RESPONDING TO INSULTS WITH QUIET SADNESS
A couple of weeks ago, I provided readers of this blog a post titled, “How I Met Cool Steve.” There, I told a story about a teenager, Jeff Star. At one point, Jeff is in an angry mood because his teacher gave him so much homework, and perhaps he is also having some jealous feelings about how much respect the other students have for Cool Steve. Jeff Star tells us what happens next:
I turn to my left and spot Cliff calling after me. “Jeff, that guy Steve you were asking about,” Cliff calls out, “well, here he is.”
There, standing by Cliff is Cool Steve with a smile on his face. As I walk over, I’m feeling a completely unfamiliar nervousness. What’s he smiling about? I think to myself. Cool Steve! Cool Idiot if you ask me. And then, when I open my mouth, I find myself saying in a loud tough voice, “So you’re Steve. I’ve been hearing about you. The word is you’re a Jerk!”
As I glare at Steve, with his Mack Truck shoulders, my heart pounds furiously. From the corner of my eye I notice Steve’s friend, Cliff, watching on, his mouth closed so tight he seems to have no lips. His words from yesterday come to mind—“Steve’s the best athlete I’ve ever personally known.”
Big deal! I’m ready to go at him.
I’m waiting for an angry come on, or a quick jab from his right. My muscles are as tight as a hangman’s noose.
I notice several students who were walking home from school have put on their brakes, and their eyes are flashing back and forth between me and Steve.
Steve’s eyes lower, his forehead creases. Then his eyes look into mine and I see, instead of fury, sadness. “I guess,” he begins to say haltingly, “well… I was hoping… you know… starting a new school here… well, I was hoping the guys would like me.”
Those dark, glimmering eyes of his….
“Jeff,” says Cliff, “why did you say that?”
My eyes dart to him and back to Steve. Cold perspiration beads up on my forehead. The students looking on are almost drooling. What should I do?
Uncomfortably, I find myself shifting my stance as I look into Steve’s eyes…the sadness there…eyebrows down. They look like they are on the verge of becoming watery as he looks directly into my eyes, then down, and then back up into mine. My fury begins to turn into a feeling of downright stupidity. “Listen Steve, I… I don’t know why I said that… everyone I talked wit’ said you were okay.” I take a quick glance at Cliff and the other students watching on…and then hurry away.
A few minutes later, I’m pushing the elevator button in my apartment lobby. Jeez, I just made a great impression, I think to myself, a wonderful great impression. Steve’s eyes… man, who is this guy?
In junior high, whenever I started to put someone down, I got returned insults and fistfights. Such reactions would turn me into a raving lunatic. Now, with the way Steve acted, I don’t know how to respond to his quiet sadness.
In contrast to the beliefs of many people, the story, “How I Met Cool Steve” puts forth the theory that someone can be respected even if they respond to an insult in a different way than to return the insult or to physically attack the insulter. As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, I became pretty acquainted with the typical way to respond to insults. Most often, voices would get loud, and the exchange led to a very uncomfortable feeling between the two parties. When the two parties came back together, there were often more uncomfortable verbal exchanges. From time to time physical fights would break out, school pants got ripped at the knees as one guy tried to pin down the other on the cement ground, and I saw more then one guy end up with a broken nose. Parents had to take time off from work to meet with the principal, and sometimes the insults led to larger groups ganging up on other groups to defend the honor of someone.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his fine book, Outliers, discusses regions where people are willing to fight in response to even the slightest insult. He refers to these regions as having a “culture of honor.” One of the clearest consequences of having an above average “culture of honor” is that the murder rate is quite a bit higher than average.
In the Cool Steve story, there is something about how Cool Steve uses his eyes to negotiate through his challenging experience with Jeff Star.
How we use our eyes can dramatically influence an experience. To illustrate this, consider this example. When I first began to drive in New York, I was astounded that there were times when I was trying to ease over to the left toward my exit, when I would encounter some aggressive drivers. They would lean forward and the expression on their faces seemed to say that they would kill me if I dared to move in front of them.
As I reflected upon this, I recognized that there were times that I too acted like one of these aggressive drivers. But then one day, someone began to indicate that he wanted to move in front of me, and as I started to get into my angry, aggressive mode, the person seeking to move in front of me deliberately caught my eye with his friendly gaze and indicated with his hand that he wanted to move over. There was something in his eyes that seemed to be just asking me if I minded if he moved over, rather than like he was trying to bully his way over. Instantly, I found my whole self dramatically change. I quickly eased off the gas peddle and waved him over. I felt a reduction in my anger. His eyes somehow let me know that he was not merely an it–but rather, a fellow human being.
Afterwards, I began trying this approach whenever I wanted to move over in heavy traffic, and it has been an enormous help.
How we use our eyes can have similarly helpful effects when someone throws an insult at you. By looking gently into the insulter’s eyes and softly letting the insulter know you are sorry to hear whatever the insult is about often eases tensions. Then, if you look sadly down toward the ground for a couple of seconds, and then gently back into the insulter’s eye, this has a way of making a personal connection.
As I began to try this in my teenage years, I was amazed at how well it worked. At first, I had a little fear that my friends would think less of me, but this proved unfounded. Occasionally, a friend would say to me, “You should have slugged that guy who insulted you right in the kisser.” I’d shrug my shoulders, and that put an end to it. All of my old friends stuck with me, and I ended up often becoming friends with the insulters.
Now, some people in my conflict resolution classes over the years have asked, “What’s wrong with standing up for yourself?”
My answer is, “Nothing is wrong with it. I encourage people to stand up for themselves. But there are smart ways to do it and not so smart ways to do it.”
Consider the following Luann comic:
Here we see Luann preparing to stick up for herself so that as soon as Tiffany throws an insult at her, Luann will be ready to return the insult. If you are a follower of the delightful Luann comic strip, you know that this back and forth insult pattern has been going on and on for years. And if two people are fine with continuing to act this way toward one another, they are free to do so.
But let’s say Luann is getting tired of this old game. If she really wanted to effectively stand up for herself, she would first try to figure out why Tiffany is insulting her. It has long been my impression that Tiffany is jealous of Luann because some boys prefer Luann to her. Returning insults at Tiffany won’t resolve that issue. Gently looking sadly into Tiffany’s eyes and asking her in a concerned voice why she is throwing insults at her might lead to a more lasting solution to this type of problem.
Now, of course this quiet sadness approach is just one tool to have in your conflict resolution toolbox. It is not quite right for every situation. In the past, I recommended a few others (see for example, INSULTING CRITICISM: WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?). We’ll also be looking at other effective ways to stand up for yourself in future posts, ways that oftentimes work far better than returning insults.
Have a great week!
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.