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?

  • 1
    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
    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
    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
    Sep 30, 2018 at 20:42
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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
    Sep 30, 2018 at 21:15
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    I do not have an argument, nor am I interested in arguing. I simply pointed out that your argument does not require a response, it can be dismissed by people with different "intuitions". You can inspect their motives and dismiss them in turn, given the current state of knowledge it is simply a judgment call, what you see is judgment calls trending in a different direction. Same with skills, some are worth teaching, and for others it is better to eliminate the need, often something in between. But vague epithets like "important" are of no help, costs and benefits require quantification.
    – Conifold
    Sep 30, 2018 at 21:34

2 Answers 2



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.

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