Why Insults Hurt—And Why They Shouldn’t

Humans sort themselves into social hierarchies with fighting words, but insults don't have to sting

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I became interested in the social function of insults while doing research on the Stoic philosophers, who spent a lot of time thinking about how best to deal with them. I thought this was an odd thing for philosophers to do, but ultimately realized that they were on to something. After all, one role of philosophy is to teach us how to have a good life, and insults—whether blatant, benign, or even backhanded—have the power to make us miserable.

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What I realized was that the pain caused by insults is really just a symptom of a far more serious ailment: our participation in the social hierarchy game. We are people who need to be among people. The problem is that once we are among them, we feel compelled to sort ourselves into social hierarchies. If we were wolves, we’d fight to establish the social order of the pack. But since we are humans with outsized brains and language, we use words instead.

It is the social hierarchy game that makes insults sting. We are wired so that it feels bad to lose social status and feels good to gain it. That’s why a teasing jibe from a good friend isn’t painful—we haven’t lost status from it—but an unanswered email from our boss or a dilatory response to an invitation can diminish our sense of self-worth.

Those playing the social hierarchy game try to score points by insulting others, who respond with counter-insults. Game-players also spend their days saying, doing, and even buying things calculated to gain the admiration of other people. Such attempts are likely to fail, though, since people rarely want only to admire, preferring instead to be admired. It is a recipe for social strife and personal misery.

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The solution to this predicament is simple: withdraw from the social hierarchy game. In practical terms, this means becoming an insult pacifist: when insulted, you carry on as if nothing happened. Or if you do respond to an insult, you use self‑deprecating humor: you insult yourself even worse than they did and laugh while doing it.

You might worry that practicing insult pacifism would invite a barrage of more verbal abuse. I have been an insult pacifist for several years now and have found just the opposite. When you respond to people’s insults not with counter‑insults but with humor, you make them look foolish: they hit you with their best verbal shot, and you only laughed in response. As a result, they are less likely to insult you again. I have also discovered that by responding to insults with self‑deprecating humor, you take much of the sting out of them. This is because it is psychologically difficult to get upset over something you are making a joke about.

Withdrawing from the social hierarchy game, I should add, can also beneficially transform our relationships. Instead of spending conversations trying to convince people how wonderful we are, we will start listening, really listening, to what they tell us. They will likely take notice.

8 comments
ShamsAci
ShamsAci

One who insults the other he or she fires himself or herself.

ryounis
ryounis

Wow. I absoutely loved this article. Thank you! Will try beinng an "insult pacifist". 

nzis18
nzis18

The ego is behind the entity who insults or feels insulted or obligated to be in a hierarchy game. Ego requires us to attack or defend to stay relevant and this is why most of us act or react in the same way. Perceptions and habits determine our behavior. Add emotions to them you have a powerful recipe for rage and misery. This is how nature protects us for short-term gain and survival. But short-term gain often leads to long-term misery. It takes mindfulness practice and discipline to be aware of our emotional state and habitual pattern of reactions. It is also the training to be calm and happy. It is part and parcel of self-development and mastery.     

MayAyad
MayAyad

I personally don't believe that the social hierarchy is dependent on who out-voices another. I have witnessed many situations in which those who treat others with increased respect receive much more respect than the other way around. Insulting a person may sting said individual and leave you feeling either satisfied for voicing your opinion (or sometimes even guilty for degrading a peer) for a moment or two, but fades into nothingness almost immediately. If anything, an insult can sometimes encourage the insulted to prove him or herself to the public in defiance of the stinging words. 

ShamsAci
ShamsAci

My observational experience leads me to believe that if someone tries his or her utmost to insult me directly or indirectly by words or actions what I do is just keep silent or do nothing or put an impression (if possible) as if I seldom notice or pay importance to such stupid talks.

Otherwise, I could respond with a heavier coin but that results to a quarrel or a fight, whereas, I know one who is habituate to insult the others is understood more often a mean fellow. His or her meanness can harm him or her (far more than what it could do to me) to an extent that he or she may be ruined ultimately. So, what I do is for his or her welfare, I mean, I don't respond to his or her insult to benefit him or her, not me. As a result, I'm the winner, whereas, he or she is the loser.

     - A.R.Shams's Reflection - Press & Online Publications - Moral Messages for Humanity 

       http://www.arshamssreflection.blogspot.com

Aphugel
Aphugel

You know, for a professor you talk a lot of unreflected crap!
There,, see?  You are not in any kind of social hierachy game that involves both of us as players, still this was a hurtful insult.
I suggest you go back and start thinking, maybe stop waffling for a while, it might help.

Cecil
Cecil

Basically, he's just saying "be humble" or "humility is strength" --- no different from what Jesus taught 2,000 years ago and Himself demonstrated.

T.P.Chia
T.P.Chia

Professor Irvine's suggestion of "insult pacifism" doesn't necessarily make those who insult others look silly. On the contrary, they are given some kind of respect they don't deserve by responding with self-deprecating humor  They should be made to feel that their insults are meaningless and nobody cares about them. The best way to respond is to ignore them--Don't make them think that their insults deserve an amusing response.

Not all insults are intended. Sometimes people don't talk or act nicely or respectfully to others if they are in a terrible mood.  They never intend to insult, even though others feel being insulted. Don't let their emtional behaviors upset you--ignore them!.