Max Antonucci

Journalist turned Full-time Coder, Part-time Ponderer

Three Lessons about Verbal Abuse

May 18, 2018

A few months ago I read about emotional abuse tactics Trump used in a presidential debate. That got me curious about the nature of verbal and emotional abuse. How it can damage our minds and well-beings so much, yet it’s rarely talked about. Whenever it comes up, people less familiar with it often dismiss it as “people being too sensitive.”

I define verbal abuse as any communication focused only about hurting whoever’s listening. They ask questions but don’t care for the answer. It’s only about humiliation and exerting power.

Note that I said “communication,” not “words.” Tone of voice and body language are part of what makes language abusive. It’s also why abusers may dismiss complaints with “All I said was…“, even though it’s also about the way they said it. Here’s more details and examples on verbal abuse.

So I did what I often do - find a book about it. Turns out there was, a book by Suzette Haden Elgin on chronic verbal abuse. I recommend it, but know that most people don’t read random book recommendations. So to save you some time, here’s the three biggest lessons I took away from Elgin’s book.

1) “Words Don’t Hurt You” is Bullshit

We’re often told “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I no longer believe this is true.

Think about it this way: being verbally abused over and over is horrible. Imagine worrying about it all the time in your own home, never getting a moment of real peace. That stress builds and can lead to a long list of health problems, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Greater risk of Alzheimers
  • Accelerated aging
  • Premature death
  • Likely many more

This shows how verbal abuse can cause lots of health problems, so the words we use (and how we use them) matter. Elgin also points out that much physical violence is often rooted in verbal abuse. Domestic violence alone is often seeded in fights or humiliation between two spouses. It also applies to any other violence between family members. Or strangers on the street whose verbal argument turns physical.

Don’t believe that words and communication are harmless to people. They are not. They can cause any amount of health or violence issues. We don’t see the wounds right away, but that doesn’t mean they’re there.

2) Verbal Abuse is About Getting a Reaction

For a long time, I thought ending verbal abuse was about “beating” the abuser. I’d try to use logic to prove why they’re wrong. This never seemed to stop them or make them more bearable.

But Elgin points out this is exactly what most verbal abusers want. It’s an exercise in power over the victim, which is done by:

  • Commanding someone’s attention
  • Getting an emotional reaction from them
  • Keeping their attention and riling their emotions for as long as possible

It doesn’t matter if the abuser is shouting or crying as much as the victim. If their words can get someone’s attention and push their buttons whenever they want, they win. Verbal abusers win whenever we give them a strong (emotional) reaction. That reaction can be getting emotional, giving long-winded and logical arguments, or the silent treatment. They’re all different types of negative reactions, but are still reactions.

Knowing this is crucial when it comes to stopping verbal abuse.

3) There’s Easy Ways to Handle Verbal Abuse

Stopping verbal abuse isn’t about beating the abuser in a verbal fight. It’s about defusing things before they start.

Verbal abusers win if they press your buttons and can start a loop where you keep getting furious at each other. Fighting back only feeds this loop. Defusing it is the better response. Show the abuser you won’t play their game, without inviting more hostility from them.

Don’t Take the Bait

Many verbal attacks have a two part structure: a negative premise, and “bait” to distract from it. An example is “If you really loved me, you’d stop smoking so much in our house!

The abuser wants the victim to respond to the second part, that they smoke so much in the house. This creates a negative back and forth about how much the victim smokes. Both sides keep getting angrier. But by taking to the bait, they don’t address the premise - that the victim smokes because they don’t love the abuser. That’s doing the real emotional damage, but by taking the bait instead, the victim misses it and it fuels the anger.

Not taking the bait means addressing the attack’s real premise instead. Respond in a neutral tone without extra emphasis, emotions, or body language.

  • “When did you start to think I didn’t love you?”
  • “Of course I love you. I love you a lot.”

As long as the premise is directly addressed in a calm way, it can go a long way in defusing an attack.

Use Neutral Language to Change the Subject

This is like to the last trick, also using neutral language and focused on the hidden premise. They both steer the topic away from a personal attack to an abstract conversation.

A common way to frame this is starting the sentence with something like “Isn’t it interesting how…” This makes it easy to come up with a few more responses to the last attack.

  • “Isn’t it interesting how different couples handle each other’s habits?”
  • “Isn’t it interesting how people try to change their partners for their relationship?”
  • “Isn’t interesting how people show concern for each others’ health?”

This neutral language does two things. It stops the personal attack, and pivots the conversation to something else. The abuser wants to make it personal and angry. This victim shows they won’t play their game without inviting another attack.

Abusers want conversations to bepersonal and emotional. Use neutral and abstract language to avoid this.

Use the Boring Baroque Response

Some abusers will try and bulldoze over the above moves and keep attacking. More often they’ll ask a question but not care about the answer - they only ask to get a reaction. If they keep attacking, one response is to give a neutral response that’s as long and boring as possible. If they’re force the victim’s have, the victim can show the abuser it won’t be fun. It’ll be a tedious waste of time. Elgin calls this the “Boring Baroque Response.”

Pretend the abuser from the above example keeps attacking about smoking habits. The victim start a long anecdote about what they’ve read on smoking, addiction, or whatever. The key is still neutral language and expression. Most abusers will tire and give up.

It You Can, Leave

Some verbal abusers refuse to stop, although Elgin argues these are rare. For these, there may be no option but to stop talking with them. Give an excuse and quickly leave, cutting off all conversation. This may not always be possible, like for people they live with. But sometimes it’s the only option left.

If someone knows a relentless verbal abuser, that’s a sign of a bad relationship. If the deeper issues can’t be addressed, it may be better to cut their losses as soon as possible. Relationships like that may not be worth fighting for.

Don’t Discount Verbal Abuse

It’s easy to dismiss or ignore verbal abuse as people “being too sensitive” or “letting people get to them.” To that, I call bullshit. We don’t see the damage verbal abuse does, but it’s still serious. If anything, that’s why we should take it more seriously. It’s harder to recognize, even when it’s happening to us.

Some people rarely deal with verbal abuse, others on a day-to-day basis. Regardless of when and how much, knowing how to handle it is important. It shows we can’t let people push our buttons, waste our time, and damage us just to feel powerful. We don’t need to play their games or feed their hostility.

Most of all, know that everyone has the power to handle and avoid it. If you’re fluent in one language, you already have the tools you need. Learning the details on verbal abuse is a small push in the right direction. Verbal abuse is about others using language to make us feel weak. Stopping it is realizing we can always use our own to see we’re still strong.