Mastering the language and art of Insinuation

You cannot pass through life without in one way or another trying to persuade people of something. Take the direct route, saying exactly what you want, and your honesty may make you feel good but you are probably not getting anywhere. People have their own sets of ideas, which are hardened into stone by habit; your words, entering their minds, compete with the thousands of preconceived notions that are already there, and get nowhere. Besides, people resent your attempt to persuade them, as if they were incapable of deciding by themselves—as if you knew better. Consider instead the power of insinuation and suggestion. It requires some patience and art, but the results are more than worth it.

The way insinuation works is simple: disguised in a banal remark or encounter, a hint is dropped. It is about some emotional issue—a possible pleasure not yet attained, a lack of excitement in a person’s life. The hint registers in the back of the target’s mind, a subtle stab at his or her insecurities; its source is quickly forgotten. It is too subtle to be memorable at the time, and later, when it takes root and grows, it seems to have emerged naturally from the target’s own mind, as if it was there all along. Insinuation lets you bypass people’s natural resistance, for they seem to be listening only to what has originated in themselves. It is a language on its own, communicating directly with the unconscious.


No seducer, no persuader, can hope to succeed without mastering the language and art of insinuation. A strange man once arrived at the court of Louis XV. No one knew anything about him, and his accent and age were unplaceable. He called himself Count Saint-Germain. He was obviously wealthy; all kinds of gems and diamonds glittered on his jacket, his sleeves, his shoes, his fingers. He could play the violin to perfection, paint magnificently. But the most intoxicating thing about him was his conversation. In truth, the count was the greatest charlatan of the eighteenth century—a man who had mastered the art of insinuation. As he spoke, a word here and there would slip out—a vague allusion to the philosopher’s stone, which turned base metal into gold, or to the elixir of life. He did not say he possessed these things, but he made you associate him with their powers. Had he simply claimed to have them, no one would have believed him and people would have turned away. The count might refer to a man who had died forty years earlier as if he had known him personally; had this been so, the count would have had to be in his eighties, although he looked to be in his forties. He mentioned the elixir of life. … he seems so young. . . .

The key to the count’s words was vagueness. He always dropped his hints into a lively conversation, grace notes in an ongoing melody. Only later would people reflect on what he had said. After a while, people started to come to him, inquiring about the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, not realizing that it was he who had planted these ideas in their minds. Remember: to sow a seductive idea you must engage people’s imaginations, their fantasies, their deepest yearnings. What sets the wheels spinning is suggesting things that people already want to hear—the possibility of pleasure, wealth, health, adventure. In the end, these good things turn out to be precisely what you seem to offer them. They will come to you as if on their own, unaware that you insinuated the idea in their heads.


In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte decided it was critical for him to win the Russian Czar Alexander I to his side. He wanted two things out of the czar: a peace treaty in which they agreed to carve up Europe and the Middle East; and a marriage alliance, in which he would divorce his wife Josephine and marry into the czar’s family. Instead of proposing these things directly, Napoleon decided to seduce the czar. Using polite social encounters and friendly conversations as his battlefields, he went to work. An apparent slip of the tongue revealed that Josephine could not bear children; Napoleon quickly changed the subject. A comment here and there seemed to suggest a linking of the destinies of France and Russia. Just before they were to part one evening, he talked of his desire for children, sighed sadly, then excused himself for bed, leaving the czar to sleep on this. He escorted the czar to a play on the themes of glory, honor, and empire; now, in later conversations, he could disguise his insinuations under the cover of discussing the play. Within a few weeks, the czar was speaking to his ministers of a marriage alliance and a treaty with France as if they were his own ideas.

Slips of the tongue, apparently inadvertent “sleep on it” comments, alluring references, statements for which you quickly apologize—all of these have immense insinuating power. They get under people’s skin like a poison, and take on a life of their own. The key to succeeding with your insinuations is to make them when your targets are at their most relaxed or distracted, so that they are not aware of what is happening. Polite banter is often the perfect front for this; people are thinking about what they will say next, or are absorbed in their own thoughts. Your insinuations will barely register, which is how you want it.


In one of his early campaigns, John F. Kennedy addressed a group of veterans. Kennedy’s brave exploits during World War II—the PT-109 incident had made him a war hero—were known to all; but in the speech, he talked of the other men on the boat, never mentioning himself. He knew, however, that what he had done was on everyone’s mind, because in fact he had put it there. Not only did his silence on the subject make them think of it on their own, it made Kennedy seem humble and modest, qualities that go well with heroism. In seduction, as the French courtesan Ninon de l’Enclos advised, it is better not to talk about your love for a person. Let your target read it in your manner. Your silence on the subject will have more insinuating power than if you had addressed it directly.

Not only words insinuate; pay attention to gestures and looks. Madame Récamier’s favorite technique was to keep her words banal and the look in her eyes enticing. The flow of conversation would keep men from thinking too deeply about these occasional looks, but they would be haunted by them. Lord Byron had his famous “underlook”: while everyone was discussing some uninteresting subject, he would seem to hang his head, but then a young woman (the target) would see him glancing upward at her, his head still tilted. It was a look that seemed dangerous, challenging, but also ambiguous; many women were hooked by it. The face speaks its own language. We are used to trying to read people’s faces, which are often better indicators of their feelings than what they say, which is so easy to control. Since people are always reading your looks, use them to transmit the insinuating signals you choose.

Finally, the reason insinuation works so well is not just that it bypasses people’s natural resistance. It is also the language of pleasure. There is too little mystery in the world; too many people say exactly what they feel or want. We yearn for something enigmatic, for something to feed our fantasies. Because of the lack of suggestion and ambiguity in daily life, the person who uses them suddenly seems to have something alluring and full of promise. It is a kind of titillating game—what is this person up to? What does he or she mean? Hints, suggestions, and insinuations create a seductive atmosphere, signaling that their victim is no longer involved in the routines of daily life but has entered another realm.

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