If you have been following this blog, you know that I have often discussed different ways to respond to insults.

Illustration by Eric Sailer

Illustration by Eric Sailer

For example, some people respond to negative criticism that is designed to be constructive as if it was an insult.  They then become angry, defensive and end up storming away.  In a post titled CRITICISM AND WISDOM, I encouraged people who respond in this way to this type of criticism to learn to change their attitude. I explained that this type of criticism does not have to be viewed as an insult, but rather, as something potentially helpful and something that can lead toward wisdom.  Rather than becoming defensive, we can learn to welcome this type of criticism and even encourage the criticizer to feel free to provide additional criticism in the future.  This takes practice, but it can be achieved.

Sometimes people begin to throw insults at you because they are angry about a conflict they have with you.  In this type of situation, rather than to respond to the insults by becoming defensive and returning the insults, I advocated in an earlier post learning a plan to DIG FOR THE CONFLICT in a friendly, assertive manner.

More recently, I mentioned that in certain types of situations RESPONDING TO INSULTS WITH QUIET SADNESS can be helpful.  This type of response is most helpful when the insults are being provided because the insulter is in a stressed-out mood about something that has nothing to do with you, or because the insulter is jealous of you.

When I engage in discussions about the above types of responses, people sometimes ask me what I think about just ignoring an insult.

luann insultIn the above Luann comic strip, Delta tries to get Luann to consider ignoring Tiffany.  I wonder if it would be better to ignore her insult but not ignore Tiffany.

This ignoring insults strategy has been with us for a long time.  I remember a principal many years ago advocating that kids should learn to ignore insults because tossing insults at someone is a lot like a game of tennis.  tennis serveThat is, in tennis, if Ron serves a ball to you, if you refuse to hit the ball back, Ron will quickly become bored and find someone else to play with.  Similarly, if Ron throws an insult at you, if you ignore it, rather than throw the insult back, Ron will soon become bored and leave you alone.

There are times when I have used the ignoring approach fairly successfully.  I remember a time when I was about 12-years old.  I  was  passing three guys who were hanging out on a street corner.  They appeared to be around 18.  When they started insulting me, I ignored it and just kept walking.  They let me pass with just one more insult.  It was all over in a matter of seconds and no physical harm had occurred to me.  And so, the ignoring strategy worked pretty well.

However, when I got home, my imagination took flight.  I wondered  if my sense of being a “true” man had gotten roughed up just a bit.  supermanMaybe, I thought, if I really had guts, I should have told those guys a thing or two even at the risk of being beaten to a bloody pulp.  Then I imagined being Superman, and I used my super powers to beat all three of them up.

But now that I’m quite a bit older and I have a far more secure sense of my manhood, I think that under the circumstances that I found myself as a 12-year old, my actions were indeed reasonable.  I’ve learned over the years that nothing I could have done differently would have been really likely to have had any real positive impact on those three guys.

To create real change with boys like that requires an intervention that a typical 12-year old could hardly be expected to create.  martin luther kingIt would have to involve, for example, someone the older boys genuinely respect, or creating a coalition of citizens working together to take the type of nonviolent actions that was used to put a stop to the disrespectful treatment of blacks during the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s.

For young children and those individuals who have trouble learning words, the great benefit of the ignoring approach is that it is perhaps the easiest strategy to learn.  Not even a single word is required, and it indeed can often produce better results then returning insults with insults.

word powerClose cousins to the ignoring approach, is to learn to use a particular word or phrase in response to the first insult followed by ignoring any following insults.  The most popular of course is “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me.”  Others are:


“Good one.”

“Nice try.”

“I’m not going there.”

This “word or phrase approach” can give the person using it the experience of doing something to stick up for oneself.  The word or phrase is meant to convey to the insulter that you recognize the game that the insulter is trying to play, and you are smart enough to know how to refuse to play it if that’s what you wish to do.  There is a sense of empowerment that comes with being involved in a choice and taking some outward action to exercise your choice.  ignoreIgnoring, or covering your ears to pretend to ignore, without saying anything may seem “weaker” to you than at least saying something on your behalf in a pleasant, self-assured manner.

This strategy works best when the word or phrase is uttered in a pleasant, friendly tone while looking squarely into the eyes of the insulter.  If you instead say the word or phrase with a sneer or with any other action that tries to convey that you are somehow better or smarter than the insulter, the strategy is likely to make the situation worse.  You don’t want to do anything that makes the insulter angrier than he or she may already be. That might lead to an escalation of any underlying conflict and violence.  A sneer amounts to returning the insult, when that’s just what you want to avoid.  Any action that comes off as returning the insult will most likely motivate the insulter to try harder to make you feel bad.

Now, although ignoring or using a quick word or phrase followed by ignoring is easy to learn and often much better than returning the insult, for most situations trying to first find out why the person is throwing out insults is a much better course of action (see INSULTS: A COMIC STRIP LOVER’S GUIDE).  concernedBy asking the insulter in a concerned manner the reason for the insult can lead to a quick fix for some underlying problem.  And of course, if this “asking in a concerned manner” approach doesn’t work, you can always use the ignoring approach or one of its cousins afterwards.

Well, that’s my post for this week.  I’m hoping readers will take some time to post a comment about these ideas.  What has worked for you?  What has been your experience in trying any of these strategies?  I’d love to hear from you.

Have a great week!


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.


About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. Internet Comments and Behaviour. | SoshiTech
    November 29, 2013 - 2:54 pm

  2. I was bullied mercilessly as a child, by most of the students I went to school with as well as one or two teachers. It was a small town so the same students followed me through grade school, middle school, junior high, and high school. So I never had a chance for a clean start. I was counseled by all the adults in my life to just ignore it and they would stop. That advice was laughable. It became a game to continue tormenting me to try to get a response, sometimes resorting to physical abuse. By high school kids gad grown up a bit but it left lifelong scars on my psyche. I cant imagine it today with the internet.

    • Hi Margaret, much thanks for sharing your experience. I believe it is important that people who think that incessantly insulting someone is all in good fun hear the type of story you reveal in your comment. More has to be done beyond this, but your words have the potential of opening the eyes of many people. I encourage you to continue to speak out against this type of injustice. My Best, Jeff

  3. Ignorance is bliss, however once you make a stand to not do certain things like retaliating to insults you need to have an outlet for that frustration, otherwise there is darkness.

  4. I was insulted/abused/threatened by in-laws, that is triggering stress, unbearable stress not cured by all kinds of drugs, holistic approch, counsellings, hypnotist etc,etc, but retaliating lessens stress; Since insulters are away, i retaliate in their coins through post cards to them and complaining to their freinds and relatives!

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