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.