I Hate Verbal Aggression!

What's wrong with you?
Why are you so annoying all the time?
Did you eat paint chips when you were a kid or something?
Why can't you play a decent ball game?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Or can they? In an ideal world, words wouldn't hurt, and we could easily ignore them, but this world is far from ideal. Verbal aggression is something we have all grown up with. We have felt the pain it causes, whether as a child on the playground being teased about our looks, or a member of the football team that just wasn't good enough for the coach. The issue of verbal aggression is more serious than most people think. It hurts people. Oblivious to the fact that it can destroy someone's life, we carelessly tease and cut others down, not realizing the pain we inflict until it is too late.

Imagine the world as an open lobster tank. Each lobster on its own could easily climb out, but other lobsters in the tank constantly pull each other back. They all try to force the other lobsters out of their way in order to get to the top, and in doing so, no one reaches their goal. Similarly, the human race is caught inside a linguistic lobster tank. In our attempt to get to the top, we pull others out of our way and push them to the bottom. Eventually this happens to us, and we are caught in a never-ending cycle of aggression and retaliation.

Using verbal aggression, we pull others down in our struggle to rise to the top, but soon find that our efforts backfire. We achieve success for a moment, but are quickly pulled back to where we were as others clamor to get to the top — a rather sad analogy of the human race, but frighteningly true. Frequently, people seeking their own self-enrichment fail to see that the best route to success is to build up those around you. Showing support for others in their efforts can be the key to achieving your own goals.

What exactly is verbal aggression? Richard L. Weaver, professor at Bowling Green State University, says that it is a "message behavior that attacks a person's self-concept with the purpose of delivering psychological pain" (177). This includes such feelings as inadequacy, humiliation, depression, despair, hopelessness, embarrassment, and anger (Infante 53).

Is it really that serious? Or can it be positive? Rather than viewing it as a way to cut someone down, is it not a way for other people to build their self-esteem? Young people, trying to impress their peers, may make fun of others' faults in order to draw the attention away from their own. Psychology professor Mark Weichmann explains that everybody has sadistic tendencies that derive pleasure from other people's pain. Humans like to feel that they are better, or smarter than the next person, and they usually have no problem voicing these feelings.

Others view it as a form of constructive criticism. Certainly a coach that yells at his players is not trying to cut them down, but to encourage them to learn and improve their game. If a pre-game pep talk (where the coach tries to build players' esteem) isn't having the success they hoped for, then they may see verbal aggression as the only alternative. Also, in the heat of the game, words meant to criticize the player's action may instead cut down the player himself.

Verbal aggression doesn't always wound, does it? Athletes often "trash talk" their opponents in the game, cutting down their playing ability or their personal attributes. Some people think that this just fosters competition and helps people improve their game. This can be true if the comment is spoken with good intentions, such as one given to a friend. However, in most situations, verbal aggression is intended to distract the victim from the game as they focus on what their opponent has said. According to Kareem Abdul Jabar, "our whole culture here in America has become a lot more vulgar – it's not considered 'cool' to be a good sportsman, and that's really unfortunate for our whole system of values in our country." (TT Forum) Also, it focuses attention on the individual, and the game consequently becomes a personal affair rather than a team effort. The victim of verbal aggression is too busy thinking about what was said and worrying about how to respond. In the process of this they lose track of the real issue. (Westphal).

The athletic field is not the only place where verbal aggression rears its ugly head. Drill sergeants in the army were once asked to participate in an experiment where they refrained from swearing and using highly aggressive language towards new recruits in basic training. After this was implemented, troop morale went up, the level of dropouts lowered, and sergeants felt increased levels of control. Weichmann feels that some verbal aggression does have its place in the military: "First you must realize that you are worthless by yourself, and then discover that you are part of a team effort that is something when everyone works together. Therefore all your accomplishments are as a team rather than individually."

Every person, athlete, soldier or civilian, is different, so they will react to the aggression differently. Some people develop a "tough skin" as they get older, and learn from what others say about them. Others, however, seem to be enduring aggression, but emotionally cannot handle the pressure. If the insults continue, the person may suffer and break down emotionally. The difficult part is determining who cannot handle the criticism. If a sports coach is going to speak sternly to a player regarding their game, they must understand how far is too far for this particular player. The risk of damage far outweighs any benefits. Weichmann explains, "When you embarrass students in front of other students, the damage is almost impossible to repair." Results of aggressive behavior are usually permanent.

The worst problem with verbal aggression is that it cannot happen without reciprocation (IPC 181). If we get "pulled back into the lobster tank," we instinctively pull the other person down when they attempt to get out. When you inflict a hurt, the victim feels the need to hurt you back, and add a little more. It becomes a power struggle and the last man standing wins. Unfortunately, this verbal aggression often leaves both parties on the canvas. The damage inflicted by words will often cause more pain than a physical attack could. Physical wounds can heal, but verbal wounds scar the soul and can last a lifetime. Damaged self-concept and escalated aggression can lead to reduced trust, relationship deterioration, and ultimately relationship termination (Gordon qt. Infante 54).

Abusive language is very likely to lead to aggressive and abusive behavior. Aggression naturally escalates, and it is likely that most abusive language that will cause physical action, either on the part of the victim or the aggressor. Many people justify verbal aggression because they claim that it is a substitute for physical aggression. One might say in anger, "would you rather have me bash your face in?" As part of this reasoning, some people may see verbal aggression as a way to release pent up emotions and feelings in a relatively harmless way (IPC 180). A study by Sugar and Schofield, showed that some people believe that their aggressive behavior would cause them less guilt and anxiety, and prevent them from causing others physical harm (345). However, evidence suggests that the more prevalent verbal abuse becomes, the more physical violence results (IPC 181). The natural escalating tendency of verbal aggression forces emotions to become greater until the built-up hurt from verbal harassment vents itself in a physical attack.

Verbal aggression occurs for many other reasons. For instance, psychopathological reasons, where a person attacks others who remind him or her of an unresolved source of hurt, are common. Secondly, a person may be directly or indirectly rewarded for using verbal aggression. Most frequently, a person may not be able to effectively defend their position or attack their opponents position, therefore resorting to attacking their opponent personally. People are constantly called upon to give their opinions in a democratic society, and if they don't have a good reason for what they believe, their opinions may be contested. For lack of a better defense, people resort to name-calling, swearing, or whatever means necessary to convince themselves that they are right. For instance, think back to the recent elections. Quite often a candidate won't even say what issues he or she supports, rather the body of their campaigns will be bashing their opponent.

If we consciously decide to eliminate the use of harsh language, the people we talk to will begin to feel more at ease. As they begin to express and become more aware of the situation, the effectiveness of communication will be improved. Although we can not completely eliminate aggressive language in our society, we can do our part to reduce aggression in our own relationships.


Bibliography Infante, Dominic. "Teaching Students to Understand and Control Verbal Aggression" Communication Education. Vol 44, 1: January 1995. pp. 51-62

"Perception of Argumentation and Verbal Aggression" Human Communication Research. Vol 22, 3: March 1996. pp. 315-324

"Trash Talk". Group discussion. Bethany Lutheran College. October 12, 1998.

Weaver, Richard L. " Understanding Interpersonal Communication" pp. 177-183 Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY

Sugar, Schofield. Journal of Counseling and Development. Mar/Apr 1991, Issue 4, p. 345

Weichmann, Mark. Personal Interview. October 30, 1998.


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Last updated: Dec 15, 1998 Sandy Hultgren sandyh@blc.edu

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