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An Old Diagnosis: The Common Scold

Setting everyone straight.

Usually, most of us have a pretty good idea of what motivates the people around us. We see them behaving in a certain way, and we think we understand them. A neighbor, for instance, might be motivated by selfishness when he enters into a quarrel with someone who was picking cherries off his cherry tree. A young girl puts on makeup because she wishes to become more attractive. A man runs to a doctor when he wheezes because he thinks he has something seriously wrong with him. A woman chooses to give a big party because she wants to be liked. Her husband drives an expensive car because he wants others to know that he is a success.

Maybe each of these behaviors is somewhat more complicated. One can pick a fight over a little thing like a neighbor picking a few cherries off his tree when he is motivated really by less obvious concerns. Pride or resentment or even fear of some sort, such as fear of being exploited, may overlap and underlie an argument about cherries. Still, each of us, if asked, could probably give some more or less simple explanation for why people do what they do. Revenge, hatred, love, ambition, and so on.

But there is a common, not very remarkable, behavior that has always struck me as opaque. A woman or, perhaps less commonly, a man sets out to tell neighbors and others precisely what they are doing wrong. They scold strangers because of the way they are supervising their children. They tell a young man who is lounging on a street corner to tuck in his shirt. Maybe they write letters to the newspaper complaining about the younger generation.

When I ask such a person why he or she goes to the trouble of correcting strangers, they tell me they are just standing up for what is right—whatever that means. You ought to tuck your shirt in is a statement of the way the universe is ordered—if it is ordered properly. If everyone behaved properly, everyone would be better off.

But why is that their responsibility? Although the diagnosis “common scold” does not appear in the diagnostic and statistical manual of psychiatry, the British would have recognized the type. Going back to the 16th century, a woman who made a pest of herself by badgering and scolding her neighbors could be adjudicated a “common scold” and punished with a fine or by ducking in a river while confined in a chair that was built especially for that purpose. There were repeat offenders.

The offense of being a common scold became part of common law and traveled to this country when our nation was founded. The punishment has changed, though. The patients I know who set out to tell everyone off are scorned and laughed at by everyone around them. That is their punishment. For that reason, they may become further disgruntled and depressed, which is how I come to know them. Usually, though, they come to treatment for other reasons. They may be unhappy, but they are content that they are in the right, and they are willing to put up with the consequences of letting everyone else know exactly how they feel. But why?

Here are some examples of such a person:

A man sends an anonymous letter to a neighbor complaining about her dressing “inappropriately” when she is sunbathing on her front lawn.

A man sees that someone has parked his car in a public parking lot at an angle, overlapping an adjacent parking slot. He writes a complaining note and puts it under the windshield wipers of the other car. He does this despite the fact that the parking lot is mostly empty and, in any case, is not a parking lot that he ever uses personally.

A middle-aged woman tells an adolescent standing next to her on a street corner that he is playing music too loud. The young man responds with a vulgarity. On another occasion, at another street corner, she reprimands someone else for stepping off the curb before the light has changed.

A major in the army sees that some children are playing on the army post without being supervised properly, in his opinion. He lectures their parent, a sergeant, who disregards the difference in rank between them and tells him to “mind his ….. business.”

One woman is so persistent at haranguing others at a town meeting that she is asked eventually to leave. She has been lecturing them on the noise of barking dogs in her neighborhood, although the meeting has to do with the school budget.

I recognize that there are others not known to me personally who are busy writing critical commentaries on blogs or on chat rooms. There are a host of people out there somewhere who are discontented with the way others are talking or dressing, or in other ways behaving unsuitably, and they are going to set them straight. Why? I don’t know why.

These are the elements of their disorder:

  1. The common scolds are certain they are right and that the other person they have fixed upon is wrong. The offensive behavior they complain about might well seem insignificant, or invisible, to everyone else.
  2. They are angry for some reason not immediately apparent.
  3. They seem to have little at stake themselves in the bad behavior of the other person. They, themselves, are not being injured.
  4. The scolding behavior is chronic. They find a reason to complain about most people.
  5. They do not seem to realize that their behavior is offensive and that their advice is likely to be ignored. They feel they are standing up for justice, even though others will not, even when they are vilified and ridiculed as the result.

In my limited experience, the common scold may be less likely to be married than others of the same age. They have fewer friends—for obvious reasons. Otherwise, I have not noticed anything distinctive about them or about their lives. They seem otherwise ordinary to me. I guess they are simply one more example of the endless variety of human beings. They survive stubbornly despite the ill will of most of the people they know.

(c) Fredric Neuman