Have you ever experienced abuse where only you were the one who knew it was abuse? You may have experienced “dog whistling,” a covert form of abuse that is intended to strategically disorient the victim while escaping accountability. A “dog whistle” is a distinct, high-pitched whistle that is audible to dogs but not to humans. Similarly, in politics, “dog whistling” is a term used to describe coded language or subtle signals that relay something seemingly innocuous to most people but has a specific, usually controversial underlying message. This message is directed at a subgroup of people to garner support from that specific group. In politics, dog whistling is often used when the message is too distasteful to explicitly communicate to the general population – therefore it is only “audible” or understandable to the targeted audience it is intended to influence.
In the context of abusive relationships, dog whistling can be used to target and terrorize the victim. Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals can use insidious and diverse forms of dog whistling to covertly manipulate and belittle their victims while escaping consequences, accountability and judgment from others. Narcissists and psychopaths can use abusive “dog whistles” in public to subtly degrade and threaten you in front of others, to compare you to others, or even use it in one-on-one conversations with you where the intention is to gaslight, taunt, mock and slander you should you try to call them out for their behavior. Here are some common ways they may use “dog whistling” to covertly abuse you: 1) Degrading you in front of others to underhandedly humiliate you. 2) Dishing out covert threats. 3) Covertly abusing, retraumatizing and gaslighting you one-on-one by making references to your past traumas, wounds and triggers. 4) Making subtle degrading comparisons and inducing jealousy and 5) Provoking you through social media. Below, you will find in-depth explanations and examples of each tactic.
1. Dog whistling to degrade you in front of others and underhandedly humiliate you. Narcissistic and psychopathic individuals derive a special kind of glee from being able to belittle you in front of an audience without being held responsible. In research, this form of sadistic glee in deceiving others is known as duping delight and it is associated with psychopathic traits. When a narcissist or psychopath uses dog whistling in front of others, they may do so by using a specific phrase or reference that unsettles you in public because you know its hidden meaning, whereas other people around you don’t. If you try to confront the narcissist about this abuse in public, they will be able to depict you as “unhinged” and “crazy” because such a reference looks innocent and well-meaning to others. This gives them pleasure in being able to get away with abusing you without consequences.
For example, a wife who frequently receives hypercritical, abusive, and controlling comments about her weight from her husband at home may receive a “coded message” or dog whistle from her husband at a dinner party. In front of other guests, her husband may “jokingly” and “playfully” comment on how much she enjoys cake, while allowing for laughter at her expense. Although this may seem like an innocent joke to outsiders, the wife experiences this comment as a continuation of his abuse at home, and she is also able to readily identify the smug, contemptuous glance her husband gives her when he says it. Only she understands the “dog whistle.” However, if she calls this abuse out in front of other guests, she will be labeled as “oversensitive” by her husband, who will likely don a shocked display of faux innocence to convince others around him that he is being falsely accused – and to depict his wife as “crazy.”
2) Dog whistling to dish out covert threats. Covert degradation and dog whistling can also come in the form of threats and foreshadowing of abuse to come. The dog whistle in these scenarios work to condition the victim’s behavior and train them to walk on eggshells around the abuser. For example, a narcissistic father who abuses his children may mention a triggering topic for his children at a family event. Perhaps he “lovingly” tells his son that his hair is messy in a seemingly concerned voice in front of other family members, raising alarm bells for the son who has recently been hit by his father for not brushing his hair correctly. The son is then compelled to fix his unkempt hair anxiously in an effort to avoid punishment. Or, an abused wife is having dinner with her husband and their friends when her husband remarks on a recent news story about a wife who was murdered trying to leave her husband. He may fake a distressed tone when relaying this story yet give a suggestive glance at his horrified wife as he tells it. This is a dog whistling threat to keep her silent and compliant, in case she’s getting any ideas of leaving him. The dog whistle message is clear to the victim and disguised to the public: obey me or face the consequences.
3) Dog whistling to covertly abuse, gaslight and retraumatize you one-on-one by using references to your triggers, wounds, insecurities and past traumas. In a relationship with a narcissist or psychopath, dog whistling doesn’t always have to take place immediately in front of others. Manipulators can also use coded language to get you to react to their chronic abuse behind closed doors – only to later use your reactions against you, both within the relationship as well as in smear campaigns to others. For example, if a narcissist or psychopath knows you are sensitive about certain topics or get triggered by specific subjects, they will deliberately go out of their way to subtly reference those topics to wound, trigger and retraumatize you. They will use anything you have disclosed to them against you. Then, they will use your reactions to their chronic abuse as “evidence” that you are unstable and lack credibility, especially if you try to hold them accountable in the future.
Let’s say an abuser is aware of a certain trauma you have experienced (such as being bullied, stalked, or sexually assaulted). You have already communicated to them that this is an event that traumatized you severely, and you prefer not to talk about it. The narcissistic or psychopathic abuser may then start to go out of their way to start repeatedly making subtle “dog whistling” comments about this triggering subject in passing (e.g. “I don’t know if I trust the legal system. You know, it’s crazy how people make false accusations these days,” or “I heard about our neighbor’s kid being teased by little Johnny. If I were ever bullied, I’d stand up for myself”). Or, if you told them about a certain trigger from your traumas – such as the smell of a certain cologne that a predator wore, or a specific location you were stalked, they will start incorporating references to these specific triggers in daily conversation (e.g. “You know, I think I am going to start wearing this new cologne. Have you heard of it?” or “I think I am going to visit that mall near the highway today, do you want something?”). Or, perhaps you’ve disclosed an insecurity you developed after bullying, such as a facial feature, an insecurity they suddenly begin to poke at (e.g. “Did you see that character on the show I watched? People with big eyes scare me sometimes”). If you question them about these off-color comments or remind them this is a trigger for you, the narcissistic or psychopathic abuser may pretend these were “innocent” and “accidental” remarks that were meaningless, coincidental, said out of forgetfulness or in reference to something entirely different when you question them.
Yet these comments take place so often and conveniently occur only after you reveal your specific traumas and triggers to the narcissist or psychopath that you realize they are in fact dog whistles deliberately weaponized to rub salt on these wounds. Since narcissists and psychopaths can also disguise these comments as references to different people and events outside of your experiences, you are gaslit to doubt yourself and your perceptions – even though nonverbal gestures such as a smirk of duping delight or the alarming frequency of these comments despite your numerous protests gives you clues to their true intent. When you begin to react to these repeated comments over time, the narcissist or psychopath will then label you as insecure and as reading too much into things. This is a way to effectively gaslight you about a boundary that they have violated knowingly and repeatedly – a boundary that you have already communicated to them many times.
4. Dog whistling remarks to create subtle degrading comparisons and to induce jealousy. Research tells us that jealousy induction is associated with narcissistic and psychopathic traits, especially jealousy induction for the purpose of power and control. Dog whistles can be “useful” to a narcissist who enjoys provoking jealousy and instilling insecurities in their victims. A narcissist may covertly reference an external or internal quality, achievement, or ability that someone else has in order to point out a perceived flaw or shortcoming in you. This is used to better control you and get you to compete for them. It’s important to note that this does not mean you actually have this flaw or shortcoming or that their criticism is in any way valid, as narcissistic individuals tend to distort the traits of their victims to manipulate them. Rather, such dog whistles are weaponized to ensure that you are continually vying for their approval and more malleable to the narcissist’s demands.
- Example: At a wedding, a narcissistic boyfriend might make a speech about how lucky the bride and groom are to have found one another. He may then make a “joking” dog whistling comment about how difficult it is to find a woman who can cook while praising the bride, knowing all too well that his girlfriend in the audience does not cook and will be startled and disoriented by such a comment. This dog whistling comment is also designed to make her feel insecure, lacking and remind her of his past criticisms of her not being “domestic” enough. Or, perhaps a narcissistic boyfriend frequently uses jealousy induction in even more underhanded ways to manufacture love triangles and provoke you into competing for him. He may have brought up how he loved a certain restaurant he took his ex to for date nights, or praised a certain attribute of their ex’s, like their hair color. On a romantic night out on your anniversary, your narcissistic abuser may ruin this special occasion by mentioning that restaurant or reference that attribute out of the blue, knowing it will destabilize you, taint your night with them and cause you to react.
This narcissistic boyfriend may also call your attention to someone else who has that same attribute as that ex they always mention (e.g. “You notice that other waitress? I wonder if she’ll be serving us too,” knowing you will turn to look at this waitress, recognize the same attribute in her, and be triggered). These types of covert comments can be so underhanded that they may be more difficult to discern and identify as dog whistling. They can make you second-guess yourself and wonder what the narcissist’s intent really was. This type of dog-whistling can be so insidious that victims feel guilty even addressing it and usually fear they could be misinterpreting a coincidental or thoughtless remark. However, if such “coincidences” happen frequently and in alignment with the narcissist’s other provocative references, you can be sure you are experiencing a pattern of manipulative behavior.
- Example: A narcissistic wife may continually criticize her husband for his job and educational background, even though he works hard to provide for his family and is successful in his own right. In front of her friends, she may start to brag about her coworker and his latest business venture, making comments about how his degree and the industry he works in are superior while passing knowing glances at her husband. The degree and industry she mentions, however, are the exact ones her husband stopped pursuing in order to get a more stable job to provide for her and his children – the same job she always criticizes him for. This form of degradation and jealousy inducing dog whistle is only offensive and humiliating to the husband and passes the notice of onlookers who only perceives a wife praising her coworker. Her husband feels belittled the implication that giving up his pursuit of this degree and career was a mistake. He also feels jealous and frustrated that his wife is praising her coworker instead of him – even though he is the one who has made these sacrifices for her and their children. Similar comparisons can also occur frequently in the workplace when there are narcissistic or psychopathic bosses and co-workers looking to manipulate their employees and pit them against one another for more power and control.
- Example: This form of degrading comparison can also happen in friendship circles. A narcissistic person may use dog whistle comments to alienate and degrade someone in their group of friends. They can make dog whistling comments referencing a scapegoated person that indirectly compares them to others in this friendship group. In these scenarios, the narcissist in question is usually operating from pathological envy or projection and seeks to use dog whistles to put down those who threaten them in some way. For example, Rebecca, who works in finance, might comment in front of her friends how people with PhDs are arrogant and non-academic jobs are superior, knowing full well that her friend Libby is pursuing such a degree and will pick up on this covert insult. Or, Stacy, who is ironically in a miserable relationship herself, might remark something like, “It’s so great we are all in a relationship. It must be so hard to be single these days” while pointedly looking at Dana, the only one not in a relationship in the friendship group. These types of dog whistles are used to make the target feel “less than” and different from the rest of the group and cause them to compare themselves to others in the group, even if the quality or trait that is pointed out is a positive one.
5) Dog whistling tactics to provoke you through social media. Abusers can also employ social media and text messages to employ dog-whistling in even more covert ways. As research indicates, those with psychopathic tendencies take a special sadism in online trolling behaviors. Since some people believe social media is a space that is “exempt” from the rules of human decency and respect, it is easy for the narcissist or psychopath to provoke and troll you with dog whistling references while escaping consequences for their behavior. Social media is a narcissist’s playground, as they have various tools and larger audiences they can play with at their disposal to provoke you and can easily use the excuse of, “It’s just social media!” to gaslight you and invalidate your emotions while garnering support from others that you are “overreacting.”
There are many ways social media can be used for dog whistling. For example, narcissists and psychopaths can use stories and posts on their own social media feeds to covertly reference aspects of your relationship in a negative light or project their own qualities onto their victims. For example, a narcissist may post a dog whistling “inspirational quote” referencing how it takes time to build trust in a relationship, conveniently after a night of hammering you with false, paranoid accusations about cheating. These are more direct dog whistles that are meant to publicly humiliate you in front of mutual friends and family members, even if they are the ones who have a history of engaging in the same deceptive behavior they project onto their victims. Or, post-breakup, a narcissist may start playing the victim by posting frequent references to incompatibility and betrayal. Or, they may flaunt their latest victim while writing dramatic captions about how they’ve “never been loved like this before,” an underhanded comment aimed at you. These dog whistle comments are meant to unsettle and blame you even though the abuser is fully aware of how they treated you.
Narcissists and psychopaths can also dog whistle by sending you what they claim are “innocent” pictures, videos, memes or social media captions that they know will trigger or diminish you in specific ways. For example, a narcissist who loves provoking jealousy may send you videos that conveniently contain scantily clad members of the opposite sex. They can also exploit the “like,” “follow,” and “comment” functions on social media to violate your boundaries on a daily basis without being held accountable. For example, if one day you express to your abuser that one of your boundaries is that you don’t want your partner to follow sexually lewd accounts or misogynistic meme accounts, you may wake up the next morning to see them following dozens of inappropriate accounts – directly violating your boundary and covertly taunting you. Or, if you have told them that you get triggered by content that mocks crime victims or minorities, they may send you a heinous meme taunting that exact demographic shortly after, under the guise that “it was just a joke.” This form of dog whistling can be more challenging to address because of the widespread social acceptance of provocative and inappropriate behavior online. However, that does not mean that you as an individual have to accept any behavior that goes against your core values or belittles you – whether online or in-person.
The Big Picture: If you are experiencing dog whistling of any kind or any form of covert bullying, you are not alone and you are not crazy. It can help to write down the experiences you had that you suspect were covert “dog whistling” incidents to ground yourself in the reality of the narcissist’s or psychopath’s long-term manipulation of you. Identifying a pattern of dog-whistling remarks or behavior can be one of the first steps you can take in resisting the gaslighting of the abuser and taking the steps to safely exit the abusive relationship. You never deserve to be abused – whether overtly or covertly.