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How to Deal With Insults and Put-Downs

Timeless advice on dealing with insults.

Key points

  • There's no reason to take someone who gives an insult any more seriously than a naughty child or barking dog.
  • Humor can undercut an insult but needs to be well-timed and well-delivered.
  • Ignoring an insult can be powerful, but in some cases, it may be necessary to have a firm word with the insulting person to establish boundaries.

[Article revised on 27 April 2020.]

Source: Pixabay

Insults and put-downs can damage our prospects and happiness by undermining our self-confidence and self-esteem. Even casual denigration (so-called microaggressions) can, over time, lead to feelings of isolation, alienation, anger, anxiety, and depression.

Insults can be physical, such as punching, slapping, or spitting. But more usually, they are verbal, whether direct or indirect. Examples of indirect verbal insults are jokes, ironic comments, backhanded compliments, mimicry, and false fascination.

Facial expressions can substitute for speech, and things like a cold or constant stare, a false or exaggerated smile, or a raised eyebrow, depending on their intention, can also count as indirect verbal insults.

All of the above involve some kind of positive action 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 their age or rank, and not responding to their friendly openings, including basic eye contact. Xenophobia, I have found, is when you smile at people and they don’t smile back.

So, what’s the best way of dealing with all these different kinds of insults and injuries?

Consider these six possible responses, and then we’ll go through each one in turn.

  1. Anger
  2. Acceptance
  3. Returning the insult
  4. Humor
  5. Ignoring the insult
  6. Rebuking the insulter

1. Anger

Anger is a weak response, and this is for three main reasons:

  • It shows that we take the insult, and therefore the insulter, seriously.
  • It suggests that there may be some truth in the insult.
  • It upsets and destabilizes us, which, apart from being unpleasant, can invite further insults.

2. Acceptance

Acceptance may seem weak but can be the strongest response of all. Hear me out. 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 from is reasonable, and his or her motive is worthy, then the insult is not an insult but a statement of fact, and, moreover, one that could be very helpful to us. Hence, we seldom take offence at our parents, teachers, or friends, who, by telling us the truth, are trying to help rather than hinder or harm us.

More generally, if you respect the person who has insulted you, you ought, instead of getting angry or upset, 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 offence, just as you have no reason to take offence at a naughty child or a barking dog.

So, whatever the case, you have no reason to take offence.

3. Returning the insult

There are a number of issues with returning the insult. First, your riposte has to be clever and cutting, or at least apt; and, second, it has to occur to you at just the right time. L’esprit de l’escalier or Treppenwitz ["staircase wit"] refers to the common experience of thinking too late of the perfect put-down. But even if we are as quick-witted as Oscar Wilde, the perfect put-down is seldom the best response.

The fundamental problem with the put-down, however brilliant it may be, is that it equalizes us with our insulters, bringing them up to our level and us down to theirs. This gives them, their behaviour, and their insult far too much legitimacy. Returning the insult also risks injuring the insulter (who, in all probability, is fairly fragile) and inviting further attacks.

The witty put-down does have a place, but only among friends, and only to add to the merriment. And it ought to be followed by a token of reconciliation such as a toast or a pat on the shoulder. In other words, the witty put-down should only ever be used for humor, when it is also at its most effective.

4. 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 swear to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth."

George Bernard Shaw, it is said, once invited Winston Churchill to his new play. The invitation read: "I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend—if you have one." Churchill replied: "Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second—if there is one."

Here’s a third example, just for the fun: The American actress Ilka Chase wrote a number of novels. One day, an anonymous actress told her: "I enjoyed reading your book. Who wrote it for you?" To which Chase replied: "Darling, I’m so glad that you liked it. Who read it to you?"

Humor, if successful, can be an especially effective response, for three main reasons:

  • It undercuts the insulter and his or her insult.
  • It brings any third parties on side.
  • It diffuses the tension of the situation.

A similar strategy is to go with the insult and even add to it, for example: "Ah, if you knew me better, you would find greater fault still!" This makes a mockery of the insult and, by extension, of the insulter.

In Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac, the Viscount de Valvert seeks to insult Cyrano by telling him that his nose is "very big." Cyrano responds, "Very! … Is that all?" "Ah no! young blade! That was a trifle short! You might have said at least a hundred things by varying the tone…" Cyrano then improvises a long list of more imaginative insults, including, "Sir, if I had such a nose I’d amputate it!" and "Be careful when you bow your head or you might lose your balance and fall over." According to the stage directions, Valvert is left "choking with rage."

5. Ignoring the insult

Humor, unfortunately, has some of the same downsides as returning the insult: Your reply has to be funny, and it has to be well-timed and well-delivered. Ignoring the insult is much 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 to me that I don’t even care to register your apology, let alone take offence at your insult."

6. Rebuking the insulter

Ignoring the insult works well with strangers but may not be a sensible or viable strategy when it comes to people with whom we have an ongoing personal or professional relationship. In such cases, it may be preferable to "have a quiet word" (quiet, but firm) in a bid to reassert our boundaries.

Let me explain. To create a healthy sense of personal or professional space, we tend to set certain physical and psychological boundaries. It is vital to be clear about where these boundaries lie, and, like with puppy training, to reassert them each and every time they are crossed. This can require a lot of effort, and sometimes courage too, but, if done from the beginning, is usually very effective, and very quickly so.

In closing, we need never take offence at an insult. Offence 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 offence at his bad behaviour, we have only ourselves to blame.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

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