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Verbal Self-Defense

Identifying verbal attacks and responding effectively.

A book by the innovative linguist and fiction writer Suzette Haden Elgin first published nearly half a century ago still has great value today. Elgin’s creative work teaches how to identify and respond to verbal attacks.

Elgin’s most important work of nonfiction, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense, offers original and useful ideas on how to recognize and counteract hidden insults, innuendo, and the questioning of one’s character.

A verbal attack is often not recognizable unless people are trained to see it. Typically, we don’t feel good after we’ve been attacked, but we are also unable to specify why we don’t feel good. If we feel bad after talking to a particular person and we can’t figure out why, chances are we’ve been verbally attacked.

The major construct in Elgin’s model is the presupposition. Presuppositions are assumptions that we commonly make to speak or understand the meaning of a sentence. For example, suppose someone asks, “Why did you stop exercising?” That question presupposes that 1) we exercised in the past and 2) we’re not in shape.

Presuppositions don’t need to be insulting. They are simply unstated and necessary ideas for understanding what has been said. For example, the statement “Sean kept his promise” presupposes that Sean made a promise.

Elgin gives a general definition of a presupposition: Something you know is part of the meaning of the sentence, even though it’s not directly stated. The statement “Even you could follow that recipe” presupposes that the recipe is easy and that you are not a very good cook. These two presuppositions can be inserted in the statement, although doing so would make it wordy and take the sting away from the mild insult about your cooking. “Even you—and you’re not a very good cook—could follow that recipe because it’s so easy.”

Most people do not realize that verbal violence is being used against them because they have not been explicitly taught about presuppositions. The overriding principle is this. Respond to the presupposition, not to the sentence it is hidden in.

In linguistic theory, the presupposition is in the deep structure of the sentence —the level of ideas. The words actually stated are in the surface structure. To identify the presuppositions, we need to go under the surface structure and down to the deep structure.

Two steps are involved: identify the presuppositions and respond with a neutral request or a remark about the presuppositions. Consider the following example. “If you really wanted to lose weight, you wouldn’t eat two desserts every night.” The underlying attack in this sentence is in the unstated presupposition: You really don’t want to lose weight. The main attack is not on your weight but on your motivation and character. One response would be, “What makes you think I don’t want to lose weight?”

“If you really wanted a good relationship, you wouldn’t keep going out with that guy.” Similarly, the main attack in this sentence is in the unstated presupposition: You really don’t want a good relationship. The response should then focus on why the accuser thinks you don’t want a good relationship.

Elgin presents the more complex sentence that begins with “Don’t you even care about...”

Don’t you even care about your children? Don’t you even care about your appearance?

A large assortment of phrases can follow the opening question, “Don’t you even care about,” such as “your health,” “your education,” “your friends,” “the minimum wage,” “global climate change.”

The same three presuppositions apply to each of these subjects: 1) you don’t care, 2) you should care, and 3) therefore you should feel bad about yourself. Maybe you do want to become more active in helping to solve economic inequities or environmental problems, but the presuppositions are still damaging.

The “Don’t you even care about” question can be addressed personally or behaviorally. You could simply say “No” when the answer is obviously “Yes,” thereby pointing out the wrongness of the question. That works with someone, once. The next time, that person will be prepared. Or you could launch into a long, caring discussion, showing with your knowledge and your devoted time that you really do care.

Or you could take the linguistic approach of Elgin. Identify the presupposition and make a remark or neutral request about this presupposition. For example, if someone asks, “Don’t you even care about your education?” you could respond, “When did you first start thinking I had no interest in my education?”

That’s a good start, but when the conversation continues, keep questioning the presuppositions and not the sentence they are hidden in. Follow through, focusing on the deep structure of the sentence, and not the surface structure. Consider the following straightforward example between a supervisor and a team leader, Marie.

Supervisor: Don’t you even care that you’re barely making your sales quota? By not excelling above your individual goal, you’re not only setting a bad example, but you’re also not helping the younger members of your team.

Marie: Jonathan and Sarah are making even fewer sales than I am. Why don’t you talk to them?

Supervisor: Because I’m not their supervisor. I’m yours.

Marie: Well, it’s not consistent and it’s not fair. Besides the sales goals are unrealistic.

This is a counterproductive approach. By attacking two other team leaders, Marie accepts the three presuppositions of “Don’t you even care?”

Here is a different approach.

Supervisor: Don’t you even care that you’re barely making your sales quota? By not excelling above your individual goal, you’re not only setting a bad example, but you’re also not helping the younger members of your team.

Marie: You’ve been my supervisor for two years now. When did you first start thinking that I was indifferent to my own performance and the well-being of my team?

Supervisor: After the fifth time I told you to get your sales up. I said that you were not only hurting your own standing with the company but jeopardizing everyone you’re in charge of.

Marie: A supervisor should know better than that. What makes you think that the markets will change and sales will increase simply by scolding me?

This is verbal judo, not karate. Instead of landing blows against an opponent, as karate does, this approach uses the other person’s momentum to defend yourself. Instead of attacking back or retreating with excuses, verbal judo takes what the accuser says to expose the unreasonableness of the presuppositions.