in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #390: Why Insults Sting and How to Handle Them

Insults are a part of the human experience. We insult others and we get insulted back. Social media has only amplified our tendency to ridicule one another, and increased our likelihood of being on the receiving end of a barb. Yet we don’t typically understand the dynamics of insults very well. Why do we throw insults at each other and why do they hurt so much? Is there anything we can do to reduce the mental and emotional sting of these verbal affronts?

My guest today has explored the philosophy of insults in his book A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn’tHis name is Bill Irvine, and I had him on the podcast about a year ago to discuss his book on Stoic philosophy. Today on the show, Bill and I talk insults.

We begin our conversation discussing all the ways we can insult one another — from direct insults to passive aggressive ones. Bill explains why we often resort to backhanded compliments when praising people and why you don’t have to intend to insult someone to insult them. Our conversation then dovetails into the rise of PC culture and how it’s made us all more sensitive to small slights and unintentional snubs. We end our conversation with tactics you can use to be less sensitive to social slights with many of Bill’s insights coming from the Stoic philosophers. 

In a day and age where we seem to be in perpetual outrage mode, this podcast can provide some fortifying balm for the soul.

Show Highlights

  • Was Bill’s work on insults an offshoot of his research into Stoicism?
  • What is a direct insult? What are some examples?
  • Other types of insults that are more indirect and subtle 
  • Why backbiting is so damaging and hurtful 
  • Backhanded compliments, and how to avoid giving them 
  • Some of the famed, witty insulters throughout history 
  • How giving insults can actually elicit bonding and camaraderie 
  • How to give a great insult (yes, you read that right), and when it’s okay to do so 
  • The Stoic approach to dealing with insults 
  • Other tactics for dealing with insults, including self-deprecation 
  • The PC movement, trigger warnings, and being sensitive to insults 
  • The futility of regulating and outlawing insults 
  • Why hate speech and insults should be protected 
  • Toughening our “mental hides” 
  • Responding to praise 
  • The connection between insult and status 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of "A slap in the face " by William B Irvine.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Insults are a part of the human experience. We insult others and we get insulted back. Social media has only amplified our tendency to ridicule one another and increase the likelihood of being on the receiving end of a barb. Yet we don’t typically understand the dynamics of insults very well. Why do we throw insults at each other and why do they hurt so much? Is there anything we can do to reduce the mental and emotional sting of these verbal affronts? My guest today has explored the philosophy of insults in his book A Slap In The Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn’t. His name is Bill Irvine. I had him on the podcast about a year ago to discuss his book on stoic philosophy.

Today on the show, Bill and I talk insults. We begin our conversation discussing all the ways we can insult one another from direct insults to passive aggressive ones. Bill explains why we often resort to backhanded compliments when we’re praising people and why you don’t have to intend to insult someone to insult them. Our conversation then dovetails into the rise of PC culture and how it’s made us all more sensitive to small slights and unintentional snubs. We end our conversation with tactics you can use to be less sensitive to social slights with many of Bill’s insights coming from the Stoic philosophers. In a day and age where we seem to be in perpetual outrage mode, this podcast provides some fortifying balm for the soul. After the show’s over check out the show notes at Bill joins me now via … Bill Irvine, welcome back to the show.

William Irvine: It is indeed a pleasure to be here.

Brett McKay: So we had you on the show a few months ago to talk about your book about Stoicism, The Art of Stoic Joy. We got a lot of positive feedback on that. You’ve written another book a while back ago, right? Shortly after you wrote this book on Stoicism about insults and why they sting so much called A Slap in the Face. I’m curious, was this insults book, was this an offshoot of your Stoicism book? Like after you’d wrote the Stoicism book you decided to explore the topic of insults because of your research in Stoicism?

William Irvine: Yeah. I had kind of a curious triple pregnancy going on here. I originally wrote a book called On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, thinking that I would use that book as a way to pursue an interest in Buddhism. Of course, I could also get academic credit toward tenure and promotion by doing that so it’s two for the price of one. In the process of doing the research on Buddhism, I decided I needed to explore other philosophies of life. One of them was Stoicism. After looking into Stoicism, I decided I was much better suited to become a Stoic than to become a Buddhist.

So then, a follow-up was I also decided to write a book on the Stoics. In the process of doing that discovered that they had extensive, they had given extensive thought to insults, to the role insults play in society, and to how to prevent insults from disrupting our tranquility, from upsetting us. So I decided once I finished the Stoic book that I would do a book on insults. This is that book. So it’s kind of a follow on to the Stoic book that I wrote.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think that’s interesting. You went from Buddhism to Stoicism. Or from desire to Buddhism to Stoicism to insults.

William Irvine: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It’s funny where things can take you if you just follow those paths.

William Irvine: Yeah. It’s an adventure. It’s a kind of an intellectual adventure and you just find out where the road is leading and you follow it along and surprising things can happen as a result.

Brett McKay: Well so you start off the book discussing the different types of insults that are out there. I think we all know them intuitively but when you made it explicit in the book I was like boy there are different ways you can, there’s a whole host of ways you can insult people. So you start off talking about sort of direct insults. What are some examples of direct insults that we see on a day to day basis?

William Irvine: A direct insult you can walk up to somebody and simply say something abusive to them. You can say it’s an ugly haircut. You can say they’re an ugly person. You can say they’re ignorant. Those are verbal insults. There’s not a lot to say for them but they’re one step better than physical insults. You can walk up to somebody and punch them in the face. Now of course that’s also a form of violence whereas the other is just verbal abuse. Then, the interesting thing is that’s what you think of when you think about insults but when you get deeper into the whole insult process you realize how much human brain power can go into an insult, how clever and subtle they can be. It turns out to be its own little genre, that the whole set of insults that are possible.

Brett McKay: Right. So besides sort of direct proactive action, either verbally or through actions insulting, you talk about how you can insult people just by not doing anything at all or not saying anything at all.

William Irvine: Suppose you walk up to me. Suppose I have some dispute with you in the past and as a result I’ve formed a bad opinion of you and you walk up to me and hold your hand out. I can refuse to extend my hand to shake your hand. That’s a big insult. Even worse, I can turn my back to you and walk off. So those haven’t said a word, haven’t touched you but that can be a truly cutting insult depending on the nature of our relationship beforehand.

Brett McKay: Right. Or shunning is another example of that or sort of an offshoot of that where you just totally ostracize.

William Irvine: Yep. So I can go an extended period when I simply refuse to respond to anything you say. In some religious groups shunning is a way of punishment. If you want to communicate with the person who’s shunning you you have to find a third party to act as intermediary there between you and the person who’s shunning you and it’s brutal. I’ve read accounts of being shunned and it’s absolutely brutal.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It sounds like it could be worse than sort of the direct insult because at least with the direct insult the person’s acknowledging that you exist. When you’re shunned, you cease to exist in a weird way.

William Irvine: Yes. You are written out of that person’s social life. It’s, like you say, it’s as if you don’t even exist. and what could be more painful than that?

Brett McKay: Yeah. Then you talk about, say we … oftentimes the way we insult is not directly to the person like one on one. I mean that does happen. You know, we call them a bad name, flip them the bird, do something else like that. Or we shun them or give them the silent treatment. But oftentimes, you talk about in the book, the way people go about insulting others is through third parties or indirectly. Could we, let’s dig into that. What are sort of the indirect ways that we insult people?

William Irvine: Well you can say bad things about somebody to someone else. You can do that with two different kinds of plans in mind. I mean all of this becomes very cunning and very strategic. One thing you could do is do the insult to a third party, an outside party, on the assumption that that party is going to report the insult to the person you’re trying to insult which is bad. You aren’t there when the insult happens but it’s a bad thing. The other thing you can do is spread this campaign of a poisonous kind of campaign behind the person’s back where you’re going around saying mean things and insulting things to everyone else. Then you, the person who’s the target of this attack, kind of grow aware of it in a subtle way. It’s just that everybody seems to be treating you differently. That can also have disastrous consequences.

Brett McKay: This is called back biting, right, where you talk behind people’s back? Besides these indirect approaches you also highlight other subtle ways we insult people even just to their face without them even knowing. So example like backhanded compliments are an example of that.

William Irvine: Yeah. So I could tell you that, you know, you’re the best player on our team. That sounds like a compliment but if you think you’re the best player at a certain position in the entire league that can count as an insult. It’s a curious thing about insults, they’re in the mind of the beholder. You can play against whatever self image somebody has in order to insult them where what you’re saying isn’t directly insulting and to an outsider it sounds like you’re complimenting them but to those people themselves it comes across as an insult ’cause you’re not acknowledging their self image.

Brett McKay: Right. We often see these too with like comparisons, right? Say you say, “Oh, you did better than Jimmy in class,” but like Jimmy’s not particularly bright. Well okay, that’s not much of a-

William Irvine: Jimmy’s the worst one. No, it’s like you know damning with faint praise. The thing is we’re programmed by our evolution to care very much about our social standing so we go through life playing what I call the social hierarchy game. One of the ways we play it, we can play it with, if you look at animal groups there will be actual fights that break out in order to determine who’s where on a social hierarchy. We humans have evolved beyond that so we do it with words, with insults, with these subtle interplays between individuals in the conversation they have.

Brett McKay: My favorite subtle insult that you highlight in the book is the ambush insult ’cause it just made me laugh. It’s like the ambush insult is when you … you start off with something that sounds like praise but then you go right to just like being as insulting as possible. I think you gave an example of Groucho Marx.

William Irvine: Yeah, Groucho.

Brett McKay: As sort of a master of the ambush insult.

William Irvine: Yeah. He had a friend who had written a book that was supposed to be, have a humorous element but other elements as well. When Groucho wrote him back a response saying, “So when I picked up your book I laughed so hard I couldn’t believe it and then I put it down,” which sounds like a compliment but then followed by the remark that, “Some day I plan to actually read it.” Which is a great insult and very clever and that’s the interesting thing. So with one of these set up insults you’re kind of trying to increase the amount of harm you inflict by first making them think it’s praise because then they have this sense of heightened expectation for what comes next and then you lower the boom with the insult.

Brett McKay: Right. And Winston Churchill was a master of this as well.

William Irvine: Yeah. So lots of examples of that. So he had I mean I’m not thinking of any off the top of my head but he was very good at his insults. Ah, Lady Nancy Astor said to him, “Winston Churchill, if you were my husband I would put poison in your coffee.” He replied to her, “And Nancy, if you were my wife I would drink it.” So that’s a classic, classic Churchill line.

Brett McKay: Right. So there is sort of a sense of gamesmanship with the insult. I mean like the more clever and subtle your insult can be, I don’t know, it seems like it’s more insulting that way then compared to just call them a jerk or whatever.

William Irvine: Yeah and you wanna do it with style. Where this comes across most vividly is when it’s typically involving men who imagine themselves to be highly intelligent or highly articulate. Women have a different kind of form that their insulting can take. With men, it’s often simply this kind of male showing of your power, showing that you’re high up in the hierarchy. You know it descends, also, in athletic contests of various kinds. It’s no longer there, it’s not the high flown intellectual kinds of insults but it’s the coarsest insults you can imagine that the players, even on their own team, will hurl at each other. It’s some kind of curious male bonding thing. Then you reply with an equally crude insult back. For some reason, that cements the group together. You wouldn’t think that but I have, I’m a competitive rower and so I have teammates and people I play with and compete with. It’s really remarkable the extent to which our conversation consists in put downs and responses to put downs. It’s a lot of fun. You know I try to explain it to my wife and she always is just a little bit puzzled of well why would that be fun? But it is and I’m not sure I can fully explain it.

Brett McKay: Right. That’s a very uniquely male thing. It seems like mean use aggressiveness as a way to nurture and to foment bonds between each other.

William Irvine: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But that raises the question. So you talk about teasing. Teasing is sort of a social lubricant that we use. We even do with men between women, right? Like husbands and wives tease each other.

William Irvine: It’s an important form of, in a relationship between a man and a women. Once you spend a lot of time with another person, they invariably are gonna start doing things that you find annoying. I mean simply because they have a different way of going through their lives, going about their days than you do and so there are things that you find annoying. You very quickly find that the worst thing you can do in terms of the relationship is to go up in a very factual way say you’re doing the following, I find it very annoying, I’m asking you to quit right now, ’cause it doesn’t work out that way.

You know within relationships there’s that same kind of jockeying that goes on where nobody wants to be taken advantage of or looked down on by the other party to the relationship. So in the case of a husband and wife, you turn it into a kind of a tease, into a kind of joke what you regard as their shortcoming. That puts a comic spin on the suggestion you’re trying to make to them. So then it has a greater chance of it getting through.

I mean suppose you think that your wife has just been running up a huge bill at some store and you’re worried about that. One way you can do it is say you can’t spend any more money. Probably not the best strategy but a second way is, “Well, are you sure you’re going to not melt that credit card?” There’s all sorts of cute, funny kind of ways of putting it where they’ll get the message but they won’t feel directly attacked by it. My wife does precisely the same thing back at me about the things she wants me to change. So it’s a nice way to make a suggestion.

Brett McKay: But there’s some people who would hear that sort of humorous suggestion but get really offended by it. So I mean that’s the funny, teasing, there’s like a fine line with teasing where okay it’s fun and playful and everyone’s in on it but then at some point it crosses to like this is no longer teasing, this is actually vindictive and mean.

William Irvine: Yeah. It’s a fine line and that’s only one of many fine lines because insults can turn into bullying too so you have that whole spectrum that starts with a gentle tease and ends with outright bullying. It’s a function of the intention of the person doing it but the downside is you can say something with the best intentions in the world, and if you’re dealing with a particularly sensitive person they can react in a really extreme manner. So you kind of learn, well you know you might have relatives for instance. You know there are some people that when you’re around them the saying is you walk on eggshells, that is you’re very careful. You know they have many sensitive topics and you don’t want to set them off on that. So they’ll interpret all sorts of things as insults. So what you need to do is say very little and be very guarded in what you do say, and even then, you can end up triggering some kind of response. The best way to deal with that is simply to humbly apologize and retrench even more.

It’s unfortunate for people who are that way. It’s evidence of a fragile kind of ego. By being that way you open yourself up to a world of hurt that could easily be avoided if only, if only you started thinking in terms of you know, a lot of the things people say that I find offensive, they don’t really mean to insult me. And you know what? Even if they did, consider the source.

So one of the interesting things among the Stoics that I found was their own approach to insults and how to deal with them. One if their brilliant maneuvers was when someone insults you you simply ignore it. You simply carry on as if they hadn’t said anything which turns out to be a really effective way to deal with insults ’cause the person who insulted you will at first thing, “Gee, maybe he didn’t hear me.” They’ll repeat the insult at which point you can say, “No, I heard you.” Then you just carry on talking ’cause here it was, they hit you with your best shot and they didn’t even phase you. But it takes a certain amount of self esteem for you to do that, for you to just say you know what, I’m not gonna let this insult phase me. I know it’s not a substantial kind of factual claim they’re making so I’m just going to pretend that nothing happened.

Brett McKay: Alright so yeah, you can just re raise the point that insults are in the eye of the receiver. The receiver of the insult is what determines whether something’s an insult or not. Someone can intend something to be an insult or not intend to be something an insult and it can either, as long as the person takes it as an insult then it’s an insult.

William Irvine: Yeah. I mean we can argue the semantics of it but for me, you’ve insulted someone if someone feels insulted by something you’ve said or done. It’s sort of a social thing. That gives other people a lot of power though. You know we’ve kind of emerged into a stage here of our own culture where people are rewarded, in a curious fashion, for being hypersensitive to what other people say. So we have the whole PC movement, and we have trigger warnings, and we have a variety of things along those lines.

Suddenly, if you’re a very sensitive person, you have been given the green light to silence a conversation in a large group. You might say, “Well what you’re saying is upsetting me.” “Whoops, well then we gotta stop.” That’s one way to deal with that but there are other ways as well. One way is well, guess what? Become less sensitive. Some people will find that hard to do of course but others could if they wanted to. But they’ve found their source of power and they’re sticking with it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. That was an interesting chapter. You go into the book sort of talking about the rise of the PC culture, the PC code. What we had before, which was a code of etiquette or a code of politeness. From what I gathered, the code of politeness was sort of, it was this informal code that no one really sat down to agree upon but is an informal code that we agree that these certain things are insulting generally for anybody no matter who you are. What happened with the PC thing is that now what is determined as offensive and insulting is determined by each individual.

William Irvine: Right. So each individual now can have a sub-list. You know, when your parents teach you manners as a kid what they’re really teaching you is how not to insult somebody because your parents know what it takes to insult somebody and then they know how to avoid doing that. So always say please, always say thank you. There was this broad kind of cultural thing that said well if you do the following, if you behave in the following way no one can hold it against you. You’re fine. There will be some very sensitive people, just be very careful when you’re in their presence or don’t say a lot.

But insults, the whole notion, the PC movement tried to sensitize people to what other people were saying. So an unintended side effect was it made it much easier for some people to feel insulted, to take very personally something that you said. So it’s an unfortunate side effect ’cause of some people are miserable because of it. You know what, if somebody calls you a racial, hurls a racial epithet at you, that person’s an idiot and the best way to respond is to realize this is an idiot. This is the human equivalent of a dog barking at me. If a dog barks at me I don’t take it as deeply cutting, I don’t take it as an attack on my very existence. But people were led to view it in those ways. So I’m suspecting that, in many lives, there are people who have been made miserable by it but the intent was just the opposite. The intent was to create a world in which none of this stuff went on. That would be a wonderful world to live it. It isn’t clear we can get there in this manner.

When you study the PC movement and the kind of language you also can sense in some way the futility of trying to outlaw insults. So for instance, at one time people who had physical handicaps were referred to as crippled individuals. Then it was realized no, that’s an insult so we can’t call them that, so we need to call them handicapped individuals. Then there were people who took offense even to that so we had to call them disabled individuals. Then there were people who said no, no, that’s also an insult. So we finally, at least for the time being, seem to have arrived at differently abled individuals. I mean I’m fine with that. It’s not the language, it’s just the thing is that if you’re dealing with a hypersensitive individual then whatever you call them, there’s a good chance that they’re going to take some kind of offense.

Same thing happened with respect to race. So there was a time when blacks were referred to as colored people. That started being viewed as an insult so that was changed to being called blacks, which was considered an insult so the name was changed to Afro-Americans. Then people commented that Afro was a style of haircut, not a race, so it became African Americans. The last I heard that had been supplanted in many areas of life by the phrase person of color. So it kind of gives you a feeling for the futility of it. We start with colored people and after 100 years in our effort to flee from possible insults we’ve come around to persons of color so that doesn’t seem like a lot of progress to me.

Again, bottom line, a racist is probably ignorant and probably crude and the best way to respond is simply to ignore. Now the people on the other side of the debate will say, “Well you know what, if you ignore them then they’re going to spread because they’re being ignored.” I suspect it’s just the opposite, that one of the things they’re out for is attention and they’re out for shock value. We have it in our power to remove that from them in which case they might start changing their minds about various things.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I thought that was an interesting point. You talk about how this PC culture, in America we have a very robust sense of the first amendment so laws to make certain words, language illegal haven’t passed but it’s been happening in Canada. Then you talk about one case where they wanted to pass some law where they wanted to make illegal hateful speech, whatever that means, but it got shot down by the Supreme Court. In the case, the judge or the justice wrote about pre-Nazi Germany as an example of when there’s laws in place that prohibit “hateful speech”, quote unquote, the Nazis, the Nazi Party before they came to power used those laws to their advantage by drumming up attention to their cause and their party at the trials. When these guys who were saying antisemitic things and doing antisemitic actions were put on trial for violating these laws and it actually helped ferment and increase their following.

William Irvine: Yeah. And hate speech has become a big topic of discussion. In Canada, hate speech is outlawed. In the United States, it’s been tested, gone all the way to the Supreme Court and it is allowed. I am vigorous in my defense of free speech and that includes hate speech. You know, I don’t regard myself as a hateful person but free speech is extremely important because once we start cutting corners then things can go astray.

I also think that this concern with hate speech, we’re dealing with symptoms instead of the underlying cause. The underlying cause here is you have people who are sensitive to insults, whose feelings are easily hurt. Then my counter suggestion is well let’s help those people. Let’s help them develop a healthy sense of self and a healthy self-identity so that we can make the pain go away that way. It’s a different approach. Kind of more subtle, kind of more round about. I think, given a choice between censorship of various kinds, that that approach Is better. You know, it would affect not only how they respond to political speech but it would also affect how they respond to the kinds of things that happen in just regular relationships.

Brett McKay: Yeah. There was a great phrase that I remember reading in law school when we were discussing the tort of intentional affliction of emotional distress, which is this tort, you can sue somebody for this if someone intentionally caused you emotional harm. And so the question is like okay what’s a reasonable emotional harm for a reasonable person. This jurist said that, basically said it has to be pretty, pretty high. Like really, really, the bar has to be really, really high because in the course of just interacting with people, rubbing shoulders with people, people are gonna say rude, offensive things. It’s just part of life. We have to accept that. And that to counter that we just need to, there needs to be a certain toughening of the mental hide, which I thought was a great phrase. I’ve used that a lot. So in order to, for civil society to function and so we’re not caught up in the courts all the time, we need to toughen our mental hides a bit.

William Irvine: Yeah. In the PC movement you had a kind of a race to the bottom of who can be most sensitive. Then we had these things called microaggressions that emerged. So for instance, if you’re in a group and men and women and you say, “Hey guys, let’s go to a bar,” you have just committed a microaggression because there’s a chance that one of the women there will think she’s excluded ’cause she’s not a guy in one sense of the word guy so somebody’s feelings will be hurt. This isn’t the direct intention of PC language but it’s a consequence. It actually increases the amount of sensitivity and therefore has the potential to increase the amount of emotional suffering that people experience. So if you’re fighting emotional suffering, it’s just a bad way to go. What’s a better way to go? Teach people how to take insults and simply assess the source of the insult and then respond accordingly.

So there are people, that when they say something insulting to me, I know it’s part of a friendship. If I spent 10 minutes with them and they didn’t insult me I would say, “Gee, what’s wrong? Is something going wrong in your life?” There are other cases, there are people who insult me simply because they don’t like me for whatever reason. I can live with that. There are people who when they make a remark critical of me I listen very carefully ’cause I’ve given those individuals what I call mentor status. I regard them as mentors. If I pick somebody out as a mentor I don’t necessarily inform them of such. These are people who have just figured out some aspect of life and I can learn a lot just by listening to them.

So if a person has for me mentor status and they make a critical remark, I don’t fight back. I take careful notes. I give it a lot of thought. But if I were a hypersensitive person, that would be rules out. Somebody who said you’re doing the following thing wrong it would be like, “Oh, boo hoo hoo. Why don’t you like me?”

Another thing that’s come along to increase our sensitivity is we’ve had certainly in grade schools, it’s starting to spill over into colleges, but this whole notion of praising everybody for almost nothing. We have competitions in which everyone gets an award. We have everyone ending up the high school valedictorian. And if you’re raised in that kind of environment and go out in the real world where there are gonna be people who are critical or people who are gonna insult us it stings so much worse if you’ve never had an insult. So it’s counterproductive in that sense.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, the whole self esteem movement where we’ve basically created very fragile, fragile psyches in kids.

William Irvine: Right.

Brett McKay: So we know the Stoic approach which is just not care. Here’s an interesting thing I thought was, you highlight in the book with insults is that praise, praising someone, when done a certain way, can actually be insulting. So how can praise be insulting?

William Irvine: Yeah. You can praise something for something they don’t think is particularly praise worthy or praise them in a way that they think there’s even more better praise coming. You know if I say if a woman is wearing a dress of a certain kind and I say to her, “You know that,” actually I would never do this to a woman so it’s a bad example but if you said, “Boy, that makes you look thinner.” Right? Oops. It was intended as praise but then it also comes out as revealing that apparently I think this is a person in need of looking thinning, otherwise I wouldn’t be praising it. Meaning, by inference, that this person is overweight. So what I intend as praise can come out at the other end as an interesting kind of insult.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s sort of the backhanded compliment. You also highlight you can give praise sarcastically and make someone feel really bad and make feel something ’cause I remember that like, “Oh, you’re such a genius.” I was like no, that’s an insult.

William Irvine: Yeah. So somebody does something really crazy, really awkward, really . . . something really awkward you can say, you know, “Nice move, Nijinsky,” meaning just the opposite. What you said was literally praise except that it’s gonna be taken as an insult and you fully realize that at the time you do it. You know and the whole praise thing, the Stoics were nicely consist. So the Stoics said when somebody insults us we should simply turn a blind eye, ignore them. They also had, we go into this in more detail here in a second, but they also talked about a great way to respond to an insult was by insulting yourself even worse than the insulter just insulted you.

Switching over, they were consistent because they said not only should we not put a whole lot of value on the insults that people direct our way, we should not put much value on the praise they do either. And again, I would in my own mind I’ve got two classes of people. I’ve got ordinary people and I’ve given mentor status to some people. Somebody in the last category, in the mentor category, when they praise me that makes my day. That’s a wonderful thing ’cause that means this person who I’ve decided has a lot of insights and a lot to teach me thinks I’m doing something right.

But, there are a whole bunch of other people who praise you and there can be all sorts of motives for the praise. The praise can be more or less meaningful. Besides becoming an insult pacifist, I’ve done my best to become a praise pacifist. So if somebody praises me typically what I’ll do is I’ll say, “Oh, thanks,” and then carry on as if nothing had happened. ‘Cause I found out the hard way if somebody praises you and you say nothing that that’s taken as an insult. That that’s your way of indicating to them that you feel that you’re above their praise somehow. So you respond to it as simply as you can and then carry on as if nothing had happened.

The problem is praise is such an incentive. You get such a good feeling on hearing praise that it can have a dramatic impact on your behavior. I was just reading an article today that a friend sent me of a woman who had come to realize how much on her Facebook page and she was writing things and posting things and she had become a thumbs up addict. Where what she sought was to say things that would get her a lot of thumbs up and then realized that it was even changing the way she thought about things simply the effort to gain that praise.

Sometimes in life the things you do that have the most impact, the most meaning, can have the greatest impact on the world, are things that people aren’t gonna want you to do. If you get their praise you blew it. If they aren’t happy with what you said but it brings about an interesting change, you’ve done your work. So praise and the quality of what you’ve done do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Brett McKay: You raise an interesting point there that with praise, that’s another way you can insult people is by denying their praise and just ignoring it. So accept it with graciously but don’t make a big deal about it.

William Irvine: Right.

Brett McKay: Okay. So let’s get into ways we can respond to insults. You mentioned one way, the Stoic way, which is simply to ignore it. Another tactic you just mentioned briefly was, another Stoic example, was actually take the insult and insult yourself more. I guess it’s using self-deprecating humor.

William Irvine: Yeah. Self deprecating humor, number one it’s great fun once you get into it. Number two, they just don’t see it coming because they’ve spent their life, when they’ve insulted someone, unless it’s just a friendly insult, when they’ve insulted someone that it’s supposed to cause pain, a certain degree of pain. But when you engage in response to an insult, well let me give you an example. So suppose someone comes up to me and describes some characteristic of mine and makes it clear that they disapprove of that characteristic. One self-deprecating remark is, “Yeah, yeah. I know I gotta work on that but to tell the truth, that would be number three on the list of bad characteristics I have to overcome on my own personal list.”

So what just happened? There’s a good chance that they thought they were hitting you with their best shot. What did you do in response? You punched yourself even harder than they did. So it is, from the insulter’s point of view it’s an utterly demoralizing thing to have happen. You know, from the Stoic point of view, it actually is in some way a sincere response. If you’re a Stoic there’s this ongoing project to try to turn yourself into a better version of you. It’s difficult to do and there’s lots of backsliding. So you’re very much aware of your own shortcomings.

So sometimes if somebody has mentor status and they tell you you got a shortcoming you take notes. But a lot of times it’s just, it’s people, you know? These whole social interactions are incredibly complicated things. When I look at myself, somethings I catch myself, I try not to do it, catch myself insulting other people usually in subtle ways. Then sometimes I’ll think about it. Why did I do that? Oftentimes it’s envy that triggered the insult. It’s a feeling that, “Gosh, that person seems to be succeeding in ways I’m not. Gosh, I don’t like that.” Then before you know it out has come an insult. That’s pretty sad.

Now I don’t know if other people have that same motivation. I suspect they do but I can’t read their minds. So it’s just bad business. If you can insult yourself more than someone else has insulted you, like I say, give it a try ’cause it’s great fun. It’s not as easy as what I described as insult pacifism, that’s where you do nothing in response to an insult. Someone lying there in a coma can do insult pacifism. In fact, they don’t have a choice in the matter. They’re lying there. If you insult them they’re gonna say nothing. So one level up from that, particularly if you think of yourself as a clever person, is this idea of responding to insults with an even bigger self insult.

Brett McKay: But that again, there’s a fine line there because it can backfire where you pile on yourself and then people just pile on you even more and you become a punching bag. I think you give the example of Kierkegaard. This happened to him. He got insulted and then he made sort of a self-deprecating remark and then became the laughing stock of Denmark.

William Irvine: Yeah. You gotta know who you’re dealing with. There are people who are bullies and they’re out to inflict this kind of pain. If you try these techniques on them then probably they will fail and probably you’ll pay a price for it. So you think about the person who’s doing it. Again, if the goal is to try to modify their behavior in some way, then you think about the clever way to do that. But there are exceptions to these cases. But this is just talking in broad terms about what I’ve found in my own life seemed to have worked. Of course, I didn’t discover this. What I did is simply I kept close attention to this aspect of Stoicism, the whole insult response bit of advice they had to offer.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought that was an interesting point too you just made about are insulting being driven by envy? I mean I think we haven’t really talked about why we have this tendency to insult and be insulted. You go into depth about this going into evolutionary psychology how we all have this innate drive for status and social standing because that was essential for our survival. But the Stoics recognized that we had this. They probably didn’t have an evolutionary reason that we had this drive. They recogNized the drive, how it can cause unhappiness, or the goal in life was to overcome those drives using Stoic practices.

William Irvine: Right. So in the last decade, so the 20th century, this whole field of evolutionary psychology arose. It points to things like you know what, your ancestors who cared about their social standing, guess what. They got to eat first and they got to mate first. Those who didn’t care about that, guess what. They didn’t leave any offspring ’cause they starved to death or failed to reproduce. What we are is we’re the descendants of the ones who cared very much about their social status and so we’ve acquired the wiring that makes us care very much about our social status.

I have that wiring too. It’s a curious thing. So I’m aware simultaneously I’m trying to kind of find a way to work around the wiring and at the same time am subject to the wiring. So I mentioned before that I’m a rower. So one of the things that I row in is a quad. That’s a boat with four people in it and they each have two oars and it gets a little bit complicated. I remember once when I was coming to practice and I was gonna be in the boat and it was late getting there. Then when I got there saw that the boat was full of four people and they had simply replaced me with another person. What was striking is I experience what are called hurt feelings. And the intensity of the hurt was mind boggling to me. It was very real and almost physical in how painful that it was.

Then if you analyze it in a sensible way, well no, you know, they wanted to go for a row and I wasn’t there so that probably wasn’t a permanent replacement. Blah blah blah. And yet, despite having studied insults and psychology and evolutionary psychology, I felt the sting of it. So it’s a really important characteristic of us.

So the Stoics though didn’t know about evolution but they were the preeminent psychologists of their time. We think of them as philosophers, and they were. But back then philosophy was widely construed, philosophers would normally be doing natural science. They would be doing psychology. So just from their own observations they came across this. They said okay, we’re interested in having lives that are as tranquil as possible. So we’re interested in avoiding negative emotions like anger and fear and anxiety. And we’re interested in welcoming and having as many positive emotions as we can.

The two I like to pick out as examples of that would be feelings of delight, which are absolutely wonderful and they’re plentiful if you know where you look for them, and feelings of joy. Notice I didn’t say physical pleasure ’cause that wasn’t their goal but it was other positive feelings. Then they realized okay, so what does disrupt people’s tranquility? One of the big things is being insulted by other people. So then they put their analytic powers to work and the question was well how can we avoid that? How can we avoid having those negative emotions that come with being insulted? And hit upon these really wonderful solutions. The easy one is the insult pacifism. You just pretend like nothing happened. I’ve tried it. It’s quite effective. Not perfectly effective, but quite effective.

Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about some of the techniques that the Stoics have developed to manage our own sensitivity to insults and our own sensitivity to praise. I’m curious, do the Stoics have anything to say about helping others? Do they have anything to say about not proactively trying to insult people? Should you avoid praising people so they’re not put in that situation where they have to manage that status anxiety?

William Irvine: So Stoics would make a point of not insulting other people but there would be exceptions. So it depends on who you’re dealing with and what your point is in dealing with them. So Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, talks about how you deal with an unruly servant. That’s a special case ’cause that person probably isn’t all that intellectually involved and isn’t quite sure why they’re doing what they’re doing and hasn’t learned any manners. So to be insulting in certain contexts is acceptable.

In life, the interesting thing is when you’re dealing with somebody else, what’s your goal? What are you trying to have happen? Stoics believed in being socially useful so they thought they had a duty to try to help others. That didn’t necessarily mean help others get what others wanted to get, but to help others get what the Stoics, and this is gonna sound kind of strange but what the Stoics thought other people should have. One of the principle things would be avoidance of these negative emotions.

So that if you’re a practicing Stoic, as I happen to be, when you see somebody who’s miserable then it’s an interesting question. Is there anything I can say or do that can potentially lessen the misery of their life? So one really easy thing to do is you tell somebody who’s been chewed up by getting insulted, you just say, “Hey, you know, the guy’s an idiot. Why are you paying such attention to an idiot?” That can be very, very effective ’cause it gives them something quick and easy to use. Deep down they sort of realize well yeah, yeah. So that would be one Stoic angle is how can I help other people and, in particular, do I possess psychological techniques that can help other people avoid negative emotions?

Brett McKay: Well Bill, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book Slap in the Face?

William Irvine: Well online, on Amazon, they have a bunch of interviews. Unfortunately one thing I found out was that if you write a book on insults, people take you as fair game for insults for better or worse. I’ve got a personal website, that’s the letter B as in boy. I’ve also got another website where I was doing a blog for an extended period. It has gone dormant but that’s That’s 21st, 21 S-T Century Stoic, all one word, .com. So those are two places that they can track down some information about me.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Bill Irvine, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

William Irvine: Alright. You’re very welcome.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Bill Irvine. He’s the author of the book A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn’t. He’s also wrote the book The Art of Stoic Joy. Check it out. They’re both on Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at If you enjoyed the podcast I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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