I used to believe that verbal aggression on its own is a minor issue and that, while insults, contemptuous language, unwelcome sexual advances and the likes are far from praiseworthy, they are nevertheless hardly harmful unless accompanied by more nefarious activities like attempting to kick a person from their community or severe harassment for one reason:

Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.

What is called verbal abuse is usually 'abusers' sending some messages to the 'abused ones'. But this seems to me to be an act intrinsic to the 'abusers'. Other people can hardly be stopped from sending messages and messages themselves aren't hurtful. Messages can only hurtful when they reach those they are intended to reach - the 'abused ones'. But then, unlike with sticks and stones, with words the addressees have the choice: to accept the message or to drop it. It seems to me to turn out that in order to become a victim of a verbal abuse, the addressee of such words must allow the 'abuser' to hurt them!

Yet, nowadays, we see the general consensus is opposite. We see the escalating trend to weed out any and all examples of even very minor negativity or aggression in words. Those are deemed unacceptable, addressees of such messages may be called 'victims', and telling people to 'grow a thicker skin' is explicitly declared a non-solution to the problem. Examples of this are many: StackExchange's new Code of Conduct, strict rules of communication Riot Games is trying to enforce in League of Legends, punishing people for jokes, firing employees for not being nice enough to their colleagues, etc etc.

My thinking used to be that this actually hurts, instead of protecting, the addressees of such forbidden messages. If such messages are treated as 'big deal', if growing a thicker skin is not to be advised, if, having received such messages, the correct action to take is deemed to be to report the offender to whoever is in charge of the community, if, as psychologists want, not attempting to stop receiving these messages is not respecting oneself enough… Then, by acting this way, the receivers of verbal abuse are essentially giving the abusers the power to hurt them - and this is a lot of power to place in improper hands.

What is the basis of this approach and why does it seem to be the general consensus?

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    One major mistake in this reasoning is "unlike with sticks and stones, with words the addressees have the choice: to accept the message or to drop it". They do not, the message will be received and the emotional reaction will happen, emotions are not subject to conscious control. One can choose to "get over it", but the same can be said of sticks and stones, so the real issue is the damage assessment. One reason for the new consensus is the undermining of folk misconceptions that heavily weigh physical damage over emotional one (as in the saying) by modern psychology.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 0:03
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    Humans are social creatures. If a grief stricken person can be consoled by words and interactions. Why would you not expect the opposite to be equally effective that is turning a happy person depressed and mentelly unwell? To say that people should just "ignore it" is to assign all blame to the victim but that's not fair and ignores everything we know about human behaviour.
    – Cell
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 1:42
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    It is a messy picture, as one would expect with psychology. The "emotional sovereignty" is a naive folk metaphor, as is clear from the presentation your book advises some ways of dealing with negative emotions, not the impossible feat of controlling brain chemistry. You seem to mix the normative (what people should do) with the factual (what actually happens). A general response to "people can and should" is "people shouldn't have to", and like all disputes about shoulds it is irresolvable by psychology or any other science. Dealing has its own costs.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 20:42
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    @Conifold A general response to "people can and should" is "people shouldn't have to" -- this is counterintuitive to me. "people can and should learn how to walk in infancy" -- "people shouldn't have to, let's just do what the movie Wall-E envisaged". I know, maybe my intuition is silly, but my intuition is that in this way we're creating a society of weaklings & wimps who are never given the chance to graduate from infancy and we're on our way to, paradoxically, create a very dystopian world :( Again, maybe my intuition is outright stupid tho.
    – gaazkam
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 21:02
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    Intuition is feeble and parochial, some have one, others (or the same ones at a different time) have another. This is why value questions are not factual. After feminism many dismiss the macho intuition pumping as channeling of patriarchal stereotypes, for example. A serious study of the balancing act called for here would require much more intricate cost/benefit analysis than rhetorical invocations like "weaklings & wimps who are never given the chance to graduate from infancy". And a much better than current understanding of material basis of emotions and the costs of "dealing" with them .
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 21:15

3 Answers 3



Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me

may be a certain sort of "truth" of the matter, there is also a version which goes

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my heart

Words are not always something harmless, no matter how much the person "doesn't care" their emotions can't always agree on that, they can get over it but no one should have to just "get over it" or "grow a thicker skin" just because someone is verbally abusing them, verbal abuse is essentially the same as physical abuse, while physical abuse strikes the physical body of one another, verbal abuse strikes the soul and emotions of another person.

It is perfectly acceptable to try to cut down such abuse, especially in places where people spend a lot of their time in, such as a workplace or school.

It is more often that the causes of depression and isolation of oneself is caused not by physical abuse, but verbal abuse and treatment similar to verbal abuse.

No one "Gives power to hurt themselves", not everything can be countered by just "not caring" or "getting over it", for words can leave hidden long term damage to a person.


The possibility that words matter is built on the possibility that other people matter.

If we suppose that other people don't matter, then it is perfectly sensible to think that the words of other people don't matter---and that any negative feelings you carry because of other people's words are really just irrational leftovers from a bygone evolutionary epoch.

If we suppose that other people do actually matter, then we acknowledge that the well-being and good-will of others constitutes a material portion of ourselves somehow. In this case, the harm with hurtful words becomes apparent, because the words (false or true) indicate a strain between the portion of ourselves that is ours alone and the portion that isn't.

False hurtful words are especially harmful because they strain ourselves with no possible resolution internally; the only resolution is to conclude that either the other person or yourself is somehow wrong.

True hurtful words, that are unkind, are harmful because they cause an internal strain that causes yourself to believe that there is a separation between yourself and others.

True negative words, spoken in kindness, may feel annoying and burdensome, but they result in an internal strain that the person can actually resolve in a positive way and improve the relationship between yourself and others.


Physically speaking words can obviously be hurtful. Just utter them loud enough or in a weird frequency and they can do real physical damage. Sound is not immaterial, but a real existing pressure wave. Also you could construct a language where a word happens to trigger an earworm or whatnot. And following that thought we could transfer that to the question of whether information can be hurtful and if you look at, for example computers, then yes information i.e. worms, viruses, spam, etc, can be physically harmful without requiring physical access to violently mistreat a device.

Though to be fair that's usually not what people mean when they talk about that. so you're mostly right, that in most cases it's not actually about the word itself, but about the act of speaking it, the context in which it is said, how it is likely received, the message that is being plain or encoded and so on.

Messages can only hurtful when they reach those they are intended to reach - the 'abused ones'

Not really. It's fairly easy to set the context for an abused person without actually addressing them directly. Idk self-fulfilling prophecies of gossip, like you know how "@gaazkam is always so aggressive and rude?" Like if enough people get such a framing they are more likely to perceive your actions through that lens, that is as aggressive and rude and act accordingly even if they were never intended as such, to which you are more likely to act accordingly (aggressive and rude) and hence you've fulfilled the prophecy, that you were never aware existed in the first place. So they technically said the truth when they gossiped, right? (Well no, but good luck proving that). And depending on what the framer is saying about you that can be very harmful, while your agency in this might not even be active, like you might not even know what is played.

Like if another person frames you as "the enemy" then it doesn't matter whether you are polite, rude, outgoing or shy or whatnot, it's either a description of your bad character or a ruse to fool them, which is again even more indicative of your bad character.

But enough about being indirectly effected by speech. What about direct verbal assaults? Well you seem to focus heavily about the inherent aggression in the language like if someone uses an insult or whatnot. But it's again usually about the explicit, implicit or pretended context. So idk an insult from a stranger with no consequences can often easily be ignored and insult from a friend hits much harder or not at all depending on whether it's genuine or in jest. So context matters a lot.

Also if it's not 1 stranger (what a weirdo), but 100 strangers, then you're likely to experience that as a hostile environment, while each of the strangers might see themselves as individuals releasing steam and would think that they are the exception not the rule. So the problem with "amateur jokesters" is that they rarely are aware of the context of other people or take the time to set up the appropriate context. Also sometimes what you think is harmless, just isn't. Just because workplace harassment used to be normal doesn't mean it ever was ok.

And "growing a thicker skin" is asking for complacency with a hostile environment, which is basically making the argument of "this hostility isn't going anywhere so it's YOU who has to change yourself to fit". And rarely is that talking about a natural environment that actually can't change and more likely it's about an actually hostile environment that should have changed long ago. Like being able and even encouraged to share their perspective of a situation should not be seen as a threat, but is necessary to avoid miscommunication, but apparently many still believe that's a one-way thing. The longer something "works" the less likely people are willing to accept that it never actually worked for everybody.

So no reaping outrage and flak for a mindless statement is not always a bad thing but can be constructive criticism that you've crossed boundaries that you were not supposed to cross. Now whether that has to end in total personal destruction is a different topic, but that it happens in at all rather than sucking it up, isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Though that being said it's vitally important to have rules mandating equal rights and to have them be reliable and to be able to report these things. Because usually a hierarchical structure to a person at the bottom looks like a monolith, so if the direct superior only responds with "that's your problem, toughen up, grow a thicker skin", then you are likely to perceive this whole environment as toxic and yourself as on your own, meaning you're either shrinking as a person or your overly aggressive to compensate the lack of social power in that environment. So being aware that you don't have to suck it up, that you have rights and that you can count on that is very important.

Again whether personal destruction and 1 strike policies are a good implementation of that or whether companies are just very cautious of shitstorms to the point of breeding their own hostile work environment, is a different question.

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    The current anti-speech environment is practically the definition of a hostile environment. Just examine the spectacle of protestors threatening a popular fast-speaking diminutive Jewish commentator with physical violence for having the arrogance to suggest people pay attention to facts.
    – BillOnne
    Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 14:39
  • Oh you mean the guy who wants to sell real estate to merfolk? I'm always surprised people take him serious to begin with.
    – haxor789
    Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 14:43
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    forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2020/02/14/… ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3152687 There is mounting evidence that emotional pain uses physical pain "circuitry".
    – J D
    Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 14:59

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