Ways To Respond To An Insult, According To Science

by Pamela J. Hobart

Sticks and stones can break your bones and unfortunately, as all the insult-slingers of the world apparently know, words hurt too. But there are better and worse ways to respond to an insult, and since you're very likely to be insulted in your life it's time that you gave the matter some thought. Norwegian researchers Mons Bendixen and Ute Gabriel dug into the various types of insults and how people respond to them, and thereby began to uncover the very complicated truth of this aspect of social life.

Can you think of seven distinct types of insults? The researchers did: charges of sexual promiscuity, objectifying comments about sexual organs, charges of homosexuality, alleged unethicality, alleged stupidity, alleged cowardliness, and alleged unattractiveness. As it turned out, women in the study were more sensitive than men to insults in general. But insults coming from women were also judged as being more harsh than those coming from men (oops).

It matters greatly whether the insult is targeted at a fundamental aspect of your identity or not, and whether the insulter even meant to insult you or not, but these can be harder to figure out than you'd think. You are going to need to choose your battles here. It's sometimes worth asking the person outright what they meant, but that's just going to be too much emotional work at other times.

So basically, a variety of strategies for dealing with insults is in order. Especially if you're the kind of person who has a tendency to remember being slighted for a long time and to stew over it, it may be time to try something new.

Reinterpret what was said

Another study shows that people are better able to cope with abstract, vague threats than specific ones. In the case of insults, this means that you can often re-interpret the insult in a way that requires less direct of a response. For instance, if someone says you're needy as a friend, your first instinct might be to just deny it. But if you think a little harder, maybe that's actually a statement about how... communicative you are. And there's no need to dispute it.

Self-deprecate, in moderation

This tactic works best for people who already enjoy high social status. A study suggests that self-deprecation makes high-status people look even cooler, but it makes low-status people look lamer. Ouch.

Refuse to engage

As those findings about self-deprecation show, insults (and how we react to them) are basically an intricate game to jockey for social standing. You can't really win once and for all — it goes on and on forever, and it's exhausting. If you become an "insult pacifist" and firmly refuse to engage in the status game of insults and comebacks, you can take much of the sting out of other people's attempts to draw you back in.

Don't take it personally

In my experience, this is way easier said than done, but I hear it's at least possible not to take insults personally. Try to remember that what other people say and do is way more of a reflection on them than on you and let it roll right off.

Images: lozochka/Fotolia, Giphy(4)