Name Calling, Insults and Teasing

A Guide To Anger, Conflict and Respect

Archive for the category “Harvard Negotiation Project”


Over the past couple of months in weekly blog posts I’ve been discussing criticism.  So far we have discussed five different reasons why people provide criticism:

  3. The desire to form a bond with a group by putting down non-group members (see MAKING THE BUS MONITOR CRY: WHY THE BOYS DID IT)

Today we will turn our attention to a sixth reason why people provide criticism–“guilting.”


In the above comic, Blondie criticizes Dagwood for not agreeing to go to the party.  She does so by crying out, “How can you do this to me?!” and by bursting into tears.  Her technique to convince Dagwood to do what she wants despite his determination manages to work.

Blondie’s actions are an example of what we will be calling “guilting.”  It occurs when somebody who has had a request turned down seeks to change the person’s mind by tossing out certain types of insults.

You may have heard what I refer to as “guilting” as “laying a guilt trip on someone” or “imposing guilt on someone.”

As in the Blondie comic, sometimes guilting can indeed change somebody’s mind.  On the other hand, sometimes imposing guilt on someone can hurt a relationship.

Illustration by Eric Sailer

The two above comics pose an  interesting dilemma.  On the one hand, under some sets of circumstances we can often increase the probability that our desire will be fulfilled by employing a plan that makes someone feel guilty.  On the other hand, using such a plan may hurt our reputation and end up costing us valued friends.

An Alternative to Guilting

Early in my career I began to wonder if I could tweak the “guilting” plan so that it would reduce the probability of negative consequences.  I had recently read a book by Joan Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict.  There Ms. Bondurant tells us that many believe Mohandas Gandhi’s style of appealing for help is particularly effective.

Gandhi recognized that we all have desires, some selfish and some supportive of those we care about.  He also saw that there are people whose actions either interfere with our desires or help to fulfill them.  As we ask others to help, he believed it is acceptable to express sadness at the current state of affairs and to seek a mutually satisfying solution.  If our request is turned down, it is not acceptable to view the refuser as evil.  To seek to humiliate those who turn down our requests is forbidden, while showing empathy and support are essential.

To get a sense of Gandhi’s approach in action, consider an example taken from his autobiography.  One day, in an effort to bring to light some injustice that had been occurring in South Africa, Gandhi sought help from the newspaper editor of The Bangabasi. 

The editor kept me waiting for an hour.  He had evidently many interviewers, but he would not so much as look at me, even when he had disposed of the rest.  On my venturing to broach my subject after a long wait, he said: ‘Don’t you see my hands are full?  There is no end to the number of visitors like you. You better go.  I am not disposed to listen to you.’  For a moment I felt offended, but I quickly understood the editor’s position.  I had heard of the fame of The Bangabasi.  I could see that there was a regular stream of visitors there.  And they were all people acquainted with him.  His paper had no lack of topics to discuss…. However serious a grievance may be in the eyes of the man who suffers from it, he will be but one of the numerous people invading the editor’s office, each with a grievance of his own.  How is the editor to meet them all?… But I was not discouraged.  I kept on seeing editors of other newspapers.

Upon being turned down, Gandhi remained supportive and empathetic toward the editor.  “Experience has taught me,” Gandhi explains later in his autobiography, “that civility is the most difficult part of Satyagraha [his philosophy].  Civility does not here mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.  These should show themselves in every act of a Satyagrahi.”

Contrast the above style, which I will hereafter refer to as encouraging caring, with guilt.  The Dictionary of Behavioral Science (Wolman, 1973) defines guilt as, “The realization that one has transgressed a moral, social or ethical principle, associated with a lowering of self esteem and a need to make retribution for the transgression” (italics mine).

In the guilt definition, the two sets of words that I put in italics represent the crucial differences between encouraging caring and a strategy that I will refer to as guilting.  If Blondie uses guilting on Dagwood because he is resisting complying, she will respond angrily while attempting to lower his self-esteem and make him feel like he is deserving of punishment for his actions.  Consistent with guilting is the use of phrases such as, “You’re selfish,” “You don’t care about anyone but yourself,” and “How can you do this to me?”

In contrast, if Blondie was to use encouraging caring, she would express sadness while seeking to enhance Dagwood’s self-esteem as he comes to feel a sense of compassion within himself, a compassion that leads to a sense of satisfaction as they strive together toward a mutually satisfying solution.  As I envision this, it looks something like this…

Illustration by Eric Sailer

Because Blondie is in an ongoing relationship with Dagwood, when she decides to use guilting on him, she doesn’t always have to say the words that indicate she is employing guilting.  After she has used it a few times with him, just the tone of her voice or even a certain look may be enough to fully indicate to Dagwood that she has decided to use guilting in the current situation.

Similarly, if Blondie happened to be the type of person who uses encouraging caring on an ongoing basis, she would not have to convey to Dagwood, in a long-winded speech, everything that makes up this supportive style each and every time she decides to use it.  An expression of sadness with a few supportive words would be sufficient.  The best time to convey the attitudes that make up the encouraging caring approach is during pleasant discussions, rather than when embroiled in a personal conflict.

To be effective and convincing, Blondie must not suddenly switch to guilting whenever she sees her encouraging caring request style is not going to work.  That is, suppose after Blondie tries to use encouraging caring for a few minutes she finds that Dagwood insists on not going to the costume party.  If Blondie suddenly cries out, “You’re a selfish jerk!” Dagwood would know from then on that when she appears to be using encouraging caring, she is just putting on an act, and her real attitude is that she views him as guilty whenever he does not comply with her request.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  Suppose Blondie consistently uses encouraging caring.  One day she asks Dagwood to go to a costume party and he turns her down.  She is very supportive, though disappointed.  Dagwood may find himself feeling guilty for refusing to go to the party.  Just because Dagwood feels guilty doesn’t mean Blondie has used guilting on him.  It is quite common for someone to have feelings of guilt upon turning down a request even when the requester consistently uses encouraging caring.  However, in such cases the refusers do not believe the requesters are seeking to make them feel guilty.  Guilters are viewed as deliberately trying to make refusers feel guilty.

Some Practice

Here’s a comic that displays a college student making a request of a friend.  See if you can identify whether the woman’s style of making a request is more consistent with guilting or encouraging caring.

Illustration by Eric Sailer

In this comic, Diane expresses sadness about coming to class late and requests that Tom pick her up on time.  When he refuses to make a commitment to do as she asks, she remains supportive.  Diane’s actions are consistent with the encouraging caring plan.

It’s crucial to point out here that even with all that Diane does in this comic, a slight change in the end could turn it into guilting.  For example, suppose that after becoming convinced that Tom will not do as she asks, she gets up to leave and yells at him, red faced, “You’re a selfish creep!”  Guilty of guilting would be my conclusion.

Encouraging Caring and Resignation

Some people make the mistake of thinking that to use encouraging caring effectively people must learn to resign themselves to doing nothing else but graciously accepting it when a person turns down their requests.   In many situations that is the wisest choice.  But there are many alternatives that can be considered that are consistent with the supportive encouraging caring plan.  For example, when Diane sees that Tom has turned down her request, she can offer something in return for compliance.    That is, after Tom turns her request down, she can say something like, “Yeah, punching a clock can be a drag, Tom.  What if I were to give you the money I spend on the morning bus ride in exchange for the ride to school?  That’s two dollars a day—ten dollars a week that can help you with the gas money.  I’d get a good looking guy to pick me up right at my door, and you’d get my great company, ten dollars a week, and the satisfaction of helping me out.  What do you say?”

Notice that Diane’s use of this new plan proposes a mutually satisfying solution.  Thus it is consistent with encouraging caring.

Negotiation is a process of communicating back and forth for the purpose of reaching an agreement (see Harvard Negotiation Project to learn more about this topic).  There are several forms of negotiation methods that are consistent with encouraging caring.  Mutual gains bargaining, principled negotiations, and negotiations on the merits are some names of methods that encourage the negotiators to avoid such behavior as blaming the other party for the problem, engaging in name-calling, or raising your voice.  As the authors (R. Fisher and W. Uri) of the classic text on this type of negotiation writes:

Blaming is an easy mode to fall into, particularly when you feel the other side is indeed responsible.  But even if blaming is justified, it is usually counterproductive.  Under attack, the other side will become defensive and will resist what you have to say. They will cease to listen, or they will strike back with an attack of their own.  (Getting to Yes, page 25)

Learning to negotiate is an important part of conflict resolution, and we will return to this topic in future blog posts.

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.


Post Navigation