*THE 12 MOST FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
ABOUT VERBAL ABUSE AND VERBAL SELF-DEFENSE*
1. "What is verbal abuse?"
Verbal abuse is hostile language that hurts the listener and is not accidental. (For example, it's not language that someone overhears by mistake; the speaker _intends_ the listener to hear it.)
2. "Since nothing really happens, isn't verbal abuse harmless?"
No. Verbal abuse can be just as life-threatening as a loaded gun. If you are exposed to chronice verbal abuse -- whether as abuser, as victim, or as an innocent bystander who doesn't have the option to leave the scene -- you are in danger. The major risk factors for all diseases and disorders, across the board, are hostility and loneliness; the only "cure" is better language.
3. "Who are the worst verbal abusers -- men, or women?"
One is just as likely as the other. Anyone can be a verbal abuser, including small children and people who are physically very frail. Women are a bit more likely to be verbal victims because they are so often outranked in our society, but male verbal victims are in no way unusual.
4. "Where can verbal victims -- or verbal abusers who'd like to change their ways -- go for help?"
Almost no expert help is available unless the individual has access to a professional therapist. You can't call the police or a social service agency and complain that you've been verbally abused. There's no _law_ against verbal abuse in the U.S., and the lack of a definition for it that will stand up in a court of law (like the definitions for libel and slander, for example) makes it difficult for professionals or agencies to intervene and offer help. This is beginning to change, at long last -- but very, very slowly.
5. "I'm a verbal victim. What can I do?"
The most important thing you can do is something you've already done -- becoming aware that you _are_ a verbal victim. The next thing is to understand that verbal abuse, unlike other kinds of abuse, requires a participating partner, a living human being to play the victim role. When you fill that role you're rewarding the verbal abuser's behavior; the longer you keep that up, the stronger the habit will become. Finally, you need to understand that most chronic verbal abusers aren't sadistic monsters whose goal is to cause pain -- instead, they do verbal abuse to satisfy their need for human attention. They cause pain because they've learned that pain will _get_ attention; it's not their purpose. That doesn't excuse what they do, but it's important for it to be understood.
6. "If most verbal abusers don't really mean any harm, aren't so-called verbal victims just neurotics who make mountains out of molehills?"
No. The abusers' intentions are irrelevant. When chemical companies dump toxic waste into a water system, their goal isn't to poison people; they do it because it's convenient and cheap. We do our best to make them stop it all the same, and the poisoning is just as dangerous as if it were deliberate. The same thing is true for verbal abusers; whatever their motives, they have no right to harm others with their language. The pain they cause is real, and its effects are dangerous and nontrivial.
7. "What's the worst kind of verbal abuse there is?"
That depends on the people involved. It's like asking what is the worst kind of _physical_ abuse -- it depends. But long term verbal abuse, of any kind, is worse than short term verbal abuse.
8. "What do verbal abusers say when they realize what they're doing?"
Two things. "Well, at least I never HIT anybody!" (And they're proud of that, as if it were a major achievement.) "Hey, I don't MEAN to hurt anybody!" (And they consider that a complete excuse.)
9. "What do verbal victims say when they realize what they're doing?"
Three things. "Well, at least he/she never HITS me!" ... "I knew I was always miserable, but I didn't know why; now I know why." ... "It's all my fault -- I shouldn't be so sensitive."
10. "Isn't assertiveness training the best way to end verbal abuse?"
If you always say the wrong thing, whether as victim or as attacker,assertiveness training will only teach you how to say the wrong thing far more effectively and articulately. That's not an improvement. Assertiveness training can be very helpful, but it's not a solution for verbal abuse.
11. "Is there a connection between verbal abuse and physical abuse?"
Yes. Verbal violence is where physical violence begins. Sane people don't just walk up to others and start hitting; first there are hostile words. While the abuse is still verbal, anyone can learn how to keep it from escalating; once it's physical, it becomes a matter for law enforcement and emergency medicine. We have to teach our children about this more carefully than we do.
When children who hurt others with words are always told not to worry about it -- "Oh, Tracy just can't take a joke! He'll/She'll get over it!" -- the children get the message that causing people pain is okay. They learn that when their words hurt other people, something is wrong with those people. We shouldn't be surprised if that message gets transferred to physical abuse.
12. "Isn't a verbal abuser/victim pair a typical example of codependency?"
In some ways, yes, but there are critical differences. First: Verbal abuse, unlike any other kind of abuse, cannot be done alone. The verbal abuser's need is to get and hold the victim's attention, along with the emotional reactions that are evidence of the power to do so. That requires the victim's participation and it means that the targets of verbal abuse aren't helpless -- there are things they can do to defend themselves. This isn't "blaming the victim," it's _empowering_ the victim.
Second: You can't help alcoholics by giving them drinks, but you can help verbal abusers by giving them attention. Their problem is that they really believe that there's no other way they can get attention except by verbally abusing others. If people make a point of giving them attention that is in no way linked to hostile language, it will help.
Copyright © 2001 Suzette Haden Elgin
Duplication and distribution permitted provided proper credit is given.
Q1: What is verbal abuse? What is verbal violence?
Verbal abuse and verbal violence are hostile language that is hurtful to the listener, and that the speaker intends the listener to hear. This includes hostile language said to someone else with the intention that the intended victim will overhear it. And it includes language the attacker believes will be repeated as part of an utterance that begins with something along the lines of "I have to tell you what Tracy said about you! Tracy said..."
Q2: Is there a difference between "verbal abuse" and "verbal violence"?
"Verbal violence" is a slightly broader term. For example, most adult verbal abusers are too sophisticated and too skilled to use shouted insults and obscenities as attacks; those items are ordinarily part of physical attacks. But I would include them in "verbal violence" because children and teenagers tend to use them and because there are adults who are exceptions to the rule. Most of the time, however, the two terms are essentially interchangeable.
Q3: Since nothing really happens, isn't verbal abuse harmless?"
No. Verbal abuse can be just as life-threatening as a loaded gun. It isn't true that nothing really happens, although most of the time it happens more slowly than injuries from loaded guns do. Toxic language is more threatening to your health and well-being than any of the "risks" we hear so much about, such as cigarettes and overweight and cho-lesterol. And it's critically important to understand that the risks are just as great for the attacker -- and for bystanders who aren't free to leave the scene -- as they are for the intended victim. The danger is in chronic exposure to hostile language, no matter what its source.
Q4: Who are the worst verbal abusers -- men, or women?
One is just as likely as the other. Anyone at all can be a verbal abuser, including small children and people who are physically very frail. Women are statistically a little more likely to be verbal victims than verbal abusers, especially in public, because they are so often outranked in our society by men, but generally speaking there's little difference.
Q5: Where can verbal victims, or verbal abusers who'd like to change their ways, go for help?
Very little help is available. You can't go to the police or a social service agency and complain that you're a victim of verbal abuse. You can't file charges against a verbal abuser, because verbal abuse isn't illegal; you can't count on sympathy, because the false idea that "sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you" is still so widespread in our society. You're very much on your own -- that's the bad news. The good news is that self-defense against verbal abuse is something you're superbly equipped for simply because you are a native speaker of your language and it's part of the grammar of your language. This means that you can learn verbal self-defense easily and quickly; you don't have to start from scratch the way you would if you wanted to learn chemistry or music theory. (You might take a look at the books and tapes in my Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series to see why that's so.)
Q6: I'm a verbal victim. What can I do?
The first and most important thing to do is something you've already done: Become aware that you are a verbal victim. The next thing is to understand that verbal abuse, unlike other forms of abuse, requires a participating victim. When you participate in verbal abuse -- by taking the bait and counter-attacking, for example, or by pleading or debating -- you're rewarding the verbal abuser by giving him or her exactly what is wanted and you're serving not only as victim but also as trainer. It's awfully tempting to play that role; it feels natural, and it follows scripts that we've all learned; it's also absolutely the wrong move. Verbal self-defense teaches responses to verbal attacks that don't reward the attacker.
Q7: Why do people use verbal abuse? What makes them do it?
Anybody can be verbally abusive once in a while; you've had a long hard day, you're worn out, something unpleasant happens, and you just lose it for a minute. That's normal, and part of being human. Chronic verbal abuse is something very different.
The goal of chronic verbal abusers isn't to cause you pain; they're telling the truth when they say "I didn't mean to hurt you." Their real goal is to get and keep your attention. They cause pain not because they're sadists but because they've learned that causing pain almost always works as a way to get and keep attention. That doesn't excuse their behavior, but it has to be understood, so that you won't react to verbal abuse with the automatic anger and/or fear that makes the participating-victim role hard to resist. (Of course someone who really is sadistic will use words to cause pain, just as he or she will use any other form of cruelty, but this is rare, and it's a serious illness; if you're dealing with a sadist, you'll have plenty of other evidence of that fact in addition to hostile language.)
Once in a great while you'll run into somebody who is a chronic verbal abuser only because of ignorance -- somebody who grew up in a home where verbal abuse went on constantly and who lived a life so isolated that they never had a chance to observe any other way of handling disagreements, no matter how trivial. This is easily recognized: When someone like that learns that their words have caused pain, they're surprised and they're genuinely sorry. This is extremely rare.
Q8: What's the
worst kind of verbal abuse?
That depends on the people involved. It's like asking what is the worst kind of physical abuse -- it depends. About the only thing we can say with assurance is that long term verbal abuse is worse than occasional and short term verbal abuse.
Q9: What are the worst words that people can say as part of verbal abuse?
For English, the emotional messages aren't in the words at all. "Insulting" words can be said tenderly; "loving" words can be said viciously; there are no words that are inherently hostile. For English, the hostility is not in the words but in the body language, and especially in the tunes that the words are set to.
Q10: What do verbal abusers usually say when they realize what they're doing?
"Well, at least I don't HIT anybody!" And "Hey, I don't MEAN to hurt anybody! It's not MY fault if people can't take a joke and they make mountains out of molehills!"
Q11: What do verbal victims usually say when they realize what they're doing?
"Well, at least he/she never HITS me!" And "It's my fault -- I shouldn't be so sensitive." And in the best case: "I knew I was miserable; but until now, I never knew why."
Q12: Isn't assertiveness training the best way to end verbal abuse?
Not for people who always say the wrong thing, whether as attacker or as victim. Assertiveness training will only teach them how to say the wrong thing far more effectively and articulately. That's not an improvement.
Q13: What's the connection between verbal abuse and physical abuse?
There are two connections. First: Verbal violence is at the root of physical violence. Most people don't just walk up to others and start hitting; first, there are angry words, and the interaction then escalates into physical violence. While the abuse is still verbal, anybody can learn to defuse it and keep it from escalating. Second: Children who are allowed -- or, as all too often happens, encouraged -- to use hostile language get the message that it's okay to cause other people pain. It's absurd to bring them up with that message and then be astonished when they use physical violence. Even in the rare case where an adult says openly, "You can say anything you like, no matter how cruel, as long as you never hit anybody," children may not pay attention. It's like lying; they hear adults say that they must never lie, but they hear those same adults lying all the time. Kids are smart; they understand the distinction between real rules and rules to which only lip service has to be paid.
Copyright © 1999 Suzette Haden Elgin
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