Suzette Haden Elgin's The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense

Frequently Asked Questions

1.  Why did you feel that a new edition of The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense was needed?

Because the first edition was written in 1979, and the world has changed so much and so drastically since then that the first edition badly needed updating.

2.  What is verbal abuse?

Verbal abuse is hostile language that hurts the listener and is not accidental. (For example, it's not language that someone overhears by mistake; the speaker intends the listener to hear it.)

3. Since nothing really happens, isn't verbal abuse harmless?

No. Verbal abuse can be just as life-threatening as a loaded gun. If you are exposed to chronic verbal abuse–whether as abuser, as victim, or as an innocent bystander who doesn't have the option to leave the scene–you are in danger.

4.  Who are the worst verbal abusers–men, or women?

One is just as likely as the other. Anyone can be a verbal abuser, including small children and people who are physically very frail.

5.  Where can verbal victims–or verbal abusers who'd like to change their ways– go for help?

Almost no expert help is available unless the individual has access to a professional therapist. You can't call the police or a social service agency and complain that you've been verbally abused. There's no law against verbal abuse in the U.S., and the lack of a definition for it that will stand up in a court of law (as do the definitions for libel and slander, for example) makes it difficult for professionals or agencies to intervene and offer help. This is beginning to change, at long last–but very, very slowly.

6.  I'm a verbal victim. What can I do?

The most important thing you can do is something you've already done–becoming aware that you are a verbal victim. The next thing is to understand that verbal abuse, unlike other kinds of abuse, requires a participating partner, a living human being to play the victim role. When you fill that role you're rewarding the verbal abuser's behavior; the longer you keep that up, the stronger the habit will become. Finally, you need to understand that most chronic verbal abusers aren't sadistic monsters whose goal is to cause pain–instead, they use hostile language as a way to satisfy their need for human attention. They cause pain because they've learned that doing so will get attention; it's not their purpose. That doesn't excuse what they do, but it's important for it to be understood.

7.  If most verbal abusers don't really mean any harm, aren't so-called verbal victims just neurotics who make mountains out of molehills?

No. The abusers' intentions are irrelevant. When chemical companies dump toxic waste into a water system, their goal isn't to poison people; they do it because it's convenient and cheap. We do our best to make them stop it all the same, and the poisoning is just as dangerous as if it were deliberate. The same thing is true for verbal abusers; whatever their motives, they have no right to harm others with their language. The pain they cause is real, and its effects are dangerous and nontrivial.

8.  What is the worst kind of verbal abuse?

That depends on the people involved. It's like asking what is the worst kind of physical abuse–it depends. Long term, chronic verbal abuse, of any kind, is worse than short term verbal abuse.

9.  What do chronic verbal attackers typically say about what they're doing?

Two things. "Well, at least I never HIT anybody!" (And they're proud of that, as if it were a major achievement.) "Hey, I don't MEAN to hurt anybody!" (And they consider that a complete excuse.)

10.  What do chronic verbal targets typically say about what they're doing?

Three things. "Well, at least he/she never HITS me!" ... "I knew I was always miserable, but I didn't know why; now I know why."  ...  "It's all my fault–I shouldn't be so sensitive."

11.  Isn't assertiveness training the best way to end verbal abuse?

If you always say the wrong thing, whether as target or as attacker, assertiveness training will only teach you how to say the wrong thing far more effectively and articulately. That's not an improvement. Assertiveness training can be very helpful, but it's not a solution for verbal abuse.

12.  Is there a connection between verbal violence and physical violence?

Yes. Verbal violence is where physical violence begins. Sane people don't just walk up to others and start hitting; first there are hostile words. While the abuse is still verbal, anyone can learn how to keep it from escalating; once it's physical, it becomes a matter for law enforcement and emergency medicine. We have to teach our children about this more carefully than we do. When children who hurt others with words are always told not to worry about it–"Oh, Tommy just can't take a joke! He'll get over it!"–the children get the message that causing people pain with language is okay. They learn that when their words hurt other people, something is wrong with those people. It’s all too easy for that message to get transferred to physical abuse.

13.  Isn't a verbal abuser/victim pair a typical example of codependency?

In some ways, yes, but there are critical differences. First: Verbal abuse, unlike any other kind of abuse, cannot be done alone. The verbal abuser's need is to get and hold the victim's attention, along with the emotional reactions that are evidence of the power to do so. That requires the victim's participation and it means that the targets of verbal abuse aren't helpless–there are things they can do to defend themselves. This isn't "blaming the victim," it's empowering the victim.  Second: You can't help alcoholics by giving them drinks, but you can help chronic verbal abusers by giving them attention. Their problem is that they really believe that there's no other way they can get attention except by verbally abusing others. If people make a point of giving them attention that is in no way linked to hostile language, it will help.

14.  What is the link between verbal self-defense and people's health and wellbeing?

Thanks to today's powerful computers that let us analyze the health records of hundreds of thousands of people over many years, we now know that the two major risk factors for all illnesses and disorders and accidents, across the board, are (a) loneliness and (b) exposure to chronic hostility. We also now know that the danger is not limited just to those who are targets of hostile language; hostile language is also dangerous for the attackers and for innocent bystanders who aren't free to leave the scene.

15.  What is the link between verbal self-defense and people's success in this world?

There was a time when it was common for people to stay for many years in just one job, often all the way to their retirement. In that situation, there was a long period during which people in the workplace got to know one another and became accustomed to one another's behaviors and personalities. When someone new joined the group, they would hear statements like, "Don't pay any attention to the way Joe talks; he doesn't mean anything by it," and "Don't let the things Ellen says bother you; she's really a very kind person." Today, that is no longer the case. Now people move from job to job, even from career to career; someone who stays at one workplace has to move from team to team. That means that it's critical to be able to establish rapport with others very quickly and efficiently; it means that it's critical to be able to avoid being perceived as someone who's hard to get along with.

16.  Why is body language so important for English?

Because in English speech most of the emotional message is carried not by the words you say but by the body language that goes with those words, and especially by your tone of voice and your intonation. No matter how carefully you choose your words, their message can be diminished, or even canceled, by your body language.

17.  What do you mean when you talk about "the language environment"?

We're used to thinking of the physical environment and of the need to keep it wholesome. But only very recently have we begun to realize that it's equally important to keep the language environment wholesome. Hostile language is just as dangerous as polluted water or chemical waste, and we let it accumulate all around us until we are living and working in the linguistic equivalent of a toxic waste dump. Physical waste is hard to ignore; we can see it and we can smell it and we're motivated to do something about it. Verbal waste is different. It's invisible; it has no smell; the damage it does is easy to ignore and traditionally is ignored; and our culture actively promotes the myth that "sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you."

18.  What is the primary goal of your verbal self-defense system?

To establish an environment in which verbal violence almost never occurs; and in which–on those rare occasions when it cannot be avoided–it is dealt with efficiently and effectively, with no loss of face on either side.

19.  How would a child use the Satir Modes most effectively?

No matter what verbal self-defense technique children are using, whether it’s “Using the Satir Modes” or one of the other techniques from the Gentle Art system, there will be one major difference that children always have to deal with. For children, there are two language environments –the one made up of interactions with other children, and the one made up of interactions with adults.

When a child is interacting with another child, the rules for using the Satir Modes are the ones stated in the book. But a child interacting with an adult is by definition out-ranked, and must be extremely careful not to choose a Satir Mode that the adult might perceive as insolent or rude. This means that it's not possible to specify rules for the use of Satir Modes in child/adult interactions, because they are going to vary from one situation to another. The closest thing to a reliable rule is that children should always choose either Computing or Leveling–never Blaming, Placating, or Distracting–basing their choice on their personal knowledge about the circumstances and about the adult(s) involved. 

[Note: The Satir Modes–Blaming, Placating, Computing, Distracting, and Leveling–are a set of language behaviors observed by therapist Virginia Satir to be typical of people communicating under stress.]