Although you have no control over what other people think or do, you can have complete power over your reactions if you get in touch with your feelings and stay focused. Image Credit: Illustration by Nĩno Jose G Heredia/Gulf News

Have you ever been the target of a rude driver? Humiliated by a tactless boss who yells at you in front of your colleagues? Afraid of going to school and facing the mean kids that constantly poke fun at you? You are not alone. But then again, at some point, intentionally or not, you too might have behaved arrogantly, acted offensively or spoken rudely to a close friend, work colleague or stranger on the streets.

Ridicule, satire, rudeness, humiliation... they happen everywhere - inside our homes; in the workplace; and even on television where several shows make use of jokes to expose a public figure or get a point across.

Insults are not a recent phenomenon. Neither is an insult restricted to any geographical region or race.

So what makes a person want to insult someone? When is an insult justified? What are the intrinsic reasons people insult others? Is the intent always to hurt? The psychology of insults is vast, spanning cultural subtexts and primary human emotion.

Is there any difference between ridicule, satire and humiliation and blunt, straight-forward insults? According to Yiannis Gabriel, Professor of Organisational Theory at the University of Bath, “there are overlaps, but what distinguishes insults is [the aspect of] “big effect with little effort' since they take advantage of a weak point of the target.”

Gabriel explains that “insults involve two parties, a perpetrator and a target, and possibly an audience. There can be no insult without a perpetrator or an insulted party. A remark or action intended as an insult but not registered or experienced as one by its target, can hardly be said to constitute an insult, even if an audience recognised the intention.”

But why are some people so compelled to find that weakness and inflict harm on others? Hate? Well, as the German-Swiss poet, novelist and painter Hermann Hesse once said: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us.”

Suppressed feelings

A few psychologists believe we all have a side of our personality that we don't like to expose or speak of. This is where we hide away the qualities we think of as undesirable and negative, and all of the physical, verbal and emotional abuse we might have once suffered.

According to Eva Jajonie, a clinical psychotherapist from the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi, “When suppressed concerns and feelings, such as lack of self-esteem; self-defeating thoughts and behaviours; guilt; and anger, for example, are not treated or dealt with, the person uses insults to unleash anger, to escape dealing with the pain or trauma experienced or as a way to exert control [over another person] and feel powerful.”

People also insult because they simply do not know any better. They repeat the common patterns present in the environments they are exposed to - home, school and work - and where insulting becomes a habit to function or deal with problems.

Jajonie says: “Even the media plays a major role today. Some cartoons, movies and video games, for example, teach insults and violence, affecting children.”

A person may also hurl an insult at another simply because of “the pecking order and the undoubted primary aggression that characterises us as humans”, notes Gabriel.

In his paper, An Introduction to the social psychology of insults in organizations, available from the free online collection of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations (ISPSO), Gabriel suggests that “jokes are a good place to begin an investigation of insults. Like jokes, insults depend on timing and must touch a vital nerve. Like jokes, insults play on hidden desires and vulnerabilities. Like jokes, they can be highly imaginative and ingenious… The main difference between insults and jokes would seem to lie in their emotional content. Jokes release mirth, whereas insults unleash anger.”

It is no surprise that there is an array of ways to degrade, offend, humiliate and unleash that anger in people. According to Gabriel, “insults can be verbal, consisting of mocking invective, cutting remarks, negative stereotypes, rudeness or straight swearing.”

Dealing with difficult people

Hellen Meyerhof, a Brazilian flight attendant based in Abu Dhabi, knows exactly what this feels like: “In my previous job, I had to deal with a very difficult customer. One day, he stormed in and started to complain about almost everything about my company. He shouted at me in front of other customers and colleagues. I felt stressed and terrible; all I really wanted to do was run far away and scream out to release the stress. But I took a deep breath and listened attentively and respectfully without interruption. After I took responsibility for the problem on behalf of my organisation, the customer calmed down, came to his senses and ended apologising for his behaviour.”

The Australian DJ/Event Promoter, Jonathon Bradford, based in Dubai, says he sometimes feels insulted by the harsh criticism he receives for the music he chooses to play. “Most people are really nice, but sometimes there are a few partygoers who seem to be bent on ruining the evening. Usually I get defensive. My first thought is to turn around, remind them that I'm working, and ask [how they would feel] if I sat through their office meetings making comments all through. But then I remind myself to diffuse the situation by taking the comment lightly and making polite conversation...”

Broad spectrum of jibes

According to Gabriel, “Insults can also be performed in deed, as when valued objects are defamed, symbols desecrated, gifts returned or invitations refused.” Alternatively, says Gabriel, insults can “be brutal, unambiguous and direct, as in cases of indecent gestures or racist and sexual harassment… they can also be subtle, residing in innuendo or facial expression, leaving room for a face-saving retreat or an affected disregard by the aggrieved party.”

A good example of this is the classic scene in Pretty Woman where Vivian (played so well by Julia Roberts) steps into a designer store in Beverly Hills to buy a dress. The sales lady does not hurl any pointed insults. She simply looks Vivian from head to toe and says things like, “It's very expensive”, “I don't think we have anything for you” and “You are obviously in the wrong place”.

Gabriel reminds us of several other types of insults based on exclusion. For instance, when invitations highlight the division between those on the guest list and those who are not.

Even if no slight is intended it is easy fora person left out to feel offended. “Or failing to acknowledge or honour an important detail in a person's identity or ego... The use of the wrong form of address, such as “Dr' instead of “Professor', though rarely intentional, can be read as insulting.”

Is an insult ever justified? No, says Gabriel. No insult is morally justified.

Another feature of insults is that some of them are very subjective. For instance, let's say you are with a friend in a restaurant. You are both starving so you order almost half the things on the menu. Just as you are placing your order, a stranger who perhaps overhead the order you were placing, walks past saying: “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips”. You find it funny and burst into laughter but your friend breaks down in tears. Why such disparate reactions?

Well, the answer might just be inside the part of our personality that we don't like to expose or think about. After all, that's where some of our qualities, as well emotions related to physical and verbal traumas lie.

While you and your friend are trim and fit now, she might have been overweight during her school/college days and may have been made fun of for it. That may be the reason she found the stranger's comment insulting while you did not.

Cultural considerations

Words and behaviours are also interpreted differently by individuals, depending on their values and cultures. After all, it's a person's culture that shapes his or her attitudes and how he or she functions. Our internalised values, related to region, country, gender and so on will play a significant role in how we understand what is said and done to us.

For instance, it was during a flight from Baghdad to Abu Dhabi that Peter Colussy, an American based in Abu Dhabi, understood how insults can be generated due to lack of cultural knowledge: “During boarding, I noticed a woman who was having difficulty walking down the aisle. I offered my hand to help steady her,'' he says. However the woman sternly refused the offer. “I was so taken aback,'' he recalls. “Now I try harder to understand cultural differences.''

Lasting damage

Insults strike directly at a person's feelings, self-esteem, pride, identity and ego. So, no matter why an insult happens or how it happens or when it happens, the truth of the matter is it will leave a scar.

As Jajonie explains, “insults or any verbal or emotional abuse tears at a person's self-esteem and can greatly impair psychological development and social interaction. Children who experience traumatic emotional or verbal abuse, insults or bullying can suffer a deficit in attention, intelligence, memory and in the ability to feel and express emotions appropriately. Insults and emotional abuse can be manifested, in both children and adults, through depression, isolation, social withdrawal, severe anxiety, fearfulness, self-defeating thoughts and behaviours, physical complaints and even substance abuse.”

The good news, as Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, brilliantly puts it is that “out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.”

Although you have no control over what other people think or do, you can have complete power over your reactions if you get in touch with your feelings and stay focused.

Jajonie agrees. “Keep in mind that insults will affect you, but cannot enter your mind and generate certain reactions unless you allow them to,” she says. “You are the only person who owns your thoughts and behaviours. Bea peaceful warrior. You will win the fight by not fighting at all.”

How to deal with insults

Insults affect people in many different ways and trigger a series of singular emotions and feelings. Therefore, each individual will deal with an offensive situation differently. You could keep your cool. Ignore it. Walk away. Turn the other cheek. Take the high road. Laugh at it. Scream. Run away. Cry. Top it.

Jajonie says: “There is no right or wrong here. The way a person reacts to an insult depends on the event, the person, the environment, the stakes involved... People who are assertive and learn to be in control, get in touch with their feelings, assess the situation and consequences, remove themselves from the situation and deal with it calmly. On the other hand, people who are reactive and resentful tend to refrain from their emotions and drastically lose their sense of logic to resolve the situation.”

Although there are no easy recipes, Jajonie has a few practical tips on how to react to the situation:

Make eye contact and pause instantly

Assertively say “stop!”. Face the insulter without losing power. Remember that your strength scares the insulter away and makes him feel like a coward.

Take charge of the situation

Do not allow the insulter to manipulate you or take charge of your feelings. Remember that when you react you allow your insulter to control you emotionally - and this is exactly the target of the insult.


Take a deep breath and say: “I just want to get this straight. Did you just say [repeat the insult]?” Then you look at the insulter straight in the face and wait for an answer. Remember that, most of the time, the insulter will back down and won't be able to face you if you challenge him.

Walk away

If the insulter repeats the insult or is plain aggressive, simply walk away. Beware, the insulter may not want you to walk away as he or she may want to keep manipulating you and may say things like: “Sorry you are so sensitive. I am not used to people like you who take everything personally.” Remember that walking away means the dynamic of the game is over.

Keep communication minimal

Make sure your communication is simple and to the point. Don't give more ammunition to your insulter. Remember that insulters will probably not acknowledge a mistake in writing. So, if possible, use emails or other methods of communication.