fairly charged. However, Rhett’s negs succeed because (a) he is able to deliver them with charm and humor, and (b) he never breaks frame. He never backpedals or apologizes, but he never crosses the line into bitter insult. Here is a good example from early in the novel, when Scarlett discovers that Rhett has overheard her conversation with Ashley in the library and witnessed her throwing a vase against the wall in rage.
“Sir,” she said, “you are no gentleman!”
“An apt observation,” he answered airily. “And, you, Miss, are no lady.” He seemed to find her very amusing, for he laughed softly again. “No one can remain a lady after saying and doing what I have just overheard. However, ladies have seldom held any charms for me. I know what they are thinking, but they never have the courage or lack of breeding to say what they think. And that, in time, becomes a bore. But you, my dear Miss O’Hara, are a girl of rare spirit, very admirable spirit, and I take off my hat to you. I fail to understand what charms the elegant Mr. Wilkes can hold for a girl of your tempestuous nature. He should thank God on bended knee for a girl with your–how did he put it?–‘passion for living,’ but being a poor-spirited wretch–”
“You aren’t fit to wipe his boots!” she shouted in rage.
“And you were going to hate him all your life!” He sank down on the sofa and she heard him laughing.
Scarlett’s accusation that Rhett is no gentleman is a classic shit test designed to make Rhett apologize for his behavior and establish Scarlett’s control of their encounter. But instead of behaving like a gentleman, Rhett agrees and then drops the neg: in the form of a compliment, he congratulates Scarlett on a poor quality – not being a lady. He also AMOGs Ashley.
Negging, often in combination with Agree and Amplify, is a strategy that Rhett uses continually against Scarlett’s shit tests, which she doles out with regularity on account of his impudence. That she cannot control him both infuriates and excites her. Especially worth noting is that Rhett’s negs are often not upfront; he works them in as asides, or they are implied due to word choice and tone. The following passage from chapter 17 demonstrates a barrage of game. My comments are bolded in brackets.
“…Never pass up new experiences, Scarlett. They enrich the mind.” [Neg. Subtext: “Your mind needs enriching.”]
“My mind’s rich enough.” [Qualifying herself.]
“Perhaps you know best about that, but I should say– But that would be ungallant. And perhaps, I’m staying here to rescue you when the siege does come. I’ve never rescued a maiden in distress. That would be a new experience, too.” [Neg. Subtext: “You’re helpless.”]
She knew he was teasing her but she sensed a seriousness behind his words. She tossed her head.
“I won’t need you to rescue me. I can take care of myself, thank you.” [Qualifying herself.]
“Don’t say that, Scarlett! Think of it, if you like, but never, never say it to a man. That’s the trouble with Yankee girls. They’d be most charming if they weren’t always telling you that they can take care of themselves, thank you. Generally they are telling the truth, God help them. And so men let them take care of themselves.” [Neg. Comparing her to unfeminine women.]
“How you do run on,” she said coldly, for there was no insult worse than being likened to a Yankee girl. “I believe you’re lying about a siege. You know the Yankees will never get to Atlanta.” [Shit test.]
“I’ll bet you they will be here within the month. [Agree and amplify.] I’ll bet you a box of bonbons against–” His dark eyes wandered to her lips. “Against a kiss.”
For a last brief moment, fear of a Yankee invasion clutched her heart but at the word “kiss,” she forgot about it. This was familiar ground and far more interesting than military operations. With difficulty she restrained a smile of glee. Since the day when he gave her the green bonnet, Rhett had made no advances which could in any way be construed as those of a lover. He could never be inveigled into personal conversations, try though she might, but now with no angling on her part, he was talking about kissing. [Rhett always controls the frame with Scarlett.]
“I don’t care for such personal conversation,” she said coolly and managed a frown. “Besides, I’d just as soon kiss a pig.” [Shit test.]
“There’s no accounting for tastes and I’ve always heard the Irish were partial to pigs–kept them under their beds, in fact. [Agree and amplify in combination with a neg.] But, Scarlett, you need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. All your beaux have respected you too much, though God knows why, or they have been too afraid of you to really do right by you. [AMOG in combination with a neg.] The result is that you are unendurably uppity. You should be kissed and by someone who knows how.” [Neg.]
The conversation was not going the way she wanted it. It never did when she was with him. Always, it was a duel in which she was worsted.
“And I suppose you think you are the proper person?” she asked with sarcasm, holding her temper in check with difficulty. [Shit test.]
“Oh, yes, if I cared to take the trouble,” he said carelessly. “They say I kiss very well.” [Agree and amplify.]
“Oh,” she began, indignant at the slight to her charms. “Why, you . . .” But her eyes fell in sudden confusion. He was smiling, but in the dark depths of his eyes a tiny light flickered for a brief moment, like a small raw flame. “Of course, you’ve probably wondered why I never tried to follow up that chaste peck I gave you, the day I brought you that bonnet–” [Neg.]
“I have never–” [Qualifying herself.]
“Then you aren’t a nice girl, Scarlett, and I’m sorry to hear it. All really nice girls wonder when men don’t try to kiss them. They know they shouldn’t want them to and they know they must act insulted if they do, but just the same, they wish the men would try. . . . Well, my dear, take heart. Some day, I will kiss you and you will like it. But not now, so I beg you not to be too impatient.” [Neg, Neg, Neg. Also, all girls want men to put the moves on them.]
She knew he was teasing but, as always, his teasing maddened her. There was always too much truth in the things he said. Well, this finished him. If ever, ever he should be so ill bred as to try to take any liberties with her, she would show him. [Hamster alert.]
“Will you kindly turn the horse around, Captain Butler? I wish to go back to the hospital.”
“Do you indeed, my ministering angel? Then lice and slops are preferable to my conversation? Well, far be it from me to keep a pair of willing hands from laboring for Our Glorious Cause.” [Neg, neg, neg.] He turned the horse’s head and they started back toward Five Points.
“As to why I have made no further advances,” he pursued blandly, as though she had not signified that the conversation was at an end, [controlling the frame] “I’m waiting for you to grow up a little more. You see, it wouldn’t be much fun for me to kiss you now and I’m quite selfish about my pleasures. I never fancied kissing children.” [Mega neg!]
He smothered a grin, as from the corner of his eye he saw her bosom heave with silent wrath.
When broken down, it’s easy to see that the male-female dynamic is that of alternating shit tests and either negs or agree/amplify. In order to control the frame, the man can never submit to a shit test and – this is key – he should always view the shit test with some amusement. Without a dose of humor and amusement, a man’s attempted negs will seem mean-spirited and/or defensive or – worse – clumsy.
It’s worth noting that Rhett’s industrial-strength game is probably too much for the average joe running day game or church game. The strength of Rhett’s game was made necessary by the enormity of Scarlett’s ego and vanity. Most men will not meet such a foe on the battleground of dating and mating. Then again, the characters of the novel were constrained by the social mores of their time, and Scarlett, no matter how enraged she became at Rhett, never insulted him the way women today are prone to insult men. So maybe industrial strength game should at least be in every man’s arsenal, should he need to use it.
One other somewhat unrelated note: Kids LOVE negs. Pretty much the fastest way to a child’s heart is to neg them with gleeful abandon. Telling a kid (playfully) that you don’t believe whatever they’re telling you, and they will start qualifying themselves until they’re blue in the face. Playfully insult their hero, and you will blow their mind. (Of course, you have to be careful with this or you’ll end up with a sobbing child.) When I used to work at a tutoring center, one of my students was in love with Nick Jonas from the Jonas Brothers. So I took it upon myself to insult Nick Jonas constantly. (“Nick Jonas isn’t cute. He has squinty eyes.” “Isn’t Nick Jonas younger than you? You’re a cradle robber!” “You call that singing?!” “Hi, Mrs. Jonas, what algebra homework do you have today?”) But I knew that my student enjoyed having me as her tutor. Done properly, kids, especially younger ones, will come back and practically beg for repeated negging. That’s how you know they love and respect you.