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What is grey rocking? By Richard Godwin

Blog | By Richard Godwin | Apr 18, 2023


Grey rocking may sound like the kind of thing Neil Young does when he gets really into a guitar solo – but I’m afraid it isn’t as exciting as that.

It is, rather, a strategy for dealing with narcissists, attention-seekers and emotional abusers. Whatever they throw at you, you remain as calm as a grey rock – and soon they will crumble.

Let’s say the difficult person in your life announces over the phone that you are a terrible human being – and you ruined their life – and yes, they do intend to make a scene about it at Mark and Linda’s wedding – and no, they will not let this drop.

In response, you behave like an impassive grey rock. You don’t cry, shout, placate or reason. You are pleasant and polite. You say, ‘OK’, ‘Yup’ and ‘Could you put that in an email, please?’

The idea, one American therapist explains, is to deprive the narcissist of the one thing they crave, which is drama. ‘You’re this immovable, impenetrable force who is uninterested.’

The narcissist becomes confused, agitated and finally bored. You are then, hopefully, free to get on with your life. A friend of mine grey rocked her impossible ex-husband – and it can be used on all kinds of difficult people, from toxic bosses to maddening siblings to rotten, ungrateful children.

Grey rocking is part of an ever-widening lexicon of 21st-century interpersonal relations, usually dealing with ‘narcissistic abuse’. ‘Red flags’ that you should watch out for include ‘breadcrumbing’. That’s when someone leads you on with manipulative intent by giving you tiny crumbs of affection before suddenly ‘love bombing’ you with extravagant, disorienting promises of undying dedication.

This is often followed up by ‘ghosting’ (the sudden withdrawal of communication) or ‘gaslighting’ – when someone convinces you that you are going mad. The term ‘gaslighting’ originated in the 1938 psychological thriller Gaslight (pictured) by Patrick Hamilton and is now common currency among under-40s.

It shouldn’t be so surprising that these terms are proliferating. We live in a Golden Age of the Narcissist. Such people were previously confined to families and workplaces. Now they have dating apps and social media to prey on.

Grey rocking gives the non-narcissist a means to hit back and a rationale for doing so. It’s the non-digital equivalent of the ‘mute’ button. But it too is prone to abuse. Is someone in your life repeatedly averting conflict with ‘Mmm,’ ‘Yes’ and ‘That’s nice, dear!’?

Watch out – you’ve been grey-rocked!

Richard Godwin