At some point in time, we’ve all been the target of insulting comments. If the insult seems real, and not some misguided attempt at a joke, the situation can be hurtful and confusing.
Insults don’t always come in a form that allows you to know immediately that you’ve been insulted. The insult wrapped within a compliment, for example, place you in the position of wondering whether to respond to the implicit derogation or the explicit expression of praise.
Suppose, for example, you graduated from school with an excellent record of accomplishment, but the school itself isn’t one that has a particularly excellent reputation. You did your best with the opportunities handed to you and feel good about what you’ve done. However, while in a job interview for a very competitive job, the interviewer looks critically at your resume, and then you. The employer says “You should be pleased that you made it to the interview stage for this job. You’re definitely a credit to your school as most of its graduates never make it to this point in the process.”
This seems like a compliment but in actuality, it’s a put-down of the school you attended and hence, you. “You’re a credit to your school” sounds positive, but the next part of the sentence is distinctly patronizing and derogatory implying that most of its grads are losers. Making matters worse, you’d like to tell this person off, but if you do, you might be burning some important bridges for your future. Plus, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to return an insult with an insult in any kind of interview situation.
Simple insults do seem a little bit less perplexing because they have a clear meaning and intent. A stranger passing you by while you’re wearing your favorite Tom Brady tee shirt looks at you and shouts “The Patriots are a bunch of cheaters!” The insult, though aimed at the team and its quarterback, is by inference aimed at you as a fan.
Then there are compliments intended to be compliments that you misinterpret. An acquaintance says “Nice hat,” and you’re not sure if it’s meant sarcastically. If you replay the comment in your mind, you can sort out from the intonation whether it was intended to ridicule or admire your somewhat flamboyant protection from the cold and wind.
People with narcissistic tendencies tend to be particularly likely to hurl an insult your way so that they can feel better about themselves. However, in other cases, insults come from people who just don’t like anyone who’s different than they are (ingroup-outgroup bias) or just lack something better to say or do. People who know each other well might also engage in teasing which includes, for the most part, harmless but well-placed jibes. You might also be teased for your accent, the type of job you do, or your choice of smart phone (or lack thereof), but these aren’t typically on a scale with a personal insult.
Researchers who study insults of this more personal nature use the term “verbal derogation” to characterize the things people say that are intended to belittle someone else (the “target”). Norwegian researchers Mons Bendixen and Ute Gabriel (2013) were particularly interested in how the sex of the sender and that of the target would interact in the way that individuals perceive these verbal slurs. They expected that these gendered insults would be perceived as particularly disturbing by the members of the respective sex, but that people of both sexes would find it equally offensive to be the target of an insult to their appearance.
The Bendixen and Gabriel research used a replication design (repeating the same study) involving a total of about 500 Norwegian college students involving roughly equal percentages of men and women. The insults fell into 7 categories:
Promiscuous: i.e. “tart,” “whore”
Objectification: off-color references to a person’s sexual organs
Homosexual: “dyke,” “fag”
Unethical: “bitch,” “bastard”
Stupid: “idiot,” “loser”
Cowardliness: “sissy,” “weakling”
Unattractive: “pig face,” “ugly”
In both the original and replication studies, women had a lower threshold for insults, finding any insulting comment to be more offensive than did men. Also, insults offered by women were perceived as harsher than the same slurs originating from men. The slurs perceived least offensive were those directed toward men by men, the verbal equivalent of “rough and tumble play”.
Combining sex of sender and sex of target led to a distinct pattern of within-sex differences. Women were most offended by the categories of objectification and promiscuous insults, leading the authors to comment that “Fifty years of using ‘the pill’ in our western culture, liberating women from the burden of unwanted pregnancies (comparable to men), does not yet seem to have resulted in equal judgment of having multiple sex partners” (p. 240). For men, it was the insults about their sexual orientation that brought about the most pain, essentially amounting to “homeopathic bullying”.
As you can see from this study, an insult’s impact and meaning depend heavily on its sexual content and on whether it’s being directed at a woman or a man. Sexual insults perhaps are the most difficult to tolerate because they strike at such a fundamental and deeply personal aspect of people’s identities. Men may be more used to exchanging slurs. Furthermore, no one seems to like it when a woman is the source of an insult. This may be one of the reasons that female comedians have so much more trouble being perceived as funny than men. The well-placed insult is a key feature of the comic’s repertoire going back, perhaps, as far as Shakespeare (“Thou whoreson, senseless villain!”, from The Comedy of Errors).
Now we can return to the question of what it is you should do when someone insults you.Most importantly, decide on the nature of the insult and whether it is poking into a fundamental aspect of your identity. Making fun of your shirt or hat is entirely different than having an insult directed at a sexual part of your body, your sexual history, or sexual orientation. The insulter may not be intending to be mean, but by tapping into your deepest layer of identity, it’s going to strike a nerve. Such direct aims at your personhood constitute harassment and may call for you to take action to call out the perpetrator especially if this is occurring in the workplace.
The disguised insult- that is, the insult wrapped inside a compliment- may provoke similar reactions in you, but since you can’t call out the sender, you’ll be left with a far more complex set of emotions. In fact, that disguised insult may be far more difficult to handle on any level, because you don’t have “proof” that you’ve been a target. You can’t lodge an official complaint without having been officially insulted. Therefore, as difficult as it may be, you need to confront the individual then and there by asking for clarification. Just by asking for an explanation, you may be showing the sender that you’ve noticed the implicit insult and aren’t happy about it.
Opening the channels of communication instead of retreating into insecurity and anxiety about a possible insult will allow you to gain the data that will allow you to proceed accordingly. It would be nice if we lived in a world without either obvious or subtle insults, but since we don’t, you can at least gain insight into the feelings these provoke within you. Fulfillment may not always be within the realm of possibility in your relationships, but by handling these unpleasantries, you can improve your chances of achieving it.