Practically all of us have been the subject of insulting comments and it is even probable that on some occasion we have insulted someone. In fact, the custom of insulting is universal and transversal to all cultures.
However, insults are the lowest form of expressing a disagreement. They do not contain rationality or argument, but rather slam the door on understanding and end any possibility of dialogue. Insulting is both the expression of an inability to maintain self-control and the absence of valid reasons with which to dismantle the other’s speech. That is why Diogenes said that “An insult dishonors the one who utters it, not the one who receives it.”
Why do we insult?
Generally we insult convinced that the fault lies with the other. It is the other who does things wrong, provokes or disappoints us. For some reason, the situation makes us angry and we react by insulting the person we consider guilty of making us feel those unpleasant emotions.
Often, insults are also the result of a perceived threat. When we believe that a person threatens or frustrates our plans, we respond by insulting him or her. In fact, insulting a person is a relatively common response when we believe that he or she has violated the social norms and values with which we identify.
In any case, the insult is a maladaptive way of regulating our emotions. It helps us release tension and physiological activation produced by anger and frustration. The insult is a primary reaction, a quick and easy way of venting. That means the more angry we are, the more offensive the insult will be.
In addition, insults are not only an outlet for emotions, but they also serve as justification. Insulting a person means giving the fault to him or her, whether he or she has it or not. It is pointing the accusatory finger at someone who, supposedly, is responsible for our discomfort and the generated situation. Therefore, insults are also a way of escaping from our responsibilities.
The most common types of insults
Researchers at the University of Michigan analyzed “highly evaluative” personalities, those people who tend to judge the others and themselves in a rigid way. This is how they discovered what were the most common types of insults they used:
1. Uselessness. Many everyday insults focus precisely on highlighting the worthlessness of the person. Its goal is to undermine his worth by making him feel worthless, incapable, or insignificant. This is to detract from the value and merit of the insulted person.
2. Stupidity. Since intelligence is a very precious value in most cultures, it is not surprising that many insults focus on this characteristic. Labeling a person as stupid, dumb, or ignorant is an attempt to devalue his or her ideas and erase them intellectually.
3. Moral depravity. All cultures have a set of shared values and social conventions. People who break the rules are at risk of social exclusion because they are seen as putting at risk the status quo. For this reason, many insults are directed at behaviors considered deplorable, shameful or unacceptable.
4. Peculiarity. Another type of insult focuses on the most peculiar characteristics of people, mainly those that are perceived as too far from the norm and that generate a feeling of discomfort. In that case, an attempt is to make look the person as the “black sheep”, which does not deserve attention or respect for being different.
What should know people who insult?
Insults are abuse. Insulting your partner is abuse. Insulting a child, a co-worker, a friend, parents or even that person we do not know at all on the Internet is also abuse. It is aggressiveness. Disrespect. Empathy deficit. And, above all, it is a sign of incredible intellectual poverty.
In fact, the insult says more about the person who insults than about the person who is insulted. It says that this person is not able to control himself. That has no convincing arguments with which to refute the other’s ideas. That his cognitive rigidity prevents him from talking. That his insecurity is so great that feels the need to insult. And that he’s not able to deal with the discomfort generated by what is different.
The person who insults must also understand that asking for forgiveness does not solve much. When insults becomes a habit, they can end up causing a lot of harm to the others. In fact, a study conducted at Illinois State University found that even the most subtle insults affect our cognitive performance.
Therefore, if a person is repeatedly insulted, these will have a negative effect. Those wounds to the intellect and self-esteem are not so easy to heal and are certainly not resolved by asking for forgiveness.
Instead, people of easy insult must learn to disagree without attacking. To live with the differences and listening to the other. Thinking before speaking so as not to enter the dynamics of frustration and insults. They must understand that things are not only as they see them and that they are not possessors of an absolute truth that allows them to judge the others with arrogance.
How to respond to an insult without losing your calm?
Insults are often perceived as an attack that triggers other insults as well. That spiral is not good for anyone. In order not to fall into this toxic loop, the first step is to understand that insulting means offending someone by provoking and irritating them with words or actions, but it also means that we have the power not to take ourselves for granted. An assertive way to replay back to an insult is:
• Facts. Describe the situation that bothers us limiting ourselves to the facts. For example: “I have noticed that when I make a mistake, you insult me saying that I am useless”.
• Emotions. Express how that behavior makes us feel, without recriminations. For example: “When you tell me that I am useless I feel sad, ashamed and frustrated.”
• Empathy. Empathize with the person, however difficult it may be, to try to understand his point of view. For example: “I understand that you are not doing it with bad intentions, maybe my mistakes upset you.”
• Alternatives. Provide alternative solutions to solve the problem. For example: “I would like you to help me improve, but I need you to change the way you make me see my mistakes. I will advance more if you guide me instead of insulting me”.
Of course, it is not always possible to dialogue with people who insult. If we believe that we cannot reach an understanding, it is usually best to prioritize our mental balance and forget about it. Sometimes there are battles that are not worth fighting.
Banks, B. M. & Landau, S. E. (2021) Cognitive Effects of Racial Microaggressions Directed at Black College Women. The Journal of Negro Education; 90(1): 84-95.
Benet-Martínez, V. & Waller, N. G. (2002) From adorable to worthless: Implicit and self-report structure of highly evaluative personality descriptors. European Journal of Personality; 16(1): 1–41.
Gabriel, Y. (1998) An Introduction to the Social Psychology of Insults in Organizations. Human Relations; 51(11): 1329-1354.