Shame Blinding (Subtle Shaming)

Some blinders we bring to a negotiation ourselves, but other blinders are brought to the table by the other party.  One of the more interesting and unsettling forms of blinder is something I call a Shame Blinder.  And it is both obvious and subtle at the same time. 

A good example of this comes from an experience I had many years ago when shopping for a car.

At the time, I worked in the entertainment industry as a manager in planning and strategy, and had decided to buy an entry level luxury sport sedan.

After test driving a brand A model, I spent a few minutes in the salesperson’s office trying to get a sense for pricing and discount options. 

“Brand A buyers don’t negotiate pricing”, he said. “They know they need to pay a premium for this brand”.  He could see that I was a relatively young first-time luxury brand buyer.  His statement made no sense of course because people negotiate luxury car purchases all the time, including his own brand, but that’s not the point.

As in much of negotiation, his assertion was about trying to define the other party.

The tone was clear: was I someone who understands what it means to be a luxury car buyer? He challenged my position by laying down a test: if I were worthy, then I had to understand certain things about my role – specifically, that being worthy means I don’t  negotiate.

Worthiness is a characteristic used to induce shame. It didn’t matter what the answer was, or whether I took the challenge literally – what mattered was that I understood that my worthiness as a buyer was being called into question, and that he would define the terms of my worthiness.    

And here is the blinder. This strategy is powerful only to the extent that you allow it to be relevant. If I accept that his assertion needed to be answered or even made legitimate, then we are negotiating on his terms.

If I accept or even argue with his premise, I’m already on the defensive. It would take up my mental bandwidth even to be just annoyed at his assertion. 

And what would it take to not play into this strategy?  The key is recognizing the presence of the strategy, which I’ll say more about below. 

After asking a few more questions, I left the showroom. For the time being, I agreed that I was not a Brand A buyer.  But the experience was still a bit unnerving. 

The key point is that is that our self- image can easily be hijacked to another party’s advantage.  I was able to side-step brand A’s assertion, but I was still annoyed and a bit offended, which means that to some extent his strategy worked.

This is why I call it “shame-blinding”.  It attempts to activate a sense of shame, defensiveness, or frustration in order to distract you – in this case from having a conversation focused on pricing.

So, let’s clarify the use of this tactic in this case:

  1. A salesperson attempted to subtly shame a first-time luxury car buyer into backing off of a price discussion by characterizing the buyer’s attempts to negotiate as beneath the brand, naïve, and futile. 
  • At the same time, this characterizes accepting full price as being a necessary condition of being allowed to be called a Brand A buyer, even if the sales person winds up negotiating anyway.

Interestingly, two days later, I hear this same line used again by a salesperson of a competitor brand.  “Brand B buyers don’t negotiate pricing.” She said to me, “They understand that this brand commands a premium”. Notice again, who’s being defined is me, the buyer – in terms of the brand.

Clearly I was giving off a vibe, but it was also a tried and true tactic. This time, however, I had become experienced with the practice.  The same language and tone were used, with the same subtext – if you try to negotiate, you’re not up to brand standard. 

“Well, you make a good point!”, I replied, pausing, “I may indeed not be a brand B buyer…”

Her reaction was to backpedal.  That wasn’t what she meant.  She didn’t mean anything personal – it was about the brand. 

This response (I may not be a Brand B buyer) gave her two options – use the premise (and if so, I will end the interaction), or find another premise. The objective is to clarify the terms of my presence on terms that I will accept.  I will participate as a potential customer only when the interaction is about a car purchase, and not about defining who I am.

Shame-blinding is a subtle form of abuse.  It is a public (if backhanded) attack on one’s worthiness.   And when the user is called out for it, even indirectly, it is common for them to deny the allegation. “I didn’t mean it about you, I meant it about the brand”.

It’s no wonder so many people don’t like car shopping in person – shaming is common and usually we want to challenge it on its own terms, which winds up legitimizing it and encouraging it further.

But this strategy is pervasive in many life circumstances, and for good reason. It’s often very effective.  It catches us off guard and gets under our skin, and we all have a soft spot in our ego somewhere.  You can internalize the insult, dispute it, defend your worthiness, attack the user, or even walk off in a huff.  In all of those cases, you’ve still legitimized the tactic by engaging with it.

When people use this strategy, it lives rent free in our head, working on behalf of the other party, unless you side step the strategy itself.

When I walked out of brand A’s showroom, I was irritated.  When I left brand B show-room I felt free and relaxed. 

I had dismantled shame blinding because I had processed my irritation and I learned what had happened, and where I was vulnerable to it. I was able to take my ego out of being a younger, first-time luxury car buyer. 

I had to acknowledge that I was a young, affable person who probably looked like this kind of thing would work, and then let go of any judgement I had assigned to that. Once I did that, I was free to have a friendly interaction with the salesperson B, having made clear I would countenance no abuse.

Learning to get outside this kind of blinder takes a willingness to acknowledge and reflect on your own weak (ego) spots.  Otherwise, anything – anything – that could potentially be a source of shame or even doubt to you can be used against you.  From a practical standpoint, you can then spot when you may have been shame blindered.  You’ll probably feel annoyed, exposed, or as if there is something you have to defend. 

In a negotiation, take a breath and ask yourself – what did you feel ashamed/defensive of as a result of the interaction?  It may take a few minutes, or asking a friend, but you’ll find it. 

Do you think I didn’t feel vulnerable walking in to those car dealers?  I did.  And they saw it all over me.  Luckily, I was able to find my weak spots before I got further distracted.  If you know who you are, and know your weak spots, you’ll be able to negotiate freely.