On Brooklyn Wisdom for Responding to Insults

lunchroomWhen his father lost his job because of a serious illness, John qualified for a free lunch pass at school.  The first time John showed the cashier at the school’s lunch line his pass, Fred, a husky boy standing behind John, started to laugh and cry out to others, “Hey guys, get a load of this! John has a free lunch pass. What’s the matter, John, your parents can’t afford to buy you lunch.”

lunchroom2“That will be enough of that, Fred!” scolded the cashier. At that same moment, John turned to Fred and hollered, “Shut your big mouth, you fat pig!” Both boys started swinging at each other, and it took three school officials to pull them apart. 

Insults and The Wisdom Of My Youth

Brooklyn 1When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I, along with everyone I knew, had to deal with insults, and this was not always an easy task. The entire body of wisdom that I received on how to handle these types of experiences basically amounted to a mere three sentences:

1. “If people throw an insult at you, throw an insult right back at them.”

2. “If throwing insults back at the insulter doesn’t shut them up, slug them right in the kisser, that’ll teach them to keep their big mouth shut!”

3. “You should just ignore insults.”

brooklyn 2Despite these words of advice, I found that when those that I knew and I had insults thrown at us, often a great deal of strong emotions would arise, and the way we handled these situations often left behind an uncomfortable, often bitter, state of affairs.

Difficulty Dealing With Insults Extends Far Beyond Brooklyn’s Borders

As years went by, I found that difficulty dealing with insults was not just something that occurred in Brooklyn; it was actually a problem area for many throughout the world.

UniversityAs I began to study psychology at the University of Minnesota, I found that many individuals who seek mental health services because of concerns around feelings of depression often are spending a great amount of time insulting themselves. A major reason that they do this is that they know people who are treating them disrespectfully, or when they were younger, someone had treated them in a very disrespectful manner. I also found that violent offenders typically become violent because they perceive that someone had insulted them, the situation escalated and eventually someone was seriously hurt. Now the community was paying millions of dollars to deal with the aftermath.

A Brooklyn Boy Tries to Improve On the Wisdom Of His Youth

rochesterAs I began my professional career in Rochester, New York, immediately I received referrals from teachers who wanted me to help students who were having difficulty handling insults. I quickly learned that the same three wisdom sentences that I had learned to respond to criticism when I was growing up in Brooklyn were already well known to these students, and despite this, things weren’t going at all well. And so it fell upon me to try to come up with some better ways to deal with these types of problems.

I soon found some approaches that worked rather well. Of course, I always began by making a personal connection with the student by asking what they liked to do. Usually some things that they liked were things I liked as well. Rock music, some of the talented athletes of the day, a TV program or two, would come up, and once our enthusiasm for a few topics were shared, we would get on with working on some new ways to deal with insults. Throughout this process, they would criticize me from time to time, and I sought to model the patterns of behavior I hoped these students would learn.

Illustration by Lois Hubertz

Illustration by Lois Hubertz

Before long, I would point out that everyone experiences name calling, insults, and teasing, even the greatest presidents, the most talented athletes, and rock stars.  If someone insults you, it does NOT mean that you are a bad person.

I then tell them the story of John and how Fred laughs at him on the lunch line when he uses, for the first time, his free lunch pass. Afterwards, I ask:

“Why do you think Fred laughs at John?”

The typical response is, “It’s because Fred is mean.” 

pratfalls“It may seem that way,” I reply, but think about this for a moment. Comedians have learned that if they pretend to accidentally trip and fall down, people laugh. Why do you think they laugh?”

Typical answer: “It’s just funny.”

Me: “Did you ever laugh when you saw somebody trip and fall?”

Typical answer: “Yeah.”

Me: “Because you’re mean?”

Typical answer: “No.”

Me: Well then, how come?

Typical answer: “It’s just funny.”

Me: “Sometimes it does seem to be funny. But you know why I think people laugh?”

Typical answer: “Why?”

A young man in a gray cardigan shows facepalm

Me: “I think that when people see someone trip and fall, it reminds them of when they, themselves, tripped and fell or messed up in some other embarrassing way. They remember how embarrassing it was, and it is a relief to them to see that they aren’t the only ones who sometimes mess up. It is that relief that they feel that leads to their laugh.

“In that story that I told you about John and Fred, when Fred laughs at John on the lunch line, I think it’s not because he’s being mean. It’s because he recalled that there were times when something embarrassing happened to him. Seeing John use his free lunch pass was a relief to Fred.

embarrassed2“One reason I think this is true is that people who have had the most embarrassing things happen to them are, from my experience, usually the quickest to start to laugh when something embarrassing happens to someone else.  They also laugh the loudest, and they are the quickest to tell others of the embarrassing thing that happened to someone else. Do you understand what I mean?”

With this type of discussion, students referred to me very soon get to understand that when someone laughs at you, often it isn’t really because they are being mean to you. Rather, they see that you are similar to them in that you have had to deal with some embarrassing problems, just like them.

Helping students to learn this idea, which takes several reminders in the form of several Cool Steve Stories over several counseling sessions, changes their belief that “people who laugh at me are just being mean.” As they replace that belief with this new idea, their anger is reduced. Thus, it becomes easier to teach them other skills that go way beyond the three-sentence words of wisdom that most people are being taught–skills like how to recognize when laughing at someone begins to go beyond the typical emotional relief that many of us experience when we see someone else do something embarrassing and turns into bullying; and skills like the five levels of maturity for responding to negative criticism (see here and here).

During my professional career I was getting paid to provide advice on these types of interpersonal and intrapersonal problems. Now that I’m comfortably retired, I have a calling to give back something to our communities. So, through my blog, “From Insults to Respect,” I offer, for free, the same advice I used to get paid for. It’s a labor of love.


lunchroomLet’s conclude today’s post by returning to a situation very similar to the one with which we began. This time, however, thirteen-year old John, had had quite a bit of practice on handling this type of situation with a wise teacher before he met Fred. Now, faced with Fred’s laughter and comment, John chooses to respond on the lunchroom line in a manner that is very different than my Brooklyn upbringing suggested was wise. Let’s take a look at how this might get played out:

Fred, a husky boy standing behind John, starts to laugh and cries out to others, “Hey guys, get a load of this! John has a free lunch pass. What’s the matter, John, your parents can’t afford to buy you lunch?”

John turns to Fred, looks squarely into Fred’s eyes, and says firmly, “You’re right, Fred, right now my parents can’t afford to buy me lunch.”

A couple of the guys laugh. John says to himself, “They’re laughing because embarrassing things happened to them. They’re feeling inside a sense of relief now that they’re seeing something embarrassing happening to someone else.”

Throughout this process, John does experience within himself some embarrassment at what is taking place. As he notices this, from time to time he says to himself, “My feelings are natural and helpful. They will help me to remember this experience, and lead me to try to figure out how I can work toward improving my current situation.

This time there is no bloody, violent fight that has to be broken up by three school personnel. And although John is not happy with his current situation, he is far more comfortable with it knowing that if he is teased about it, he has a set of skills that has the potential to enhance his reputation.

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 intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Insults Amongst Friends
Comics, Conflicts and the Desire to be Liked

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.

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