Social Manipulation: Are You Aware?

Social Manipulation: Are You Aware?

Lillian Tullio

Picture this: you’re at an after school club meeting…one student immediately takes control talking loudly and directly to the teacher/advisor…ignoring all other club members for the purpose of being in control. He or she has determined on their own that they are the spokesperson for the group because they automatically know what everyone wants without asking. Group members sit quietly and allow the manipulation to take place…No one says a word.  We’ve all been there in one situation or another! Social manipulation is when someone uses their personality and conversational skills to manipulate social situations for their own personal gain. We have all experienced it! We have all been victims of it! Yet, we fail to step up and do anything about it. Why? 

In every social environment from clubs, classrooms, sports, to a job, an unspoken social hierarchy forms that gives authority to a few who have the confidence to use it. Those who do not wish a position of authority simply conform. Why do people conform? Not everyone has the boldness to interrupt a conversation or know the correct timing to smoothly join in and have their opinions heard. Not everyone possesses the same social skills of being able to express themselves openly or manage others. Many people simply want to fit in. They don’t want to be pressured by their peers. Perhaps they choose to be obedient participants because they want to identify with a group. Last, they may conform out of fear of being openly bullied. The traits of a social manipulator are being highly adept in conversational skills, outgoing and extroverted, and they recognize every opportunity to use their skills to gain advantage in a group situation. Their natural social skills are utilized for personal gain and self-serving motives. They may use skills of deception, discrediting, and push personal boundaries of those less skilled all while concealing their aggressive intentions. They know they are making others uncomfortable, isolating them, and putting them in a position of being vulnerable and exposed if they should speak up. The worst part, the majority usually place their trust in social manipulators without even realizing why! 

To clearly understand social manipulation all we need to do is look at social media influencers. We accept social media influencers as influencers instead of manipulators. Face it, we all have a need to fit in on an emotional and social level. A popular tactic that social media influencers (manipulators) use to gain followers is to offer a promotion on their products. You share the promotional information and you are entered into a contest with a million other people. While the social manipulator is racking up their followers you have next to no chance of winning! We blindly follow the influencer (manipulator) and never speak up. Why? Is it because they have a status we value? Is it because we have a fear that if we don’t look or act like them we won’t fit in? Additionally, they make us feel like we are part of an exclusive group when we blindly participate in their requests and purchase their products without any expression of how we really feel about being pressured. But, are we really in an exclusive group?

An exclusive group is designed to be available to select people based on a mutual interest. Exclusive groups are most obvious in sports, school clubs, and higher level academic societies and classes, but they exist everywhere. While it is natural to split up based on abilities, it causes some people to feel left out and unable to identify with a broader group of people. Certainly, I would not be in the debate club if I did not have the ability to speak clearly and concisely. In that context, using those skills to your highest level is wise. However, using those skills in a classroom to manipulate a teacher to only hearing your voice puts pressure on those unwilling, unable, or fearful of adequately confronting challenging social situations. While we recognize the need for exclusive groups, is there a way we can be more aware of when we are being manipulated? 

We’ve learned a lot about bullying during our school careers. Teachers and counselors have gone through the signs of bullying tactics and what we should do if we feel victimized. Social manipulation is a form of bullying that is far more difficult to recognize and report. Some are not even aware they are being manipulated while some chose to remain in the background out of fear of retaliation by a social manipulator. Remember, social manipulators have good skills. They are adept at conversation, they have out-going personalities, and they are quick to evaluate any social situation and manipulate it to their advantage. They may see themselves as providing a greater service to the whole group, while many in the group feel intimidated and fearful of any outcome where they attempt to openly express themselves. As highschool students we are just learning who we are. We may not possess the skills yet to accurately identify and deal with the strategies of a seasoned social manipulator. Who knows, some of us may never have those skills!  

Social manipulators are complex characters. There are gray areas regarding how people perceive a social manipulator versus a leader. Both personalities may possess similar external traits of confidence, assurance, and being a natural socialite. However, their underlying goals are what differentiates the two characters. A leader uses their social skills and influence to motivate a team to achieve group success. A leader has integrity, respect, and self-awareness while a social manipulator compels others to become their followers in order to drive their own ego, self-serving goals, and overall status. Social manipulators tend to be charismatic, have overwhelming confidence, speak assertively, and incite excitement in their audience. Most importantly, these attractive social tactics are easily misinterpreted as many feel comfortable to instill their trust in social manipulators assuming they are leaders. The simplest way to identify a social manipulator is by trusting yourself and if you ever feel uncomfortable or silenced by a “leader” allow yourself to take your own path. 

It feels unjust for people to utilize their enhanced social abilities to gain an unfair advantage in a group. How can a cunning smile or an audacious personality shift the value of someone else’s talents who cannot express themselves adequately? We all have talents but we all don’t have the same set of social skills. An outgoing personality and the ability to speak  loudly and clearly makes people believe you are confident and creditable. This is an essential factor in their ability to manipulate those around them. In reality, the social manipulator may be acting out of perfectionism or the fear of failure. What can we do?  First, don’t take their need to control personally. You have value, your opinions matter. Second, if you feel you are being bullied and isolated, seek help. Third, set a boundary to determine how far you are willing to allow the social manipulator to go. Last, suggest that your groups establish clear rules and expectations that accommodate everyone. Unfortunately, social manipulators are here to stay so establishing strategies now in every facet of our lives is critical for a happy and well adjusted social life.