The Art of Dealing with Difficult People

The modern relevance of Stoic ideas is beautifully explained by the American philosopher William B. Irvine in two of his books, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt, and Why they Shouldn’t. I here summarize some of the ideas espoused by the author, with a specific focus on the life advice that the Stoics had for dealing with conflict in human relations.

Why insults hurt

As William Irvine points out, insults can be enormously destructive to human relationships: “a ten-word insult can, in under ten seconds, destroy a relationship that has lasted ten years.” Most of the anger that people experience is in fact triggered by what they perceive to be insulting. The interesting thing about anger caused by insults is that it is usually not a one-time thing, but instead gives rise to a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome: when they least expect it, people find themselves getting angry at things that happened months or even decades before.

Insulted people, when deciding how to respond to an insult, are often afraid that if they let the insulter get away with a small insult today, their life will be a living hell tomorrow. Because we fear the consequences of allowing insults to go unanswered, we tend to turn a molehill of an insult into a mountain.

To understand the pain-causing potential of insults, we must first appreciate the extent to which humans are social animals. First, we want be among other people: deprive us of human contact by putting us in solitary confinement or banishing us to a desert island, and our mental health will be in jeopardy. The psychologist Mark Leary has observed that we are willing to expend effort to maintain connections with even seemingly meaningless groups, which demonstrates the intensity of our need to belong. Second, group dynamics reflect the hierarchical nature of human society, a phenomenon which I cover in detail in a separate essay. Humans are hardwired to respond to social status.

This has several consequences. When someone with whom we have a personal relationship insults us, we take it as evidence that they don’t value our relationship as highly as we might like them to, and we are pained. When someone insults us, even if we don’t have a close relationship with him, we take it as evidence that he views himself as being above us on the social hierarchy, and we are again pained. Our sense of relative social value runs deep in our unconscious. If we didn’t want to form and maintain close relationships with other people, and if we didn’t care about our social position, insults wouldn’t bother us. But we do care, so they do bother us.

This goes for all spheres of life. A wife can experience hurt feelings even if her husband in fact values his relationship with her as much as ever. What matters is whether she feels like he has devalued it. As the psychologist Kristin Sommer puts it, a relational devaluation “not only severs a potentially important relational attachment but also poses a strong threat to one’s overall sense of worth.”

Although our desire for personal relationships and social status explains a lot about why insults are painful, it doesn’t explain everything. Insults can also harm by affecting a person’s self-image. This would be the case, for example, if an aspiring poet receives an anonymous comment aggressively criticizing one of his works. We all recognize how painful attacks on self-image can be. As a result, we form unspoken pacts to help each other preserve our self-images.

Some people enjoy insulting others. Samuel Johnson fits into this category. For him, to insult is “to treat with insolence or contempt; to trample upon, to triumph over.” It feels good to gain evidence of our superior value in the social hierarchy. But it is also possible to for the author of an insult to experience anxiety. Insulting others can be a risky business. There is always a chance that the target of an insult will come back with a clever reply that makes the insulter look like a fool. Generally, however, the negative emotions that insulters experience are likely to pale in comparison to those experienced by the person they insulted.

The way we interpret words and situations points to an important characteristic of the human condition. Social relationships are inherently fragile, and some of our attempts at forming and maintaining relationships will end in failure. We are willing to run the risk of social rejection, inasmuch as the cost of avoiding it — namely, life without social relationships — is unthinkable.

Who gets hurt

Some people are hypersensitive to insults. The mere hint of an insult — even the hint of an implied insult — is capable of causing them pain. These same individuals are also prone to experiencing hurt feelings. Some of them spend their lives stewing in a cauldron of hurt feelings.

Meanwhile, there are also people who are unfazed by our insults despite knowing full well that we are trying to insult them. The individuals in question are not simply pretending not to be upset; they are genuinely indifferent to our abuse.

Each individual carries his own experiences, and these often lead to very different outlooks on one’s life. The philosopher and psychologist William James claimed that self-esteem is an “elementary endowment of human nature.” It is an endowment, however, like physical strength or intelligence: different people possess it to different degrees.

A person’s level of self-esteem will affect how he interacts with the world. In particular, people with high self-esteem are self-confident. Individuals with low self-esteem, by contrast, are uncertain that they will be accepted socially. They are therefore reluctant to put themselves in situations in which social rejection is a possibility.

People with low self-esteem, besides being particularly pained by insults, are likely to insult others. They are not necessarily trying to make others look bad by making themselves look good; rather, they disparage others as a preemptive measure. They thereby make it easier, if the individuals in question reject them, to downplay the rejection.

The psychologist Mark Leary has theorized the existence of a biological system which monitors our social status, a device he calls the “sociometer.” Our sociometer is always on, running in the background, and it is quite sensitive. Besides being able to detect blatant signs of a change in our inclusionary status, such as someone screaming “I hate you,” it can detect subtle signs, such as pauses in conversation or a lack of eye contact during a conversation. Our sociometer can even be too sensitive: people with unstable self-esteem essentially have a sociometer that over-responds to cues that connote acceptance and rejection.

Thanks to our evolutionary past, we regard ourselves as participants in an ongoing battle for position on the social hierarchy. More often than not, this battle is a zero-sum game: for someone to rise on the social hierarchy, someone else must lose. We can thus feel envy in response to an indication that someone is or soon will be above us on the social hierarchy.

Hence if our goal is to have a good and meaningful life, we will periodically take steps to override our evolutionary programming. A person who is unwilling or unable to override extensive portions of his instinctive impulses will be unlikely to live the life of his own choosing.

Responding to insults

How can we minimize the harm caused by insults? We should, to begin with, develop a strategy for preventing others from insulting us.

One way to accomplish this is to avoid other people altogether, but this will be hard: people, as we have seen, need people. A less radical strategy is to avoid not people in general but insulting individuals, such as the woman who, every time we encounter her, explains in detail why we will never amount to anything. There is much to be said for this strategy, but in many circumstances it is unpractical. Think, for instance, about relatives who will be encountered if we wish to attend family gatherings.

Another option is to surrender: we allow ourselves to feel the pain that the insulter intended to inflict. Under some circumstances, capitulation can be a singularly effective weapon. It will make the insulter look cruel for having said whatever he said. Indeed, if the person insults us before an audience, it is possible that the audience will rise to defend us. Most people, though, will be reluctant to capitulate to an insult. They will instead make it clear to the insulter that they reject his criticisms.

Another quite popular way to reject an insult is to retaliate with a counterinsult. Retaliatory insults can be ranked on a cleverness scale. Some people go out of their way to acquire a stockpile of clever insults to use in retaliation when they are insulted. The poet A. E. Housman, for example, is said to have written down in a notebook witty insults that might come in handy. These individuals are like people who train in the martial arts so that if someone attacks them in a dark alley, they will be able to defend themselves.

But even if some can memorize a range of retaliatory insults, most people are not fast enough on their feet to react to an insult with the appropriate counterinsult. Insults, when they come, tend to come out of the blue. Memorizing an insult may be effective if you know you are going to encounter a predictable insulter — someone who, whenever he met you, insulted you in the same way. Then again, this is a lot of effort to invest in dealing with someone who is probably best ignored.

At the top of the cleverness scale, it is possible to use all kinds of creativity and exploit the ambiguity of words to insult someone. We might respond by saying, “That is the most intelligent thing I’ve ever heard you say.” We can turn to Winston Churchill, who was a master at the art of repartee. Nancy Astor once told him at a dinner party: “Winston, if I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee,” to which Churchill replied: “Nancy, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” Churchill often created variants of the original insult and threw it back at the insulter.

The Cynic philosopher Diogenes was also apparently a master of the so-called chiastic counterinsult, in which the insulted person responds by changing the order of the words in the insult. Thus, when Aristippus chided Diogenes for his simple lifestyle–“If you would only learn to flatter the king, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils”–Diogenes replied that if Aristippus would only learn to live on lentils, he wouldn’t have to flatter the king.

Another way to respond to insults is to dismiss them. In doing this, we don’t offer a counterinsult. We don’t ignore the insult either. Instead, we make it clear to the insulter that his message has failed to damage its target.

We can dismiss an insult by transforming it into a joke. This is what Roman politician and statesman Cato the Younger did when Lentulus, a legal adversary, spit in his face. After calmly wiping off the spittle, Cato said, “I will swear to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth!”

Gore Vidal used a clever variant of this comeback. The story goes that he had insulted Norman Mailer‘s writing, and Mailer had responded by punching him. As Vidal was getting up off the floor, he commented that “Once again, words have failed Norman.”

Another counter-intuitive response is to thank the insulter. When the insulted person calmly says “Thanks,” while looking at the insulter in the eye, the latter may worry that his target has taken the insult a little too personally, and may therefore retract it. This has a number of advantages. It is an easy response to remember, it can be used in a wide range of circumstances, it does not require wit, and best of all, it robs the insulter of the pleasure she might have taken from insulting us.

All of these dismissive responses deal with the insult by shrugging it off. We thereby demonstrate to the insulter that his words did not hurt us. But another way to dismiss an insult is to explore with him his motives for insulting us. By analyzing the insulter’s motives, we aren’t so much criticizing his insulting behavior as excusing it: we are attributing his insults to something in his personality over which he has relatively little control.

We could, for example, start by asking “Why did you say that?” It is a response that will likely stop the insulter in his tracks. This is the thing to realize about dismissive responses: they can cause an insulter considerably more discomfort than a direct insult would.

A more aggressive way to dismiss an insulter is by saying, “Whatever.” This implies that we do not really care what the insulter thinks, that his feelings are irrelevant. But this comes with some risk. People do not appreciate being dismissed. Declaring our contempt for an individual is the ultimate insult. As Lord Chesterfield explained to his son, “Wrongs are often forgiven, but contempt never is. Our pride remembers it forever.”

All of these responses imply doing something in response to an insult; but it is also possible to respond to an insult by doing absolutely nothing. Someone can, in other words, practice insult pacifism. An insult pacifist is a person who refuses to respond to verbal violence with verbal violence. The Stoics are notable for being the first to recommend pacifism as the default response to almost every insult.

Nonreactive insult pacifism is the easiest of the insult-response strategies. Not everyone is witty enough to respond to an insult with a clever counterinsult, and not everyone can successfully memorize a bunch of faux-witty counterinsults to use in self-defense. Such pacifism gives a clear signal: that he is not affected.

Going a step beyond this, a pacifist can also choose to do something — his pacifism does not allow him to respond to an insult with a verbal attack, but it does allow him to respond with a verbal attack on himself. He can respond to an insult with a self-deprecating remark.

Suppose, for example, that someone calls you lazy. A self-deprecating pacifist, after admitting his laziness, might give his confession a comical spin: “To be perfectly honest with you, this particular failure of mine wouldn’t even make into my own top-five list of personal shortcomings.”

Another fictive example of self-deprecating humor can be found in Edmond Rostand‘s Cyrano de Bergerac. When someone attempts to insult Cyrano by telling him that his nose is big, Cyrano responds by asking, “Is that all?” When the insulter is puzzled by this response, Cyrano goes on to provide a long list of insults of his nose that are superior to the one the insulter has used.

Another thing an insult pacifist might do is to signal his pacifism. He might respond, not with a lecture, but with an informal apology: “Sorry, but I don’t do insults.” Most insulters tend to respond with befuddlement. They aren’t used to pacifism, but rather expect an insult to be met with a rebuttal or a counterinsult. Respond in either manner, and they know what to do next: rebut the rebuttal or counter the counterinsult. With pacifism, they are left scratching their head.

The greatest evidence in favor of pacifism is the fact that some of the world’s greatest insulters were defeated by it. Samuel Johnson, who was skilled at repartee and enjoyed insulting others, would occasionally encounter someone who refused to play the insult game, and he found such encounters to be profoundly unsatisfying: “I hate a fellow whom pride, or cowardice, or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl; let him come out as I do, and bark.”

Much the same can be said of George Bernard Shaw. He once published an attack on G. K. Chesterton‘s economic views. Chesterton chose not to respond, and when asked why, he said, “I have answered him. To a man of Shaw’s wit, silence is the one unbearable repartee.”

After her encounter with the pacifist, the insulter might find that she feels vaguely insulted by his behavior. In refusing to inflict or respond to insults, he is implying that he is above this sort of thing. The implication that she is not is something that she will likely resent. She might also try to convince herself that she hadn’t wronged the pacifist: “I wasn’t insulting him; I was just talking to him. He must be hypersensitive or something.” It is not unusual for an insulter to blame her victim for failing to take offense at being insulted. Irvine tells of an instance where his insulter, after he used self-deprecating humor, turned her attention to another perceived character flaw: “You should take things more seriously!”

However, it is also possible for an insulter, upon encountering a pacifist, to become aware of her own insulting tendencies, and this might lead her to reassess her behavior. It is thus possible for insult pacifists to trigger a social epiphany in the insulters they encounter.

But one problem remains: insulters who, when not dealt with forcefully by their target, go on an insult rampage. These are the kind of people who bombard their victims with insults every time they encounter them, no matter the response. The Stoics realized that there are adults who, despite their years, remain children, mentally and emotionally speaking.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca believed that we should admonish or punish the slow-witted bully who childishly keeps insulting us. When we do so, we need to remember that we are doing it for the good of all people involved, and certainly not to settle a score.

An insult pacifist, while working on his external response to insults, will want also to work on his internal response. He will want to put himself into a frame of mind that prevents insults from upsetting him. The next section addresses this inward strategy in greater detail.

The inner quest for virtue and tranquility

Our goal in dealing with insults should not merely be to make it look as if they did us no harm, but to prevent them from doing us any real harm. If we let an insult upset us, it will have done us harm.

People place great value on other people’s opinions of them. Insults hurt so much because they are reminders that our social standing is not as high as we would like it to be. The first step is thus to reconsider our personal values.

At the top of the list of what we should address lies the evolutionary programming that makes us care about our social standing. Unless we can work on this, it is unlikely that we will escape from our evolutionary past.

Throughout our lives, people will likely respond to the vexation we have caused them by making us the target of insults. If we care about what they think of us, though, these insults will sting, and to make them stop, we may simply abandon our unorthodox values. The people around us will then welcome us back into the fold and praise us for being so much like they are.

The problem with such an attitude is that if we adopt the values of the people around us, and if these people have the wrong values, it means that we, too, will end up choosing the wrong values. Doing this will win their approval, but will also jeopardize our chance of having a good and meaningful life. The philosopher Epictetus warns us that “if people think you amount to something, distrust yourself.”

If someone hurts us by insulting us, say the Stoics, we only have ourselves to blame. “Remember,” says Epictetus, “that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgment about them that they are insulting.” More generally, the Stoics think we are foolish to spend our days, as many people do, trying to control things over which we have little or no control. That includes other people and what they say to us.

We would do well to take the time and energy we might have spent seeking social status and instead spend it on something over which we have considerable control — namely, on choosing the correct values and living in accordance with them. We may not have it in our power to become someone who is loved and admired by all, but we do have it in our power to develop certain exemplary character traits.

Even though we do not have it in our power to stop other people from sneering at us, we do have it in our power to do nothing that deserves a sneer. Consider the following question: would you rather have people think you are a good person when in fact you are a bad person, or think you are a bad person when in fact you are a good person?

Stoics would not hesitate about the right answer: if you are a bad person, you are likely to have a bad life, no matter how highly others think of you, and that if you are a good person, you are likely to have a good life, no matter how poorly others think of you.

The Stoics thought we should strive to embody the ancient virtues: we should be courageous, temperate, magnanimous, just, self-disciplined, and so forth. Another thing they valued was tranquility: a state in which one is relatively free of negative emotions such as anger, fear and grief, but filled with positive emotions, especially feelings of joy. For the Stoics, our chances of having a good and meaningful life were far greater if we pursued virtue and tranquility than if we pursued, as most people do, social status and affluence.

What is wrong with status and affluence? The problem is that we humans are programmed to be insatiable. This means that if we pursue social status and affluence, we will go through life dissatisfied with what we have. We will continually believe that if only we had more — a bit more social status, a slightly bigger house — we would live happily ever after. But this is a mirage. Once we start pursuing such desires, there is no end. We are bound to be stuck in a frustrating rat race.

Tranquility cannot be achieved without some control over one’s emotions. As Musonius Rufus points out, a good person, when insulted, “will calmly and quietly bear what has happened.” He will not only look calm, but would actual be calm. For most people, this would require a fairly radical self-transformation. Stoics do something that few people do: they take personal responsibility for their happiness. If they are unhappy, Stoics do not blame the world; they see it as their own fault. They will set about examining their values to see if these values are mistaken, and if there is a better strategy for responding to external events. This Stoic exercise could be seen as lifelong process of inner self-improvement.

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