How to spot a professional pick-up artist

Lianzi Fields
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Flirting at the bar
Photography: Getty Images.

Would you know if you were being picked-up by a professional?

Movie buffs might recall Will Smith's character Alex 'Hitch' Hitchens in the 2005 romantic comedy Hitch, a 'date doctor' whose job it is to help men land dates with the opposite sex. But if you thought the concept of professional pick-up artists was limited to cheesy Hollywood films, you'd be wrong.

Melbourne-based Alex Nova has more in common with Will Smith's character in Hitch than just a first name. He too is a pick-up guru who helps dateless men detangle the thorny tendrils of shyness, awkwardness, and dread that so often choke them on the dating scene.

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Whether they're the one perpetually placed in the 'just friends' bucket or a divorcee getting back into the game, Nova's job is to make these men feel important using a series of tips and techniques first popularised in the 2005 dating bible The Game, and developed by himself and others in the Pick-up Artist (PUA) Community.

"People seem to think confidence materialises out of thin air and every guy should know this sort of thing, but that's nonsense &3151; a lot of guys are clueless," Nova says.

Nova claims his business was "one of the first to bring it all to Australia" after he and childhood friend Max Steine, launched attractwomen in 2006.

After that, Nova began training more coaches to lead workshops around the country, eventually branching further afield to Auckland, New York, Los Angeles, and London.

These days he charges nearly $1,000 per client for two five-hour sessions over a weekend.

After expressing my curiosity in the process, Nova agreed to let me observe a private session run by his "leading Sydney coach", Matt Hedberg. Let the picking-up begin!

'Sarging' with the PUAs

The workshop starts in the lobby of a well-known CBD hotel, where Hedberg runs the client through pick-up theory and ascertains his individual needs and motivations (it's worth noting at this point that the client, who did not want to be named, appears relatively normal, with no discernible female-repelling afflictions). We then move on to target practice in the 'live environment' at a bar crawling with the well-heeled after-five crowd, where Hedberg regularly takes his students to 'sarge' – a term PUA's use to denote the act of picking-up girls.

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On entering the bar, Hedberg immediately approaches a set of four women (the target female and three of her friends) who seemed rapt with attention within a matter of seconds. Typically, the coaches demonstrate a few 'approaches' before letting clients loose to practise their own newly-acquired technique. Unfortunately for the client, the first target he approached was already spoken for — a hazard of the game, although some PUAs would merely see this as an added challenge.

Creepy or acceptable?

For those oblivious or uninitiated in the ways of the PUA community, this could all seem quite intimidating: for women, the thought that there may be men hunting in packs at their local every week, or for men the risk of competitors plundering their stomping ground with an unfair advantage. But we seek a competitive edge in every aspect of our lives, from business to sports, and even shopping at sales. Why then does the idea of sharpening one's social skills seem so sinister?

I spoke to a woman who had been approached by Hedberg earlier in the night, as she was leaving. The 24-year-old event promoter had no idea that she had just met a professional PUA.

"He seemed like a normal guy. Didn't say anything out of the ordinary, but that's still pretty creepy," she said. "I'm totally creeped out right now."

How to pick a professional pick-up artist

Moral issues aside, it may be handy to know some of the warning signals of a PUA, so you can recognise the difference between a pick-up artist and a regular guy trying his luck at a bar. A few tell-tale signs include:

  • Peacocking: PUAs often wear bright colours or 'loud' outfits to gain attention, and to use as a conversation starter.

  • Hunting in packs: If you are talking to a guy, and his 'friend' keeps coming up and whispering orders/instructions in his ear, it could be a sign he's being guided by a PUA.

  • Negs: A type of reverse-psychology comment intended to demonstrate a lack of interest in the target – part of the "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" method.

  • Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP): A type of 'waking hypnosis', using words and gestures to influence a person on a subconscious level. If you see a guy making strange gestures with his hands while he's talking to you, it could be a sign he's issuing some subversive signals.

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    So would you do it?

    Nova truly believes he is doing the community a service. After all, we have doctors to cure physical illness, why can't we have some that treat social ills?

    The truth is, everyone aims to put their best foot forward, especially when it comes to dating and relationships. As long as these parameters are established and everyone is in agreement with the terms, some light fibbing can't hurt, can it?

    Later, when I pressed Hedberg's target on what his opening line to her had been, she hesitated before admitting.

    "He looked at you and asked me 'What do you do when someone really, really likes you, and you want to let them down gently?'"

    No one is safe from the game.

    PUA terminology:

    Sarge. verb. To go out with the aim of picking-up women.

    Target. noun. The woman in a group (or 'set') who is the object of the pick-up artist's game.

    Opener. noun. A way of starting conversation with a stranger or group. This can be in the form of a question, story or remark that is either spontaneous or part of a well-rehearsed script.

    Pivot.noun. Also: wingwoman. A female consort who can serve to facilitate openers and boost the target's image of the pick-up artist through adulation, demonstrating his social credibility, or inciting jealousy.

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