Name Calling, Insults and Teasing

A Guide To Anger, Conflict and Respect


Those following this blog for the past few weeks have been reading about the five levels of maturity for responding to criticism(see May 13th post and May 27th post).  How well did Karen Klein, the 68-year-old grandmother in the recent viral YouTube video, do?  There, during a 10 minute episode, middle school students hurl a barrage of criticism at her.  One asks for her address because he says he wants to go urinate on her door.  Another tells her that she doesn’t have a family because “they all killed themselves because they didn’t want to be near you.”

WOW!  These are pretty cold things to say!

Some of the boys went beyond words, poking her as soon as her sight was directed away from them.  One boy reached over and poked her on the side of her breast.

Such behavior goes well beyond criticism and enters the realm of abuse.

Karen Klein responded with periods of trying to ignore the responses and tearfulness.  After the episode was over, she was questioned by authorities and media and she came across to me as a sweet lady who went through a very uncomfortable experience.

If we were to try to use the five levels of maturity to determine if Karen Klein’s response to criticism was mature or immature, this would be rather unfair.  Yes, her crying and efforts to ignore the criticism are viewed, according to the five levels, as among the more immature responses.  But the five levels of responding to criticism are designed to describe the levels of maturity for handling just one type of criticism—criticism that is intended to help the person being criticized to improve in some way.  It is quite clear from the ten minute YouTube video that the criticisms that the middle school students were bombarding Ms. Klein were NOT intended for this purpose.

By following this blog, you will come to identify eight different reasons why people criticize others.  Once you can quickly identify the reason for the criticism, you will be in a much better position to come up with a mature way to respond to the criticism.  For example, in addition to the type of criticism that is intended to encourage a person to improve, there is a type of criticism used to play a game we will call “playful teasing.”

Playful Teasing

Teasing is a game sometimes known as bantering, joshing, crackin’, rankin’, playing the dozens, and trash talk.  You are judged in part on the quality of your insults and also how well you keep your cool on being insulted.

Even the most mature people may like to play the teasing game, for they enjoy the duel of wits and the occasional humorous comeback.

Mature people are distinguished from immature people in this game by their lack of desire to hurt somebody in this game.  Their empathy helps them to realize that the smiles and the lighthearted tone they try to set throughout the game sometimes mask real tensions.  Thus, they keep their senses tuned to the subtleties of the repartee, and know when to back off when things begin to get too serious.

Less mature people, partly because of their lower levels of empathy, may think that the more awful they can make someone feel during this game, the better they are at it.  When the criticizers have themselves been humiliated by other immature people, they may come to be even more motivated to humiliate others as a way to take out their own pain on others.

If you find that you are being criticized and it doesn’t seem to be motivated by a desire to get you to improve, and you’re not sure what else may be the reason, my advice is to first theorize that it’s just some playful teasing.  If the criticism is provided with a smile, or by someone you know who likes to tease in a friendly way, you can be pretty sure that it is just for fun.  Then, if you reply with a smile and a comment such as, “That’s a good one,” it shows that you can take a little teasing without getting defensive.  If you want to take the game a little further, you can throw a friendly insult right back, like “Same to you, fellow.”  When you’ve had enough of the game, smiling and giving the other player a pat on the back can be a good way to draw the game to an end.

Sometimes you are not sure if playful teasing is the name of the game.  Then you have to be careful about throwing insults back at the insulter.  If it turns out that the criticizer’s comments are not meant to be playful teasing, throwing back insults might make the situation worse.  Here are some ideas that permit you to play along while providing you time to figure out what’s really going on.

After the first insult, consider responding in a kidding around way by crying, “OH YEAH!?”  As you do this, pretend, in an obviously joking around way, that you have become defensive at the insulter’s comment.  But then follow up your fake outrage with a broad smile.  This shows that you can play along with the insult while, at the same time, you can take a joke.

If the insulter again insults you in a manner that still leaves you uncertain if the person is just teasing, consider saying the following.  “It looks like you have some more missiles to send my way.  Okay, hit me with your best shots.  I already know that you think my nose is too big and my mother is a fool, so there’s no need to bother with those.  Go ahead.  I can take it.”

Then, if the insults continue, cry out…

Illustration by Eric Sailer

All of this allows you to continue to play along without throwing insults back at a criticizer who may not be playing the teasing game.  By the time you fall to your knees, if you still aren’t clear about what is going on, get back up and try saying in a concerned, caring way, “Listen, at first I thought you were joking around.  Now I’m not so sure.  Is everything okay?”

This often leads to the insulter revealing what is actually motivating this behavior.  But if the insulter walks away, and then begins to insult you on another occasion, it’s time to go down the list of other desires that motivate criticism.  We will be reviewing these in coming weeks.

If you find that the person, or the group of people teasing you are playing the game of teasing in the immature manner—that is, just trying to make you feel as awful as possible—what can you do?   I suggest that you just give a quick nod at the comment and then get as far away as possible.  Then do your best to stay away from such  people.

Now, I certainly realize it is not always easy to avoid a person or a group.  Students or bus monitors who ride the school bus are pretty much forced to be confined with a certain set of students for a period of time a couple of times each day.  Or the group you want to avoid might be in your classes.  As you leave the class you might be stuck walking down the hall with the criticizers.  In such cases, when you feel that you have reached your limit of dealing with the put downs, sometimes the following approach is worth a try.

To begin, this approach only requires that you learn to say two words—Please, enough.  That’s the easy part.  For some, learning how to say these words is the hard part of this strategy.

To use this technique, after two or three insults, say, in a very serious way, rather softly, but loud enough to be clearly heard, “Please.”  Then pause for about three seconds while looking firmly into the eyes of each person who has been teasing you.  Than say, “e” using the long “e” sound.  Then, after another second, say, “nough!”  When you look into the eyes of each of the name callers, you are NOT to glare at them in a threatening manner, with your eyebrows pressed to the middle of your forehead.  Rather, you are seeking to be firm and very, very, serious.

If immediately after you finish saying this, somebody begins to insult you again, repeat the same words in a similar manner, but this time say it distinctly louder, though just short of shouting.  At this point you are seeking to communicate that dire consequences are at hand.  You must be firm and look squarely into the eyes of each insulter once again.  Then you are to remain very serious while staring either out the school bus’s window or straight ahead where you are walking, but not at any one of the criticizers.  You are to remain silent, without talking to anyone, for the remainder of the period you are stuck together, looking the whole time like you are through fooling around and enough is enough!

When the end of the time period that you are stuck together comes, immediately take your stuff and hurry away from the group continuing to look like you are very much annoyed.

The next time you see them, again, turn very serious and silent.  If the group members don’t bother you, after a few minutes you can slowly begin to reduce the tension you have created.  If the group members again insult you at any time, be silent and serious while again staring out the window or, if you are walking, straight ahead.

The game of immature name calling is kind of like a tennis game.  In tennis, if someone hits the ball over the net to you and you refuse to hit it back, people will stop playing with you.  Similarly, if someone insults you and you remain silent, often the insulter will find the game too boring to continue.

Although the style I want you to consider comes fairly easy to some, others must learn it with someone who can model the right tone and expression.  Some people I worked with over the years found it hard not to put a smirk on their face after they said, “Please, enough!”  Some came off as embarrassed while they carried out the technique.  If you are not sure how you look while carrying out each step, observe yourself in a mirror.  Also run through a role play with a couple of friends or family members and ask them if it looks right to them.  Better yet, find out who directs plays at your school.  Find out the director’s office hours, and go and explain what you want to learn.

I encourage you to avoid becoming discouraged if you end up botching the performance the first few times you try this during practice sessions.  I’ve worked with students that at first kept cracking up throughout the process.  Every one of them eventually learned to effectively utilize this technique.  Five sessions, each lasting about fifteen minutes, can usually get a shy guy to put together an academy award winning performance.

There are times when those who are doing the teasing are being so cruel and relentless, that the wisest course of action is to inform authorities such as a school principal and the police.  This may take courage, but keep in mind that if you remain silent, not only will you continue to be cruelly treated, but so too will others.

Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

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  1. I felt awful after watching that video, but I am glad that Karen Klein is getting somewhat of a happy ending. I think she deserves it and I’m glad that she is donating some of that money to charity and good causes. I wrote an article yesterday about her story and the power of the Internet and social media. Here’s the link if you’d like to check it out:


    • Hi Casey,
      Thanks for your comment. As you suggested, I did check out your fine blog and particularly the post titled “Empathy Goes Viral.” Your kind words of support for the bus monitor has lifted my spirit.

      At one point you wrote,

      “The power of the Internet and social media absolutely amazes me. Through it news travels at lightning speed and people talk about it immediately. If you put information out there that people will actually care about, there are so many possibilities. You can raise awareness and money or have millions of people on your side in a matter of hours. Average people become overnight celebrities without even trying. All it takes is saying, doing, or being involved in something that will capture people’s attention and emotions. With this, I encourage everyone to use the power of the Internet and social media to do positive things and make lives better.”


      With Warm Regards,


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  3. I was mortified watching this video. It never ceases to amaze just me how cruel kids can be. I’m not surprised but am disappointed to see, even in the wake of all the media coverage, that bullying remains rampant in this age group.
    I have to admit that the clip brought me back to my youth when, after moving to a new town, I was ‘the new kid’ on the bus and got picked on. I was not the kind of mature kid who ignored the situation and ended up getting into fights as a result.

    * (I’d like to preface my next statement with the following, “I am not condoning fighting and do not recommend fighting as a solution to any type of verbal altercation”)
    That being said after showing the bullies that I’d stand up for myself not only did the bullying come to an abrupt end but I ended up becoming friends with several of them and seemed to garner the respect of many of the other kids on the bus. Again I’m not condoning fighting but am suggesting that in some cases a show of strength can be an effective way to resolve conflict.

    • Hi Mike,

      You are absolutely right. In some situations a kid who starts to get picked on will physically go at the bully. The bully ends up backing down, others end up respecting the kid who shut the bully up, and the kid even ends up making friends with the bully. This is a real possibility. Now, let’s consider other possibilities of a kid physically going at the bully so all of us can make an informed decision about how best to handle these types of situations.

      In one case that I’m familiar with, a boy that we will call Cal, went to his dad and complained in a choked up voice of a bully picking on him on the bus. The dad, having had a very similar experience when he was young that you had, Mike, began to holler at his son. “If someone picks on you, you go at him with everything you have and that will shut him up. That’s how I handled that type of situation and it worked every time. I can’t believe you didn’t do that. Here you are crying over it. I’m ashamed of you!”

      What the dad didn’t know at the time was that Cal had already witnessed another kid on the bus who was bigger and stronger than he is try to do just what his dad had said to do. The bully quickly grabbed the arm of this kid, twisted it behind his back until it was excruciatingly painful. After the kid tried his best to get free, the twisted arm was twisted tighter and the kid let out a scream. The bus driver yelled to quiet down. The bully then loosened his grip on the kid, slapped him on the side of his face, and said, “If you ever start in with me again, I’ll catch you after school and you’ll really be sorry.”

      Cal, seeing this happen to someone he knew was stronger than he is, became increasing depressed and when he began to talk about killing himself, he ended up in my office. Before long he blurted out all that he was going through.

      Now, here’s another possible outcome of a kid going physically at the bully. The kid ends up winning the fight, or at least does enough harm to the bully, that the bully settles down for the remainder of the trip. But the bully belongs to a gang, and having embarrassed the bully on the bus, the gang decides to get revenge. The kid gets attacked, and ends up with serious injuries.

      Or the bully, seeing that he can’t get the kid to kowtow to him, ends up working up his fury until he begins to get revenge by doing some things behind the kid’s back. The kid discovers his backpack has been slashed and in the crowd looking on he sees the bully smirking. Then the kid’s bike is stolen, and when it is discovered it has been totally trashed. Again the bully has a smirk on his face. The kid tries to get even, the conflict escalates, and before long someone gets knifed or a gun explodes.

      These are just some of the other outcomes that have occurred when someone decides to physically attack a bully. Each person has to consider the situation and decide what is right.

      In my blog I’m not trying to take any tools away from anyone. Instead, I want readers to add a few new tools that they may select given the right situation. I don’t think you want to use a sledge hammer when you want to drive in a one inch Phillip head screw. Similarly, going physically at a bully may not be the best strategy in every situation for every person.

      As I continue to post on this blog, readers will gain more and more effective tools so they can handle various hard to manage situations when a sledge hammer might not be ideal.

      Thanks again, Mike, for raising this important issue.


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