Peering into a Psychopath’s Bag of Tricks: Slaps and Sexist Remarks


Slaps and sexist remarks shut up their targets and everyone around them. Speaking up and being heard is critical in both nation building and creating a healthy productive workplace. Denying a person from speaking up can be catastrophic, leading to corporate scandals, death and in the context of a nation – civil unrest or a strong unhappy undercurrent.

Last week I wrote about two public incidents in Malaysia which showed how two people were deftly shut up in The Slap: Shutting People Up. I explained the deep culture of shame and the large power distance, fertile ground for wrongdoing to continue without challenge.

Today, let’s explore the psychopath’s playground and tricks.

Robert Hare developed the famous 20 point Hare PCL-R Checklist identifying psychopathic traits, subject to clinical diagnosis:

  1. glib and superficial charm
  2. grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
  3. need for stimulation
  4. pathological lying
  5. cunning and manipulativeness
  6. lack of remorse or guilt
  7. shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  8. callousness and lack of empathy
  9. parasitic lifestyle
  10. poor behavioural controls
  11. sexual promiscuity
  12. early behaviour problems
  13. lack of realistic long-term goals
  14. impulsivity
  15. irresponsibility
  16. failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  17. many short-term marital relationships
  18. juvenile delinquency
  19. revocation of conditional release
  20. criminal versatility

Having some traits doesn’t make you a psychopath but a good number will.

The Psychopath Playground

Does your work involve politics? Do you work in a large corporation, media, a law firm? Well done. You’re in a psychopath’s playground.

Image: Highest and Lowest professions with psychopaths. Courtesy of The Hustle.

I would add politicians to that list. CEOs are 4 more times as likely to be psychopaths than the average person. The Washington Post estimated 21% of CEOs are psychopaths.

But no one in my office looks like this, you say:

Image courtesy of Time

People with psychopathic tendencies don’t walk around with iron muzzles and lick their lips. Neither do they foam at the mouth or wear a hand band marked PSYCHOPATH in blood red. They’re not easy to spot, though I learnt to rely on a lawyer colleague’s distaste when meeting people and declaring them sleazy lizards. I’m talking workplaces here, not discos.

Psychopaths are typically charming (schmoozeee said my lawyer) and win you over – if you’re a senior person. If you’re just the intern that makes coffee, sorry they don’t waste their time charming you. They belittle you until you wish you were a toad that could hide undisturbed under a coconut shell. Except you can’t. You have to make their coffee.

According to Robert Hare in Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test, 1% of the population are psychopaths. The figure increases up the ladder to power and success. If your workplace had 100 people, at least one is a psychopath and several may demonstrate psychopathic traits. The corporate world rewards people who are driven, energetic and achieve tough goals. Lacking conscience, they don’t care who they hurt on the way up. So the higher up the corporate ladder, the more likely you will find psychopaths.

“As a group they tend to be more charming than most people. They have no warm emotions of their own but will study the rest of us. They’re the boss or the co-worker who likes to make other people jump just for the pleasure of seeing them jump. They’re the spouse who marries to look socially normal but inside the marriage shows no love after the initial charm wears off.” Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, in The Psychopath Test

What is seen as good leadership is evolving and the old style of bully type leadership is now recognised for creating toxic work cultures. Think Wells Fargo, Uber, United Airlines, Fox. Who leads them? Now go back and look at the 20 point checklist.

Change is still slow and you could be stuck with a psychopathic boss, colleague, friend or worse, your spouse (I won’t go into other family members – that needs therapy). The first step is to recognise possible psychopaths and be aware of how they manipulate you.

Are you ready to peer into the psychopath’s bag of tricks? Disclaimer: I am focusing on behaviour rather than on particular persons and attempting to view this objectively. I am not branding any of the following people as psychopaths but I am pointing out the psychopathic tricks they have employed.

Case No 1: “Comot” (Shabby), or the Sexist Remark

At a Town Hall, a young woman asked the Minister of the Federal Territories, Ku Nan a very good question. She spoke about her concern about safety on the streets, expressed her worry over her daughters and then asked him the plan to increase security in the city. See the video.

She was young, she was female and she was smartly attired. She spoke eloquently with intelligence.

How does a man, possibly twice her age in a male dominated political environment and unused to women being his equal behave?

Instead of treating her with respect and answering her question, he said, “it’s because you’re so beautiful. The next time you go out, wear more shabby clothes,”

So let’s analyse this. What just happened?

He did not see her as his equal. From his perspective as a senior member of the ruling party, a federal minister, many years her senior and a man, there was a huge power distance between them (explained in my previous article).

To answer her seriously meant that he would be held accountable for what he said. It could be that he didn’t know the answer. An evolved leader would admit, I don’t know, we haven’t worked it out.

So he dug into the Psychopath Bag.

Trick No 1: Distract by Changing the Narrative

One of the most common tactics is to distract people from the issue at hand.

How did he distract? This was Trick No 2: Turn Attention to Your Questioner/Victim

By saying she was beautiful, everyone turned to her. People forgot the question and wanted to see her reaction.

It may have sounded to some like a compliment, but what he had done was turn her into an object, a sexual object and therefore undeserving of an intelligent reply. The psychopath undermines, humiliates and lowers the dignity of his target.

There was laughter and wolf whistles and this is Trick No 3: Get Followers to Support You. He was in control, he knew the mood of the audience and knew that they would laugh along. How did he know? Again the power distance factor. If a person in power cracks a joke, everyone will laugh even if they feel uncomfortable inside (I referred to how this happened in the BBC previously). Have you laughed along when a senior person makes fun of a subordinate in a meeting? I have, with a nasty sinking feeling. I have also been laughed at. It makes me feel stupid.

As a woman, it’s hard to know how to react. The woman looked uneasy but kept her cool and carried on with her question. By this stage she had lost her audience. They were on his side. Some may have empathised with her but no one openly spoke up and called him out on his sexism.

This is playground bully behaviour. Many kids are afraid of the bully and if not actively egging him on (the laughter and wolf whistles), will look away for fear that they will be singled out and victimised should they intervene.

The bully gains his power from his followers and needs bystanders to stay silent. A bully loses power the more victims and bystanders speak up. He will shame any bystander who dares to speak as a signal to others: Stay Silent. It often works.

Followers can be far more senior than the psychopath. They charm senior people in the organisation. It’s called grooming.

“Maybe someone does catch on to their schemes. But did the whistleblower spend time making sure upper management likes and trusts them? Because the psychopath did. Guess who senior management trusts?” Eric Barker, How to Deal with Psychopaths and Toxic People

Trick No 4: Blame the Victim

Ku Nan deftly shifted accountability towards the young woman. He focused on how she looked and how she dressed. She should dress more shabbily to protect herself. Now that the world understands the insidious danger of rape culture, we can see that this is victim blaming and promotes rape culture. Once a leader speaks in the way Ku Nan did, he is sending the signal to the masses that it is the fault of the victim for being attacked. This is wrong and has to be called out for what it is. Patriarchy. Sexism. Rape Culture. Our young women deserve better.

Trick No 5: Name Calling

I suspect having published this, I will be labeled “Liberal Feminist” (which I think is a compliment though not intended by those who throw it at me) or creative insults. This is another diversion tactic, but tends to be used by those too lazy to think.

Similar to name calling is grouping the victim with others that the psychopath feels threatened by. You would have seen this in The Body Slamming incident where Republican Greg Gianforte angry that yet another Guardian journalist, Ben Jacobs was going to ask a difficult question, threw Jacobs to the ground, yelling “I’m sick and tired of you guys [Guardian reporters]. The last guy who came here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here.”

His team used Trick No 1 and 4: Distracting by changing the narrative and blaming the victim.

“It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.” Shane Scanlon, campaign spokesman

Case No 2: The Slap

I wrote about this at great length in The Slap: Shutting People Up.

Again, let’s dissect the incident and aftermath and see the what was pulled out of the Psychopath Bag of Tricks. The video is here.

First I listened to what was said, once David Teo approached the stage. Then I watched the body language of both Teo and Rosyam Nor. It is normal for Town Halls to have confrontational, angry people. Teo was confrontational and loud. Rosyam, as moderator, told him he had a minute and gave Teo the mike. Teo directly called out Rosyam for not being fair in taking questions. This naturally put Rosyam on the defensive and he stepped off the platform towards Teo who backed away. Then Teo moved towards Rosyam who backed away. This looked like a confrontation of equals having an argument – a prolific film producer versus famous actor. We’ve all been there. Except that this was in public and in front of the Prime Minister.

Teo’s point was unfairness. Rosyam did not apologise but said, “come on David,” and “we are in front of the Prime Minister”. Yes he failed to own up to his unfair moderation and he was defensive. His “come on David” was more of a plea to behave rather than blaming or shaming Teo (that came later).

Actor Rosyam Nor. Image Courtesy of Kosmo. Confession: I was a Rosyam Nor fan and spoke to him, starstruck, several times. So I might be biased.

Trick No 6: Create Conflict and a Toxic Environment

As the men argued, Mat Over marched over and slapped Teo. There will always be a rogue actor who does something wrong. What is important is how that behaviour is treated. Immediately after the slap, Rosyam said to the Prime Minister (perhaps forgetting the mike was on) that he is rude (“Dia tu memang kurang ajar”). Most people think he referred to Teo rather than Mat Over. If this is true, then that is victim shaming (See Trick No 4 – Victim Blaming).

At no point did anyone at the Town Hall condemn Mat Over for the slap. This sends the message to the audience is that you can slap someone and get away with it. The focus instead was on the two men making up, which they did on stage. This does not address the core issue: The Slap is pure thuggery. Violence for any reason is wrong. What we are condoning is thug behaviour which is increasing. There was a slapping incident the following Friday outside a mosque after Friday prayers.

Malaysians ask themselves, how did we become thugs? Simple. Because of Trick No 6 which has created conflict and a toxic environment. This is not unique to Malaysia. We see it the world over and it is scary.

It is up to us to reclaim our peace and unity. We need to call out and denounce violence in all forms.

Trick No 7: Guilt Tripping or Playing the Victim

After the incident, Mat Over showed no remorse. He defended the assault by saying that he was teaching Teo a lesson for being disrespectful before the Prime Minister. Did he feel he had to protect the Prime Minister’s honour? In his mind was he protecting the honour of his race?

This is typical of behaviour where a group feels threatened by others, for example immigrants. We are defending our own kind. We are under threat from the Other. We are victims and therefore can do what it takes to protect ourselves. 

And in the workplace…

You confront your boss for making you stay late every night and she looks at you sadly, “it’s only a month, I haven’t seen daylight in 20 years, I never see my kids.” You feel bad and offer to take on some of her work. You walked right into her trap. She guilt tripped you. A true leader would acknowledge the problem and try to solve it.

Trick No 8: Intimidation and Threats towards the Victim

After the incident, a right wing nationalist group calling themselves the Red Shirts demanded that Teo apologise, failing which they would demand action by the Information Ministry. They didn’t ask Mat Over to apologise.

This is a covert threat. More often psychopaths threaten overtly. You know this happens when you feel uncomfortable and unsafe by something they have said or done. For instance, your boss says, “fine go ahead, but don’t expect me to back you up or support you at year end”, year end being performance appraisal time. If you were to report this, you would be told it is not a threat. Psychopaths are smart enough to leave no tracks.

And finally… the next trick, often used by politicians.

Trick No 9: Deny, Lie, Gaslight

There are people who often deny what they have said or done, or twist the truth. “No that’s not what I meant. You misunderstood.” Or an outright, “I never said that, why would I say that, when did I say that?” with such conviction that you start to doubt yourself. Perhaps you were wrong and they were right.

How did Ku Nan respond when asked about his sexist dress shabbily remark? It was just a joke. Of course.

“The last time, I made a joke with a young lady that I knew, I was joking, in my heart I was joking, I told her that if she dressed prettily – not seductively, she would attract unwanted attention. I was joking, but the opposition twisted my words, looking to create trouble,”

Note Trick No 1: Distract and blame the Opposition.

Women upset with sexist remarks often get the following reaction when they call it out: “You have no sense of humour”, “other women are ok with it”, “you’re too sensitive”, “what’s wrong with you?”. This makes a woman start to doubt her gut. Is she too sensitive? Has she no sense of humour? What’s wrong with her?

This is Gaslighting which over time, erodes a person’s self esteem. Because the victim feels they are wrong and often ashamed, they will not report it.

If you suspect this is happening in your workplace, look at the once enthusiastic employee who has become demoralised and suffers anxiety. This is likely the work of a psychopath.

Now that you have some idea of psychopaths, how do you handle them? I will cover this in Part 3. For now I’ll leave you with this: don’t try to understand them thinking that you can change them. You never will and it’s draining. They don’t care about you. Lina Esa Oberg of Re:Mind in explaining psychopaths to me said, “a crocodile is a crocodile. It can’t become something it’s not.” My life became easier once I understood this.

Image of an orange crocodile in North Carolina, courtesy of Nick Andrews. A crocodile can’t change its colours.

This is Part 2 of The Slap: Shutting People Up. See Part 1 here. Part 3 covers how to handle psychopathic behaviour here: Being a Rock Among Psychopaths at Work.

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