[Article updated on 17 September 2017]
Insults can be physical, such as punching, slapping, or spitting. More usually, they are verbal, whether direct or indirect. Examples of indirect verbal insults are jokes and ironic comments, backhanded compliments, mimicry, and false fascination. Ocular and facial expressions can substitute for speech; and things like a cold or constant stare, a false or exaggerated smile, or a raised eyebrow can, depending on their intention, also count as indirect verbal insults.
All of the above involve actively doing something, and therefore count as insults of commission. But insults of omission are equally if not more common. Examples of insults of omission are not inviting or including someone, not deferring to her age or rank, and not responding to her friendly gestures, including basic eye contact.
So, what is the best way of dealing with all these insults?
This is the weakest possible response, and this for three main reasons. First, it shows that we take the insult, and therefore the insulter, seriously. Second, it suggests that there is truth in the insult. And third, it upsets and hurts us—which can invite further insults.
This may seem like a very weak response, but in many cases is actually the strongest response of all. When someone insults us, we ought to consider three things: whether the insult is true, who it came from, and why. If the insult is true or largely true, the person it came form is reasonable, and his motive is worthy, then the insult is not an insult but a statement of fact and, what’s more, one that is potentially very helpful to us. Thus, we seldom take offense at our teacher, parent, or best friend.
In general, if you respect the person who insulted you, you ought to give thought to the insult and learn as much as you can from it. On the other hand, if you think that the person who insulted you is unworthy of your consideration, you have no reason to take offense, just as you have no reason to take offense at a naughty child or barking dog. So whatever the case, you have no reason to take offense.
3. Returning the insult
There are several problems with the put-down, even if it is a very clever one. First, it does have to be clever, and, second, it has to occur to us at just the right moment. But even if we are as sharp as Oscar Wilde, a witty put-down is unlikely to be our best defence. The problem with the put-down, however witty it may be, is that it tends to equalize us with our insulter, raising him up to our level and bringing us down to his. This gives him and his insult far too much credibility. The witty put-down should only be used among friends, and only to add to the merriment. And it should be followed by something like a toast or a pat on the shoulder. In other words, it should only ever be used for humor.
Humor is an especially effective response for three reasons: it undermines the insult, it brings the audience (if any) on side, and it diffuses the tension of the situation. Here is an example of the effective use of humor. Cato the Younger, the Roman statesman and stoic philosopher, was pleading a case when his adversary Lentulus spat in his face. After wiping off the spittle, Cato said, ‘I will sweat to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth.’
Sometimes, it might even be appropriate to exaggerate or add to the insult so as to make a mockery of the insulter and, by extension, the insult: 'Ah, if only had known me better, you would have found greater fault still!'
5. Ignoring the insult
One downside of humor is that it requires quick thinking. In contrast, ignoring the insulting is easier and, in fact, more powerful. One day, a boor struck Cato while he was out at the public baths. When the boor realized that it was Cato whom he had struck, he came to apologize. Instead of getting angry or accepting his apology, Cato replied, ‘I don’t remember being struck.’ Subtext: ‘You are so insignificant that I don’t even care to register your apology, let alone take offense at your insult.’
In conclusion, we need never take offense at an insult. Offense exists not in the insult but in our reaction to it, and our reactions are completely within our control. It is unreasonable to expect a boor to be anything but a boor; if we take offense at his bad behaviour, we have only ourselves to blame.
Acknowledgement: The principal ideas and examples in this chapter are from A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.