How to Deal With People Who Insult You at Work


An insult is often meant to hurt -- and it can, if you allow it to do so. Humans in groups create social hierarchies, and an insult is a way to sort out status. Putting someone down is seen as a way to establish the social hierarchy because the person making the insult is presumed to have higher status. Your reaction is the key to dealing with an insult, especially in the workplace.

Recognizing the Insult

  • Insults come in many forms, according to Dr. Neel Burton, writing in a February 2013 article for "Psychology Today." Direct verbal insults are easy to recognize, but the more subtle sarcastic smirks or raised eyebrows can be harder to pin down as insulting. Insults that take the form of ignoring a person are also more subtle. If insults target your race, gender, color, religion or age, it is considered harassment and may be illegal, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Insults can also be elevated to the physical level of assault. In these kinds of serious cases, document the insult -- including what was said, when and where -- and let your supervisor or human resources representative know about it.

Clever Putdowns Can Backfire

  • Insults can occasionally come from people you respect, including colleagues and managers whose input you value. In these cases, take the insult as an opportunity to learn or improve. When the insult comes from someone you don’t respect, ignoring it completely may be the best choice. Engaging with the person who insulted you takes you down to his level and increases his credibility. Instead of stopping the problem, returning an insult with another insult may result in verbal game playing that has no productive value.

Use Self-Deprecating Humor

  • Humor can be a good way to defuse an insult. Burton notes that humor undermines the insult, brings the audience to your side and relieves any tension in the situation. However, the appropriate use of humor to defuse an insult requires that you be able to think quickly. The humor should be self-deprecating, according to William B. Irvine, author of “Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt — And Why They Shouldn't.” Humor directed back at the person who is insulting you can backfire -- especially if there is an audience that laughs at the insulter. Being laughed at can make him determined to get even, which adds to stress in the workplace.

Other Strategies for Insults

  • One way to deal with insults at work is to take the time to analyze them. Ask yourself what benefit the other person gets from her insults, especially if it happens more than once. First, make sure it truly is an insult and that you’re not just being thin-skinned. Think before reacting, and turn the insult into a direct question by saying something such as, “This seems to be an issue for you as you’ve brought it up more than once.” Set boundaries to serve notice that you will not be pushed around. Don’t lose your temper or cry. Instead, excuse yourself if necessary to regain your composure. Address the issue privately, in person. Find out why the person finds it necessary to insult you, and let her know you don't like it. Follow the conversation up with an email so you have documentation of it.

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