There is the old playground saying that everyone is familiar with, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Well, perhaps not physically. Verbal abuse goes beyond name calling and the emotional and psychological damage they cause can be every bit as damaging as the physical stuff.
The playground saying was primarily geared at childhood name calling. The often puerile nonsense stuff that kids tend to throw at one another. More often than not, the one handing out the insults will have no idea what his/her insults mean. Common taunts in the late 60s, early 70s was to call someone you didn’t like a wog, poofter or spaz. These are Australian terms that may not mean too much to anyone anywhere else.
‘Wog’ was a derogatory term for new migrants, a little hypocritical in a country where anyone not of aboriginal descent is unlikely to be more than a generation or three from somewhere else. What it tended to mean was that you or your parents were from somewhere in Europe other than the British Isles. ‘Poofter’ was a derogatory term for a gay person.
A ‘spaz’ was someone with an intellectual disability. In Australia, 30-40 years ago, an organisation called The Spastic Centre used to ferry intellectually disabled kids around in special buses with the name of the centre prominently detailed on all sides. No subtlety whatsoever and the poor kids were a source of ridicule.
Few of the kids bandying around these insults would have had more than the barest of understanding of what these insults meant. As such, it was easy to ignore them. They only hurt when you let them get to you and got involved in verbal stouch. Invariably, it would flare up into a barrage of insults at three paces and occasionally spill over into a fight somewhere. On those occasions, you would be unlucky to break a bone, although you might end up with a split lip or a bloodied nose for your trouble.
As a child born of two European parents (German mother and Hungarian father), ‘wog’ was something I copped on a more or less daily basis during high school. There was just myself and a kid with Italian parents in a year of around 200 Aussie kids and we were simply fodder for this kind of taunting. Most of the time I could let this abuse wash over me and they would tire of it quickly enough. But even this childish name-calling left a mark. You find yourself withdrawing from your peers as it is easier to avoid potential conflict and your self esteem takes the battering that you think you’ve spared your body.
I became a bit of a loner who argued and often got in trouble at school for fighting. Every so often, I couldn’t just let the name calling go and lashed out. Thankfully, my tormenters gradually sought out easier targets and each new school year brought more migrant kids to the school. By the time I reached Year 12, it had disappeared altogether. The point is that even childish name calling from kids with little malicious intent or grasp of the meaning of their insults hurt.
Now imagine an adult who does know full well what his/her insults mean, how they are likely to be received and delivered during an argument and/or yelled at another person. It is usually accompanied with some agressive or threatening body language. It goes beyond name calling and is verbal abuse in every sense of the word. They are words intended to not just hurt, but to cut deep. The language used is often offensive and demeaning and those words are never forgotten. It’s like your mind is a sponge and the insults are absorbed, soaked as a source of ongoing torment. And like that sponge, receive enough of those insults and you reach stauration point.
For some people, the saturation point, where you’ve taken all you can, may involve low self esteem. Internalising the decline in self worth so that you withdraw and do your best to avoid the source of the tornment. Over time, the reinforcement of that image may lead to depression, thoughts of revenge or suicide and possibly even acting on those thoughts. It is reinforcement of a negative perception of our worth as a human being and if that image is reinforced over a long enough period of time, that negative image of ourselves can become our new reality. We have an idea deep down that the verbal abuse is not true, but we have been told it so often and so forcefully that we come to accept that this is how we must be. It is damaging and destructive.
We’ve all heard of the term ‘battered wife’s syndrome’. That battering does not have to be solely physical abuse. It actually rarely is, more often than not accompanied with words that cut deep into the core of the victim’s being. Occasionally, years of such abuse explodes into a violent reaction. The wife ‘cracks’ under the pressure, reaching some point of critical mass, and kills or injures her spouse. This is officially recognised within our legal system and a valid defence, though thankfully rarely used, in abusive relationships. Most of the time the perpetrator goes into shock, a kind of physical and emotional denial that they’ve done anything wrong. It is in a way a kind of temporary insanity where this person has done something totally irreconcilable with with their past actions and so far removed from their normal persona that it is as if someone else has done the crime.
In between the childish nonsense and this extreme reaction lies the niggling taunts that so many of use as adults. Little snide remarks and sarcastic comments that may sound trivial or innocent enough in isolation, yet have the potential to accumulate just like the other forms of verbal abuse. And this is what it is, let us make no bones about it. Despite the assurances that you didn’t mean the comments that way or you were just joking, you did, otherwise you wouldn’t have said tham. These words can hurt and are just a more subtle way of belittling someone else.
Usually that someone else is a person you are in relationship with or work with. Over time, the cumulative effect of these comments can lead to some sort of reactive behaviour. A partner flies off the handle, a seemingly over the top reaction to something you’ve said; which is really just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Worst case, the partner may just walk out or react violently. In a work situation, it could involve a complaint, a stand up row at work, serious morale problems or the person may simply choose to leave and find another work place.
What all these examples show is that verbal abuse occurs on many levels. It is not just the spiteful and malicious verbal dressing down that is regarded as abuse. Seemingly innocent remarks or silly comments can be taken out of context and are not easily forgotten or ignored. It takes a rare and very strong person to just allow them to wash over without some kind of damage to their self esteem. For most of us, these petty insults or comments also gradually accumulate until they reach some kind of critical mass. This could result in some kind of external reaction – uncharacteristic, irrational or violent behaviour; or an internal one – isolation, stress, depression and/or self harm.
Words, to paraphrase 80s rock songstress Judie Tzuke, can cut so deep. It is better to say nothing at all if you can’t say something nice.