It’s on everyone’s lips this week. Did you see what happened at the Oscars? Did you see what Will Smith did to Chris Rock? I myself didn’t watch the Oscars, but I found out afterward about the saga. How insult was rewarded with a verbal and physical rebuttal. Stunned silence…shocked expressions… humour to cover up the tension… It was quite the scene. But it should never have happened. People are insulted all the time for various reasons and in various ways: mimicry, jokes, back-handed compliments, being told you’re wrong, ironic jokes, being ignored. And in some cases, we can be physically insulted by being slapped, spat on, or punched. So how to handle insults in our day-to-day lives is something we should all be prepared for.
They come from anyone
Insults can come at any time and from anyone. Let’s be honest, we’ve all been insulted by a friend, a loved one, a colleague, a complete stranger. Who it comes from can affect our response to it, for example, we can take it more personally if a good friend insults us because it was unexpected behaviour. Conversely, if we are insulted by a complete stranger, we might find it easier to brush it off because we don’t know them at all. It all depends on you and how you react to the situation. Are you a sensitive person? Do you easily take offense? Do you want everyone to like you all of the time? Unfortunately, that is unlikely to be the case and we mustn’t expect it. It’s not our job to have everyone like us. So we should expect conflict at times as a result.
So how should we respond if we are insulted? Here are some strategies:
Anger isn’t the answer
As we’ve seen already this week, an angry response is not the way. When we respond to an insult with anger we invite a few possibilities to the situation. It can be seen as a sign of weakness whereby we can become overly upset and feel the need to justify ourselves. Anger says that we take the insult seriously and by default the one insulting us. And furthermore, we add fuel to the fire, encouraging further insult. If nothing else, responding in anger makes us far more emotional than the situation might require making us feel silly and vulnerable afterward.
Try to remain calm when an insult is flung your way. Your calm response will help you diffuse the situation, keep you in control, and shows that they have no power over you.
Hear without insult
Sometimes we may feel like we’re being insulted, but when we look more closely at the situation we see that they are merely speaking the truth. Parents, teachers, doctors, counselors, friends, and partners all tell us the truth throughout our lives to help guide, mold, advise and shape us. If we took insult at everything we heard just because we didn’t like it, we would not be the best versions of ourselves. It is important to look rationally at the situation and see if there is any truth in what was said. If so, it is our job to go away and work on whatever was raised.
Further to this, if you respect the person who has insulted you; if you value their opinion and they are honourable, consider what they have said instead of being insulted. Taking offense easily denigrates your integrity and character. If however, the insulter is not someone you seek guidance from then you have no reason to take offense because their opinion means nothing to you.
Giving as good as you get
The trouble with returning an insult is that it rarely has the desired effect we’re after. We’d have to be extremely witty or cutting to deliver a response that would have any effect at the desired moment. Often our attempts are limp and ineffective and we look back on them and cringe in horror. The other problem is that we just lower ourselves to the insulter’s level. We give them power by engaging with them, especially if it is hurtful insults, and legitimizes their behaviour. We then treat them how we don’t like being treated and quite possibly hurt them too.
Wit and humour have their place as a retort, but only among friends. It is impossible to gauge a situation well enough and a person’s response if you don’t know them. There must be a mutual understanding between you so that in the end, you ‘make up’ and carry on as before.
A closer look at humour
How we handle insults says a lot about us as individuals. If we can make light of the situation with humour and deflect the intended offense we will move on from it easily.
George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright, is said to have once invited Winston Churchill to his new play. The invitation read thus:
"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend—if you have one."
Winston Churchill replied:
"Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second—if there is one."
Clearly, these two men knew each other and exchanged insults with levity and humour. By accepting insults with humour we lighten the situation, we take the sting out and thus they lose power.
It’s not worth your notice
Sometimes, knowing how to handle insults means ignoring them. It is important to realise that someone else’s opinion, remark, or action is not your concern. By ignoring them we show that we are not concerned about their view and that it has no effect on our life. Choosing to ignore an insult deflates the situation and the insult and insulter lose power.
There will come a time when we have to say something to someone who insults us. But how we do so will determine how successfully you and the other party move forward. Knowing how to handle insults through dialogue that is productive, boundary-building, and respectful is paramount. Having a public blow-out is not advisable. You embarrass yourself, the other party, and anyone else surrounding you. It also invites others into your business, which is somewhere they shouldn’t be unless invited.
Having a private discussion with the person whereby you set firm boundaries, especially if it is someone you know well or work with regularly, is a good approach. Be consistent thereafter to ensure there are no relapses.
How to handle insults
Like I said before, insults are to be expected in life. It’s naive to think that we will go through life with everyone agreeing with us and being agreeable all the time. Equally, we will encounter times where we must exercise control and hold our tongue lest we become the injuring party. Insults have no power over us except the power we allow them, so take everything with a pinch of salt and only allow through that which makes us stronger.