Get a life!

Being a discussion on the Etiquette of the Insult for the 21st century… 

duellistsI was recently fortunate enough to have this old chestnut of an insult thrown at me online in a discussion about some news item.  It’s a strange thing to say to anyone; the fact that I’m typing indicates I do indeed have a life, and to be honest I think with my achievements I’ve managed to fit 2 and a half lives or so in to things so far.  🙂

The intention of this piece is not to name and shame, however tempting that is…it just set me thinking about insults and abuse in general.  I think in recent years the unpleasant behaviour of insulting folks – especially online or via text – has become much more frequent.  I think a lot of it is that it’s easier to be abusive anonymously, and the extra mileage placed between insulter and insultee does make a smack in the mouth or a slap across the face harder to deliver back to the insulter.  So, here we go.  A 21st Century Guide to insulting Etiquette.

Of course, gentlemen and ladies do not insult each other…as I know very few of either (and doubt I am a gentleman myself) this is hopefully useful stuff for the rest of us!


When I was a kid, you tended to bite your tongue before insulting someone because there was a serious risk of being thumped.  In previous centuries you would have had a serious risk of being shot in a pistol duel or scarred or killed in a sword duel.  If you ‘knew the right people’ you could have your insulter beaten up.  Now that you can insult anonymously and from outside arm’s reach, it has made people more willing to insult people than ever before, and for less good reasons.  Which moves us on to point number 2 – have good reason to insult.

Insult escalation

George Orwell once commented to the effect that if you reviewed a book and found it ‘outstanding’, and then three weeks later found an even better book, then you couldn’t really write ‘even more outstanding than the last outstanding book’.  I guess these days it’s ‘ratings inflation’.  But in days when there were potentially serious consequences for insulting people, all involved were careful about the insults thrown and the reaction taken.  I might easily let a mild insult go by if the consequence to my following it up were to be a duel.  I would think twice before slapping someone across the face after he’d called me a moron for wearing black shoes when we all know that brown was the de riguer colour of teh day.  Today, there are fewer consequences and it’s easier to get in to a verbal pissing match.  So, if you feel teh need to insult, be proportionate – don’t go over the top and push the other person in to a corner  from which they may lash out.  And, if you’ve been insulted, think hard and long before escalating.

It was only a joke…

Oh dear – the well worn phrase of the coward, the moron or the child.  If you insult someone, have the guts to stand there when you’re called on it and either repeat your insult  or wholeheartedly apologise for your behaviour.  Bleating that ‘it was only a joke’ is the defence of three groups of people:

  1. The child – it works to some degree in the playground but once you’re over 12 years old you should start leaving this phrase behind.  It’s continued use indicates you may have the mental age of an infant, and should therefore not be out and about with the grownups.
  2. The moron – the sort of slack-jawed suburban yokel who believes the Jeremy Kyle programme to be current affairs and Wayne and Waynetta Slob to be fine role models can hardly be expected to know better.
  3. The coward – falling back on this defence when one doesn’t fall in to category (1) or (2) above indicates cowardice. 

Falling back on this phrase after being called on your insults thus catapults you in to one of three groups of society unfitting for a mature adult.  So don’t do it.

I was drunk / stoned

Some hold this to be a mitigating circumstance, others regard it as making matters worse – as well as you being insulting it indicates you can’t hold your drink / drugs.  Again – don’t fall back on this – either repeat your insult or wholeheartedly apologise.  This is a weasel response.

Water off a duck’s back

Very few insults are worth getting your blood pressure elevated over.  Even fewer are worth engaging in wit and repartee with the insulter.  Remember that by the very fact they’ve insulted you, they’re not ladies or gentlemen.  Therefore they’re unworthy and engaging with them, even to the level of ‘And your mother wears army boots’, simply brings you down to their level.  Sometimes the best response is to behave as if you hadn’t noticed it.  Online this can be most satisfying, as the truly dim insulter will carry on making louder and more ridiculous comments until they prove to the rest of the world what you already know… 

So, ignore where possible!

Graceful Acceptance

Sometimes the recipient of an insult can carry out the graceful acceptance manoeuvre in which there is an apparent agreement with teh sentiments of the insult.  This isn’t always applicable but when it is it can totally disarm the insulter.

Full and wholehearted apology

The original insult may have been triggered by what you consider to be a genuine wrong, and in that case you still need to deal with the original problem.  But if you do find yourself in a position where apology seems to be the most sensible, adult and mature way forward, then apologise for the insult fully, whole-heartedly and publicly.  A non-public apology after you’ve denigrated someone in public is, to be honest, a little weaselly. 

With luck, the person you insulted will be gracious enough to accept your apology and walk away from the whole palaver.  At which point you’ll probably both be wondering how the Devil you got in to the mess in the first place….

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