The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense

Suzette Haden Elgin

EXCERPT: From pp. 14-19 in the new revised and updated edition of The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, just out from Fall River Press [a Barnes & Noble imprint].

There are three major reasons why learning verbal self-defense can be the most important step you take in your life. Let’s look at them one at a time.

The Link Between Verbal Violence and Physical Violence

The reason we don’t have enough money to do the things we want and need to do is that we spend so much of our money dealing with physical violence and its consequences. We spend enormous sums on law enforcement, on jails and prisons, on the legal system and the courts, on security, on insurance, on preventing and dealing with domestic violence, on the ininsured medical costs of violent criminals and their victims. We all know that those costs keep growing, and how out of control they are.
    But the “words can’t hurt you” idea keeps us from noticing the obvious: that almost all physical violence starts as verbal violence–as hostile language. Sane people don’t just walk up to other people and start hitting. First there is an exchange of hostile words; then the physical violence starts. Even in cases where someone walks into their school or church or workplace and starts shooting, there is almost always a history of hostile language leadiing up to that final tragic event.
    Once violence becomes physical, we need professionals to deal with it–police officers and emergency personnel and medical experts; it’s out of our hands. But while the violence is still “only words,” every person who speaks a language can learn how to deal with it and how to keep it from escalating into physical violence. To get a handle on physical violence and stop wasting our resources on it, we need to tackle it where it starts, while it’s still hostile language. That means learning verbal self-defense. It means learning how to establish and maintain a language environment in which hostile language is very rare; it means learning how to deal with hostile language effectively and efficiently when it truly cannot be avoided.

The Link Between Language and Health

Sometimes things that seem obvious and self-evident–like the flatness of the Earth when you look at it as you’re driving through Illinois–are only illlusions. Sometimes we aren’t able to see that, because we don’t have the right technology for working with the data. The link between language and health is like that. Only recently have we been able to get a good, clear look at that link and begin to understand what it means.
    We used to have to study medical histories with paper and pen and calculator, and that gave us one picture–one very limited picture–of what was going on. Today, the powerful computers that can show us hundreds of thousands of medical histories over the course of decades give us a very
different picture: they show us that over time, hostile language maims and kills just like sticks and stones and knives and guns maim and kill. We couldn’t see that before, because we didn’t have enough data. Now we can see it, and the data tell us that hostile language is perhaps the most dangerous of all “risk factors.” More dangerous than obesity, more dangerous than smoking, more dangerous than high cholesterol, more dangerous than all those things we put so much effort into avoiding. The information that appears when you look at enough medical data to see long-term patterns tells us unambiguously that people who are chronically exposed to hostile language get sick more often, are injured more often, take longer to recover from illness and injury, and die younger.
    And there’s more, thanks to those same powerful computers. We now know that hostile language isn’t dangerous just to those who are its target. It’s also dangerous to the person dishing it out, and it’s dangerous to innocent bystanders who can’t avoid it. That changes things dramatically. That means that it’s just as important for verbal abusers to learn how to communicate without hostile language as it is for verbal targets to learn how to defend themselves against their attackers. Hostile language is toxic; to keep it out of your life, you need to learn verbal self-defense.

The Link Between Language and Success in Today’s World

    There was a time when most people got jobs and stayed in them for many years; there was a time when most people worked for one company, maybe two, until they retired. Individuals might move up through the ranks over time, but the company was like family; everybody knew everybody else.

    In those days there was plenty of time for people to get used to one another at work. When new people were hired, somebody would fill them in. Like this:

“Don’t pay any attention to the things Jack says; he’s really a nice guy, and he doesn’t mean to sound like such a jerk.”

“Just ignore Amanda when she starts mouthing off, she doesn’t mean any of it.”

“Don’t let the way Henderson talks fool you–he sounds stupid, but he’s really one of the smartest guys in the company.”

 As long as you showed up every day for work and did your best, you could assume that you’d get ahead, even if your communication skills were poor. That has now changed dramatically. Now people change jobs, even change their whole careers, at a moment’s notice. Within a single job, they move from project to project, and from team to team. To succeed today you need to be able to make a good impression immediately, establish instant rapport, and communicate successfully with people you’ve only just met. The luxury of lead time for gradually adjusting to others in your workplace has disappeared. Poor communication skills today are a serious barrier to success.
    You may feel that this doesn’t matter to you personally. You may already have succeeded in your chosen field; you may already have climbed high enough on the ladder. But if you have children and/or grandchildren, I assure you that it still does matter. If you want a tranquil retirement, free of children and grandchildren desperate for your help because they can’t earn their own livings in today’s world, you need to learn verbal self-defense so that you can make sure their language skills are topnotch.
    Developing your verbal self-defense skills is in your own best interest, and it will repay your investment of learning time and energy many times over. To learn verbal self-defense, you need only your fluency in your native language, your common sense–and this book. The book will teach you the following things:

1. How to recognize patterns of verbal abuse in your own speech,
 so that you can stop using them

2. How to recognize verbal target patterns in your own language
behavior, so that you can stop using them

3. How to recognize patterns of verbal abuse in the language behavior of others, so that you will be aware of them and know where the sources of contamination in your own language environment are

4. How to use a set of verbal self-defense techniques that will let you either defuse verbal attacks in advance and avoid hostility, or respond to them effectively when the confrontation cannot be avoided

5. How to use patterns of language that will improve the way others perceive you when that perception is based on your language behavior

6. How to eliminate patterns of language behavior that detract  from the perception others have of you

7. How to interact verbally and nonverbally with others in such
a way that your communication is more efficient and more satisfactory


It’s not true that these accomplishments are limited to people with advanced degrees in communication, language arts, and linguistics, or to people “born with a silver tongue in their mouths.” You are equipped to do all these things, no matter what your present level of expertise may be, simply because you are a native speaker of your language. 


Welcome to the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.