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An Introduction to the Social Psychology of Insults in Organizations



The author argues that insults are an important social and organizational phenomenon, which causes powerful emotions and enters peoplés personal histories. It is suggested that insults involve a perpetrator, a target and, often, an audience. The intention to insult is not necessary, as some insults are the result of misunderstanding or accident. However, the experience of being gratuitously offended and the corresponding feelings of shame, guilt, and anger are fundamental to insults. Several types of insults are observed, such as exclusion, stereotyping, obliteration of significant identity details, ingratitude, scapegoating, rudeness, broken promises, being ignored or kept waiting. Even more potent insults result from the defamation or despoiling of idealized objects, persons, or ideas. Different insult dynamics are noted; these include an apology, a commensurate retaliation, a disproportionate retaliation and possible escalation, a retaliation against a surrogate and weaker target than the perpetrator of the initial insult, an affected indifference with a possible delayed retaliation, or more commonly a resigned tolerance which may fuel subsequent insults. Insults as well as retaliation and resistance to them are part of an organization's political process which establishes, first, lines of domination/subordination, second, finer gradations of status and power, i.e., a pecking order, and third, opportunities for building coalitions and alliances. It is argued that insults allow for a certain mobility within a pecking order, by offering 'matches' for contestants to pitch their wit, venom, and courage against each other. They also enable audiences to take sides, thus influencing and testing the operation of coalitions and alliances.
An Introduction to the Social Psych ology of
Insults in Organization s
Yian n is Gabriel
The author argue s that insults are an important social and organizational
phe nomenon, which causes powerful emotions and enters people
s pe rsonal
histories. It is suggested that insults involve a perpetrator, a target and, often,
an audie nce. The intention to insult is not necessary, as some insults are the
result of misunde rstanding or accident. Howeve r, the e xperie nce of being
gratuitously offe nde d and the corresponding feelings of shame, guilt, and anger
are fundame ntal to insults. Se ve ral type s of insults are observe d, such as
exclusion, stereotyping, obliteration of significant identity details, ingratitude,
scapegoating, rudeness, broken promise s, being ignore d or kept waiting. Even
more potent insults result from the defamation or despoiling of idealized objects,
persons, or ideas. Different insult dynamics are noted; these include an apology,
a co mm e nsu rate re taliation , a disproportionate re taliation and possible
e scalation, a re taliation again st a surrogate and we ake r targe t than the
perpetrator of the initial insult, an affecte d indifference with a possible delayed
retaliation, or more commonly a resigned tolerance which may fuel subsequent
insults. Insults as well as re taliation and resistance to them are part of an
o rg a n i z at i o n
s p o l i ti c al p ro c e ss w h i c h e st a b li sh e s, f i r s t , l ine s o f
domination/subordination, second, finer gradations of status and power, i.e., a
pecking order, and third, opportunities for building coalitions and alliances. It
is argued that insults allow for a certain mobility within a pecking order, by
offe ring
for contestants to pitch their wit, venom, and courage against
each other. They also enable audiences to take sides, thus influencing and te sting
the operation of coalitions and alliances.
KEY WORDS: insults; organizational politics; exclusion; stere otypes; conflict;
psychic injuries; survival; emotion; harassment; psychoanalysis.
Hum an Relations, Vol. 51, No. 11, 1998
0018-7267/98/1100-1329 $15.00/1
1998 The Tavistock Institute
An earlier ve rsion of this paper was presented at the 1997 Symposium of ISPSO.
School of Management, University of Bath, Bath, U.K.
Re quests for reprints should be addresse d to Yiannis Gabrie l, School of Manage ment, Uni-
versity of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY, U.K.; e -mail: Y.Gabrie l@
There are three forms of be littlement: contempt, spite and insult . . . . Insult is
belittlement. For an insult consists of doing or saying such things as involve shame
for the victim, not for some advantage to oneself other than the se have been done,
but for the fun of it.
Aristotle, Rhetoric
V ronsky
s life was particularly happy in that he had a code of principles, which
defined with unfailing certitude what should and what should not be done. This
code of principles covered only a small circle of contingencies, but in return the
principles were never obscure, and Vronsky, as he never we nt outside that circle,
had never had a moment
s he sitation about doing what he ought to do. This code
categorically ordained that . . . one must never pardon an insult but m ay insult
others oneself.
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Emotion and language are two areas which are curre ntly attracting
conside rable attention among scholars of organizations. It is no longe r un-
usual to discuss the emotional life of organizations or the language which
organizational members use in their verbal and written transactions. In fact,
it has become commonplace to adopt an emotion and a language angle to
most manage me nt and organizational issues. Emotion is currently gener-
ating a burge oning academic literature in connection with customer service ,
manage ment learning, leader
followe r relations, busine ss ethics, and the
manage ment of change ( se e, e .g., Hochschild, 1983; Mangham , 1986;
George , 1990, 1997; Rafaeli & Sutton, 1987, 1989; Albrow, 1992; Fineman,
1993, 1997; Hall, 1993; Ashforth & Humphrey, 1993, 1995). Inspired by
the work of Goffman (1959) , social constructionists argue that emotions
can be le arned, just as theatrical role s may be learne d. And just as theat-
rical actors learn to experie nce ange r, sorrow, joy, or fear when the ir roles
call for them, so too social actors may learn to expe rience feelings appro-
priate to the social settings. Write rs like Heller (1979) , Mangham (1986) ,
Flam (1993) , Parkinson (1996) , and Fineman (1993, 1995, 1997) have stud-
ied the rules which gove rn emotional performances and have examine d how
by being symbolically constructe d, communicate d, and dis-
seminate d, from each individual to his or he r audie nce. Psychoanalytic writ-
ers, for their part, have been exploring the role of emotions in groups and
organizations, focusing on group dynamics, transference processes as we ll
as personal and institutional defenses against e motions like anxie ty and
envy (Jaques, 1955; Menzie s, 1960; Kets de Vries & Mille r, 1984; Diamond,
1985, 1993; Baum, 1987; Hirschhorn, 1988; Gabrie l, 1992, 1993; Schwartz,
1990, 1993; Neumann & Noumair, 1997).
The use of language in organizations is currently at the center of nu-
merous inve stigations, often but not always in tandem with studies of emo-
1330 Gabriel
tions (see, e.g., Gioia, 1986; Pool, Gray, & Gioia, 1990; Martin, 1990; Boje ,
1991; Drew & Heritage, 1992; Mangham, 1995; Case, 1995; Pye , 1995; El-
mes & Kassouf, 1995; Grant & Oswick, 1996; Tsivakou, 1996). Not only
are social constructionist and psychodynamic approache s displaying an in-
tense interest in the use of language and its effects on perceive d reality,
but postmode rn approache s of organizations privile ge language above every
other conside ration (see, e.g., Cooper & Burrell, 1988; Cle gg, 1990; Parke r,
1992, 1995; Clegg & Je ffcutt, 1993; Hassard & Parke r, 1993) . The analysis
of organizational narrative s, like the study of emotion, is currently attract-
ing conside rable research interest.
This paper explore s one particular phenomenon, which stands at the
crossroads of emotion and narrative , insults. It charts different forms of
insulting behavior including exclusion, stereotyping, obliteration of signifi-
cant identity details, ingratitude , scapegoating, rudeness, broke n promises,
being ignore d or kept waiting; even more pote nt insults may involve the
defamation or despoiling of ide alize d obje cts, persons, and ideas. The paper
the n examine s diffe rent interpersonal dynamics and different outcomes of
insults, including a resigne d tolerance, the reque st of an apology, and a
retaliation. While the pape r explores the social psychological dimensions
of insults it also place s the m within political discourse s of organizations,
sugge sting ways in which they reflect, sustain, and challenge underlying
powe r relations.
Insults include behavior or discourse , oral or writte n, which is per-
ce ived, experience d, constructe d, and at time s intended as slighting, hu-
miliating, or offe nsive . This pape r doe s not e xam ine the slurring or
scape goating of third partie s in abse ntia (see Baum, 1987; Hirschhorn,
1988; Fineman & Gabriel, 1996) concentrating instead on insults addre ssed
directly at an individual or at a group of which an individual is a member,
often in the presence of an audie nce. Nor does it examine insults which
are trade d in horseplay in what are known as joking relations (Collinson,
1988, 1994; Sims e t al., 1993) where no offense is me ant and none is taken.
Finally, the paper draws a distinction between bullying or harassment and
insult. Cumulative ly or individually, insults may, of course, amount to har-
assment (including sexual or racist). It will be argue d, howe ver, that not
all types of insulting behavior are equivale nt to harassment. For e xample ,
failure to invite someone to a function or a party can hardly be conce ive d
of as harassme nt, but it can certainly be an insult. Yet, like harassme nt,
Social Psych ology of Insu lts 1331
insulting be havior is part of the nexus of political relations in an organi-
zation and must be studied as such.
Within these narrowe r parame ters, insults are a topic which has be en
neglected by research in organizations and the social sciences in ge ne ral.
There are very fe w references to insults in the acade mic lite rature, and,
surprisingly, neither research on e motions nor research on narrative s and
discourse has addre ssed them. This neglect seems unjustifie d, as insults
would appe ar to be an important feature of human behavior and human
expe rie nce. Insults are very common in mythology and lite rature , featuring
in countle ss myths, fairy tales, novels, and plays. They are also a cardinal
feature of many pe ople
s personal historie s, remembere d long after they
happe ned or, alte rnative ly, represse d and denied through elaborate ration-
alizations and constructions.
Insults, this paper will argue , are also a fairly regular phenomenon of
organizational life , featuring in organizational narrative s whenever expres-
sions like
rubbing salt into the wounds
adding insult to injury
invoke d and leaving long-lasting marks in histories, personal and colle ctive .
They are a common theme of tragic narrative s, where they ge nerate strong
feelings of resentment and ange r (Gabrie l, 1991a,b,c, 1995) . Inde ed, as
Kapuscinski (1983, p. 97) has suggested, re bellion and resistance may more
commonly spring from insulte d dignity than from the routine disconte nts
of oppre ssion or exploitation. For the se reasons, insults are a promising
are a of social investigation in organizations.
Insults can be verbal, consisting of mocking inve ctive , cutting remarks,
negative stereotypes, rudeness, or straight swearing. They can also be per-
formed in deed, as when value d obje cts are defamed, symbols desecrated,
gifts returned, or invitations refused. They can be subtle , residing in verbal
innue ndo or the facial e xpre ssion of the aggre ssor, leaving room for a face-
saving retreat or an affected disregard by the aggrie ve d party. Alternatively,
the y can be brutal, unambiguous, and direct, as in cases of inde cent ges-
tures or racist and sexual harassme nt.
Insults involve two partie s, a perpetrator and a targe t, and possibly
an audie nce . There can be no insult without a pe rpe trator or an insulte d
party. A re mark or action intende d as an insult but not re giste re d or
experience d as one by its target, can hardly be said to constitute an
insult, eve n if an audie nce re cognize d the intention. It may inste ad be
1332 Gabriel
There is one group of researche rs who have discussed insults as a feature of the workplace,
offering some examples, espe cially in connection with jokes, stere otypes and harassment. This
could be loosely re ferred to as research into psychic injuries and psychological survival at
the workplace (see Sennett & Cobb, 1973; Wallraff, 1985; Te rkel, 1985; Fineman & Gabriel,
1996). This paper goe s be yond this work by placing insults and the e motions most closely
associated with them, anger, shame, and embarrassment, squarely at the center of its inves-
re garde d as ridiculing, vilific ation, scapegoating, or oppre ssion.
Yet, the
intention to insult is not a necessary ingredient of an insult. Some insults,
notably in cases of blasphe my, may result without an inte ntion on the part
of the perpetrator, who finds himself/herself unwittingly to have broken a
taboo or violate d a deep sensitivity. If insult can occur where none was
intended, it can, more paradoxically, also occur where none was prope rly
expe rie nced. This is evide nt in
constructe d
or manufacture d insults, as
when an offer or a gift is dismisse d as derisory or offensive , even if no
offense was intended and no taboo was broke n.
Insults can then be part
of a scapegoating process, the insult but an engine ered pretext or provo-
cation for disproportion ate retaliation. It is also important to re cognize
se cond-orde r
insults, i.e., insults which are built on top of an initial one .
For instance, when an individual is genuine ly and dee ply insulted, the per-
petrator may offer the e xcuse that no insult was intended or that the targe t
has misinte rpreted the incide nt. In this way, the perpetrator may actually
compound the insult by insinuating that the insulte d party is oversensitive ,
paranoid, or lacks a sense of humor. In some instance s, the perpe trator
may then present him/he rse lf as the targe t of a constructe d insult.
The research material on which this pape r is based was provide d by
university unde rgraduate s writing reports about significant moments the y
expe rie nced during 6-month industrial inte rnships. Stude nts returning from
such internships were aske d by the author to supply a critical incide nt re-
port, analyze it, and discuss the emotions it generated. Between 1990 and
1995, 374 such re ports were obtaine d. These reports cove r a range of or-
ganizational incide nts and expe riences, encompassing a gre at variety of
e motions, including amuse me nt, frustration, pride , anxie ty, bore dom,
shame, guilt, fear, e xcite ment, despair. The reports were analyze d with the
help of a special version of a compute r database package , Cardbox-Plus.
Each report was entered on a separate re cord and the following informa-
tion was recorded in distinct fields on each record: the names of the traine e
and the organization, the type of incide nt described, the emotions it gen-
erate d, the moral of the incide nt, the theory locations addressed by the
report, and the overall narrative quality of the report.
Social Psych ology of Insults 1333
Throughout this paper, it will become appare nt that individuals vary rare ly admit an intention
to insult someone else. Yet, insulted parties alm ost always impute the intention to insult in
their assailant. The intention of the assailant is a highly comple x motivational matter, far
more so than the experience of the victim. For this reason, I prefer to define insults in terms
of the latter rathe r than in terms of the former.
Iago in Shake speare
s Othello is maste r of the affected or manufactured insult.
The material was in the first place collected as part of the stude nts
learning process and its use as research material must be qualifie d. In no
way do the stude nts or the organizations where they spent their inte rnships
represe nt a sample . Nor is the material untainte d by the stude nts
to impre ss their lecturer and to show how much they learne d.
Yet, the
material posse sses seve ral positive qualitie s. Stude nts observe the ir organi-
zations with fresh, sharp eyes. They can
what more se asoned em-
ploye es no longe r notice or care about. An articulate , critical, but naive
worke r can offer poignant insights on the rights and wrongs of organiza-
tional life , its twists and turns. As short-term e mployees, trainees have ac-
ce ss to information unavailable to othe r employe es, many of them readily
take n into the confide nce of manage rs and peers, whose positions the y
could appreciate without threatening. Furthermore, as short-te rm employ-
ee s, they have no obvious axe to grindtheir storie s are not molded by
vested organizational interests and long-standing agendas.
This kind of relative ly unstructure d and unmotivate d material serves
well the purpose s of an exploratory inquiry like the present one. Clearly,
no exhaustive surve y or taxonomy of all type s of insult can be based on
this data, nor is there here any evide nce regarding the extent or severity
of insulting behavior in different organizations. The data doe s, howeve r,
contain a numbe r of characteristic incide nts in conside rable detail, which
allows an insight into the psychological as well as the political consequences
of insulting be havior. The research mate rial was narrowe d, in the first
place , to 94 reports by sele cting only those reports whose ke y emotional
qualitie s include d the emotions traditionally associate d with insults: ange r,
shame, embarrassment, and guilt. The se were subse quently narrowe d down
to 21 reports, in which insults and associate d emotions were the dominant
feature. These reports have provide d the basis of most argume nts in this
pape r; seven of the m have been quote d at length.
Jokes are a good place to begin an inve stigation of insults. Like jokes,
insults de pend on timing and must touch a vital nerve. Like joke s, insults
play on hidde n desire s and vulne rabilitie s. Like jokes, they can be highly
imaginative and inge nious. Inge nuity is one of the feature s that distin-
1334 Gabriel
Interpretations of this type of material can never be unproblematic
in some instances, the
students may have been expressing themse lves within a transferential relationship to their
lecturer, seeking to elicit his sympathy, support, or admiration. However, the author
s knowl-
edge of those who provided the material enhances his confidence in his interpretations. This
will become cleare r in the interpretation provided for Narrative 6.
Some of this material has already been used in Fineman and Gabriel (1996) and in Gabriel
(1997) .
guishe s insults from mere abuse . Like joke s, insults can release a lot of
emotional energy with relative ly small e ffort. This economy of effort gives
insults both a magical and an e sthetic quality. Like magical words, a few
well-chose n insulting words can produce disproportionate re sults, such as
the crumbling of a self-confide nt exterior or the unle ashing of immense
amounts of ange r (La Barre 1979) . The esthe tic quality of insults resides
in the apposite ness of the stimulus; like an elegant mathematical proof, an
inventive , well-aime d insult proves the vulne rability of the subje ct, cutting
him/her down to size.
The main diffe rence between insults and joke s would se em to lie in
the ir emotional content. Jokes release mirth, whereas insults unle ash ange r.
Yet, as several the orists of jokes since Thomas Hobbe s have observe d, many
joke s contain an aggre ssive intent. Thus, setbacks and misfortunes of othe rs
may afford us comic ple asure if the y can be presented as
deserve d.
serving or recounting the afflictions of a pompous pe rson is funny, in as
much as these afflictions have the quality of
or just des-
serts. Several studies have sugge sted that the greater our hostility toward
an individual, the more amusing his/her misfortune s appear to us (Zillman,
1983; Benton, 1988; Collinson, 1988, 1994; Davie s, 1988; Gabriel, 1991a) .
A joke then, just like an insult, can e xpress aggre ssion and hostility. Some
insults indeed are jokes; ridicule is an insult unde r the guise of joking. We
shall not be surprise d then if we discove r that many of the theories and
concepts which have e nhance d our understanding of joke s prove helpful
in this discussion of insults.
Here is an insult de scribed by the targe t, Jon, a trainee in a hospital
The incident occurre d towards the end of my placement. I had returned from
lunch and was settling into my afternoon routine whe n Dick, my
V al, the accountant, whether she was ready to go. She replied that she was and
the two of them, together with V al
s assistant Carol, promptly donne d their coats
and filed out of the room. A little later, I noticed through the window that the
original three had joined four more members of my department: the totality except
for me .
Not only had I been excluded from a departmental matter of some importance ,
I hadn
t e ven be en informed of its e xistence. So, I went over to a trainee from
another department (our office is shared by four departme nts) and asked about
the e vent. Just then, the othe rs r e turned to the room as the me e ting was
re arranged for later that afternoon.
Then, Lyn, in an intentionally loud and sarcastic voice, said:
Dick, you should
re ally inform
your boss
(meaning me) whe n you leave the room.
Social Psych ology of Insults 1335
I felt I had to defend myself to the now confused crowd ( everyone in the room
was listening):
s just that it looked like I wasn
t allowed to come along
words didn
t come out right).
Dick retorte d, uncharacteristically:
We ll, you weren
Everyone laughed.
I expressed my point of view more clearly:
OK Dick, I take your point, but it
t make me feel very good, I
m supposed to be part of this department and
I wasn
t even told there was a meeting, let alone asked if I wanted to come along.
Later Dick apologise d, and he me ant it.
This incident summarized my placeme nt e xperience and espe cially the attitudes
of key e mployees I had to work with. What did the incide nt me an to me? Firstly
and most importantly, the fact that I wasn
t informed of the me eting demonstrated
my fellow e mployees
view of me as short-term and unimportant. A simple
got to go to this mee ting now Jon, OK?
would have been the minimum etiquette
I deserved, and would have allowed me to ask whether I could come along. E ven
if there was no other reason, it would have given a more extensive look into the
workings of a re al organisation, and would therefore he lp me when I was to come
back to study. It was as if they didn
t realise the se things were valuable to my
experie nce and therefore I should expe rience them: it was all one-sided.
s lack of attention towards me was constant throughout the placeme nt. I don
belie ve it was intentional in my opinion; he simply didn
t know how to handle a
subordinate. I also don
t think he realised how capable and aspiring a trainee can
be. I probed him on the matter: he was a
you should be grateful for ge tting any
job in a rece ssion
I had to work my way up through the ranks
sort of
And what of Lyn
s outburst? She had ove rheard my conversation but could not
se e my point of vie w at all. She epitomise d the others
fe elings but actually spoke
them, saying that Dick was my boss, not the other way around (as if be ing my
boss gave Dick a right to not treat me decently) . I was laughed at. OK, it probably
always happens, people not realising someone is upset about something, but it
showed that no-one felt I had a right to be at that meeting.
At the time , I felt neglecte d and alienated
also ANGRY that no-one understood
that I wanted to be an integral part of the te am. The incident reinforced the vie w
that I never quite fitted in. [Narrative 1]
The insult in this story comes in three installme nts: first, exclusion from
a see mingly important meeting; second, a sarcastic jibe (
Dick, you should
really inform
your boss
) which ironically reverses the subordinate
infe rior
relationship; and third, the refusal to offer a face -saving e xcuse (
Sorry, we
t think the me eting would be of interest to you
Sorry, we forgot
Refusal or failure to invite a person to an important function or party
is a cause of innume rable family feuds and conflicts. It is also encounte red
in countle ss stories and myths, such as the incide nt that set in motion the
Trojan War. Eris, the godde ss of discord, who has not been invite d to the
nuptial re ception of Thetis and Peleus, take s her revenge by sending her
1336 Gabriel
carte-de-visite, the apple of discord. This will precipitate the dispute among
the godde sses, which in turn, will spark off the 10-ye ar war between Greeks
and Trojans. In the Grimm brothers
story Little Briar-Rose (the source text
of Sleeping Beauty), one of the 13
wise women
was not invite d to the
feast in honor of the newborn prince ss, be cause the king
only had twelve
She pronounce d he r curse that the princess would prick herself
with a spindle and die on he r fifte enth birthday.
Exclusion lie s at the heart of many insulting experiences, and invita-
tions are occasions par excellence whe n sharp line s between those in the
gue st lists and those out of them are drawn. Eve n if no slight is intended
it is easy for a person left out to feel offended. But, as the traine e
s story
suggests, the offe nse is compounde d by three factors: First, exclusion de-
rives from status and power differences, between Jon, the temporary, casual
traine e and the othe rs. The sarcasm
Dick, you should really inform
serve s to
put Jon in his place,
not only reminding him who is boss
but further reinforcing his marginal position in the organization. Second,
the humiliation is public, so that the shame d victim finds himself further
isolate d. None of the audie nce haste n to take his side or offer him a face-
saving lifeline. Third, the insult, as though it were a physical blow, throws
the victim off balance so that his retort is feeble and ineffectual by his own
admission. This allows for a clumsy but we ighty rejoinde r (
Well, you
) to comple te the insult. Jon ends up feeling ashamed not only
for the insult but, as importantly, for his own ine ffectual response.
Several of the incide nts in the data derive from the perceive d inferior
status of traine es as compared to full-time staff. In some instance s, student
traine es fe el insulte d not for being traine es but for being students. The
following telling example was provide d by Claire , a trainee at a provincial
Mr. North has worked at Porters for thirty years and this has earned him the unofficial
title of
Office Manager.
Our conversation moved onto what and where I was
studying. Once he had grasped that I was at university, that was it! Mr. North went
off the rails about how being a graduate meant nothing in accountancy. He hoped
I realised that even though I might have a degree one day, he would still be far
superior to me and not the other way around. I stood in his office nodding my head
in agreement but absolutely seething at his unprovoked attack. He seemed to think
that all university graduates viewed themselves as more knowledgeable than him. Mr.
North certainly made sure that I would not be under the same impression.
The close of our conversation only added insult to injury. Having made me feel
thorough ly asham e d to be in Highe r E ducation, he adde d:
When are you
re turning to BRISTO L to resume your holiday!
Politely, I answered his que stion
without correcting him on the location of my studies and left the room, closing
the door quie tly behind me. [Narrative 2]
The insult he re takes the form of a tirade which the traine e finds hard
to fend off. Her inability to confront her tormentor and reject his alle gations
Social Psych ology of Insults 1337
leaves he r feeling both angry and ashamed. Mr. North
s final comme nt illus-
trates two characteristics of insults that did not feature in the earlie r example,
stereotyping and obliteration of significant details in the victim
s identity (se e
below)a combination of an unsubtle stereotype (stude nts on a pe rmane nt
holiday) with what Claire evide ntly regards as a belittling remark about her
unive rsity (Bristol suppose dly being an inferior institution to her own).
Stereotyping is a common characte ristic of insults; it is also an area
of exte nsive theorizing. Paradoxicall y, howe ver, most of the the ory on
ste reotyping is unhe lpful in elucidating the emotional e xperie nce of an in-
s targe t. Much of the acade mic lite rature on stereotype s regards them
as ove rsim plifie d vie ws of reality or as e rrors of ove rge ne raliza tion.
Martinko (1995) , for instance, approache s stereotype s as
a subcate gory of
perception and attribution
(1995, p. 533) offering an equivocal view of
the ir advantage s and shortcomings. This tradition of theorizing scrutinize s
the cognitive and pe rceptual proce sses involve d and ide ntifie s the delete-
rious group and organizational conseque nces of stereotyping, in phe nom-
ena such as
(Janis, 1972) or authoritarianism (Dixon, 1976).
In contrast to this cognitive approach to stere otyping, the political and
the psychodynamic approache s see m to ground stereotypes in the political
and psychological re alitie s of organizations. The former views stereotypes
as forms of discrimination and oppre ssion, and, the second, as wish fulfill-
ments, especially as manifestations of unconscious aggre ssive fantasie s and
desire s. The political approach is adopted by Kanter (1977, p. 230ff) and
feminist theorists (see, e.g., Gutek, 1985, 1989; She ppard, 1989; Leidner,
1991; Auster, 1993) who regard the m as instrume nts of sexual oppre ssion
in and out of the workplace . Far from being the result of ignorance , naive t
or cognitive blind spots, these the orists vie w stereotype s as barriers to
equality which are systematically maintaine d and reproduce d. Enlighte n-
ment alone is not enough to overcome them, since the y support material
interests. The psychodynamic view, that of ste reotype s as wish-fulfillme nts,
reinforces the feminist contention that sexist stereotypes not only support
material male privile ge but also male psychological needs. Freud, on several
occasions, argued that men find it hard to view wome n be yond the stereo-
types of mothe r-figure s or temptre sse s (Freud, 1910, 1933; Rieff, 1959) .
More recent variants of these arguments have added some furthe r stereo-
types to the original two (e.g. pet, iron-maide n, etc.) but maintain the view
that such images meet various male desire s and fantasie s (Kante r, 1977) .
What these two approache s have in common is the view that stere otypes
1338 Gabriel
are no mere gene ralizations or eve n errors, but are mental forms supporting
and supporte d by psychological and political structures.
Stereotype s assume the character of insult pre cisely when the targe t
finds him/herself literally trappe d by the perpe trator
s biase d perception,
where his/her every action can be skewed to reinforce the stere otype. Al-
lowing the perpetrator to ge t away with an insulting ste reotype enhance s
its social acceptability and may lead to escalating insults. Challenging or
conte sting the stereotype may ofte n be accommodate d within the stereo-
type, under the guise of
temperame ntal,
obstre pe rous,
lacking in sense
of humor,
etc. (see Sims et al., 1993) . Thus, stereotypes strike at the heart
of the victim
s self-esteem, placing him/her in a position which exacerbates
feelings of powe rless and shame.
In the following narrative , Kevin found himself scape goate d when his
s new compute r deve lope d a fault. His anger (
awful fee lings of
. . . angrine ss
) can hardly be containe d not so much be cause of the gravity
of the accusation against him as because he finds himself trappe d in the
stereotype of
irresponsible stude nt messing up other pe ople
s compute rs.
As they struggled to correct the problem a mini
starte d, to find
who had altered the configuration of the new computer. As time elapsed, I began
to realise that Mandy was quietly blaming me, after she was informed that I had
used her machine the previous evening. She made some sarcastic remarks, in effect
accusing me of making the mistake :
This wouldn
t have happened if someone
t messed around with my machine last night.
I pr ote ste d m y innoc e nce
sta ting that I hadn
t u se d Lotus, b ut I was
subconsciously found guilty by the office, and henceforth, I didn
t use Mandy
machine again as a matter of principle. This caused a great deal of friction betwee n
Mandy and myself, because it was obviously she who had made the mistake , and
it riled me to be a scapegoat for someone who didn
t have the strength of character
to admit her own mistakes.
In my opinion I gained a great deal of knowledge from this incident. Not only
was Mandy e xercising her formal power but also taking advantage of our relative
positions within the hierarchy of our office to influence the opinions of the other
office members; and the more I protested my innocence, the further I fell into a
grave which had been dug for me . . . . The image of British Plastics likes to, and
does, communicate is that the y are a very e fficient and caring company. Not very
true! This is espe cially so in Mandy
s case, as she was continually criticising
students, and in my opinion her attitudes got the better of her.
There is a system within the company which enables dissatisfied staff to air their
grievances . . . . I complained I had been unjustly accused. My complaint didn
succe e d; it was met with quite a cold response. I left with awful feelings of
frustration , angriness, uselessness and betrayal. [Narrative 3]
If stereotyping is one characte ristic of insults which strikes at a person
feelings of individuality and self-e steem, so too does the re lated charac-
Social Psych ology of Insults 1339
teristic note d earlierfailing to acknowle dge or honor an important detail
in a person
s ide ntity or e go. The use of the wrong form of addre ss, such
as Dr. inste ad of Profe ssor, though rarely intentional can be read as in-
sulting. Se veral examples in the data sugge st that students are insulte d
when a manage r or an employe r fails to registe r the prestige of the ir uni-
versity, mistaking it for a le sser institution.
Even more insulting, howe ve r,
is the mispronouncing or misspelling of a pe rson
s name. Still more insult-
ing can be forge tting someone
s name or getting it completely wrong. In
the following example (for a full discussion, se e Fine man and Gabrie l, 1996,
pp. 75-78) , a long litany of maltreatment is crowne d by the following ob-
It is characte ristic that, when speaking to me on the phone, Paul called me
Geoffre y,
as always, although I am known to all e lse as
Ge off.
He likewise
insists on calling his secre tary Suzanne, although her name is Su and is printed
as such on her birth certificate. (1996, p. 76) [Narrative 4]
Mispronouncing or misspe lling a person
s name may be an eccentric
affectation, a sign of familiarity and affection or, as in the case above , an
insult. Given the enormous powe r diffe rence between Geoff, a student
traine e, and Paul, a brash £200,000 per year merchant banker, it seems fair
to hypothe size that mispronouncing Geoff
s name is part of a ritual hu-
miliation, as if to show that even Geoff
s and othe r subordinate s
name s
may be used and abuse d as Paul pleases.
Th e Im portan ce of Detail in Insults
Narrative s 2 and 3 unde rline the importance of small details in insults.
This is further illustrate d in the following narrative , where the assailant
reference to
se ems to touch a raw nerve; it is offered by Matt,
a traine e with one of the Big Six accounting companie s:
On my last audit, I worked for the firm
s head partner. When he first turned up,
I was formally introduced to him by one of my colleague s. In the first instance,
he appeared to be a pleasant enough chap and I thought little of working for him.
Howe ver during his review of the work papers I had produced, he proceeded to
vocalise any spelling errors which he could manage to find. The se work pape rs
are simply drafts for internal use only, so making spelling e rrors had seemed quite
acceptable . Even so, he only managed to find thre e errors out of several thousand
words. I thought him quite UNFAIR when he finally turned around to me and
asked what kind of schooling system I went through. When I told him that I went
to a comprehensive school, he asked what A-level subjects I had taken. I had
1340 Gabriel
Gabrie l 1997 discusses in detail the account of a student trainee who is insulted when the
top leader of her organization asks her if she studies at
a poly.
Alternatively, it may be that Paul is a stickler for formality. This could also be a reason for
Geoff to be insulted, given that in his re port he describes how Paul expecte d him to do him
personal favours
and to be his
personal chauffeur
(see Fine man and
Gabrie l, 1996, pp. 75-78) .
hardly got the word
out of my mouth when he laughed and interje cted
We ll what can one expect from a man who has spe nt his life dissecting
primrose s!
I was justifiably annoye d by this comme nt and had to leave the room before my
mood becam e obvious. A fe w hours late r, afte r he had left, I ove rheard a
conversation in which one of my colle agues told another that it appeared David
had decided to spend the day insulting the
being the affectionate
te rm applied to all new starters at company) . [Narrative 5]
It is interesting that Matt seems prepared to accept a degree of be ing
put down as acceptable (the
labe l), while he views the spelling cor-
rections and the primrose barb as gratuitous and insulting. Insults are ex-
perienced as surplus to functional requirements as sugge ste d by expressions
rubbing salt to the wounds
adding insult to injury
and adje ctives
unwarrante d
uncalle d for
which are often used to describe the m.
Aristotle was aware of this in commenting that insults are
not for some
advantage to oneself . . . but for the fun of it.
What is e ven clearer, however, is that the insult, in this instance , seems
to touch a sensitive spot in Matt. It is not certain whe ther this vulnerability
derive s from Matt
s comprehensive education or from an unconscious guilt
regarding the spelling mistake s. It is clear, howeve r, that, as with the oblit-
eration of significant pe rsonal de tails, the highlighting of significant per-
sonal de fects are common and succe ssful targe ts for insults . This is
particularly so if the targe t of the insult is sensitive to these defects or has
been repeatedly insulte d on their account. This explains why a relative ly
small effort targe ted at the appropriate point can produce disproportionate
effects. It also explains why insults hurt eve n if not factually true , in that
the y touch an area of unconscious self-doubt. Two furthe r reasons why un-
true insults may be effective must be noted here. First, as Narrative 3 sug-
gests, an audie nce may seem to believe the alle gation, while the targe t
denials tend to reinforce the appearance of culpability. Second, an insult
may be untrue , but the targe t may blame him/herself for making him/he rself
vulne rable , e.g., by trusting someone they should not have trusted. This
may also account for the fact that many insults (including the ones repro-
duce d here) retrospe ctive ly tend to appe ar quite innocuous and seem to
produce emotion disproportionate to their offensiveness.
Alle gations of shoddy work, such as the sarcastic pointing out of spell-
ing mistake s, feature in several of the reports. In some cases, the traine es
are candid about accepting their responsibility in
honest mistake s.
range d from the production of expensive newsletters for a highly image-
conscious company which include d some embarrassing printing errors to
an error of ove r £1 million in compiling trading debt statistics. When train-
ee s are reminded of such mistake s in a sarcastic manne r, they feel embar-
rassed rather than insulte d. Whe n, on the other hand, the y are insulte d on
Social Psych ology of Insults 1341
account of mistake s which the y categorically deny being responsible for,
the n feelings are more likely to be ange r and frustration.
In most of the e xample s examine d so far, insults have focuse d on rela-
tively small, though psychologically significant, facets of the victims
sonality or performance . In other instances (which cannot be discusse d he re
for reasons of space), insults are directed at a person
s intellige nce (see
Gabriel, 1997) or tastes and fashion-consciou sness (Bourdie u 1984, p. 511;
Gabriel & Lang, 1995, p. 111). In some cases, they strike at some of an
s most dee ply held beliefs or inde ed revered individuals. It is in
cases like these that insults become akin to blasphe my. In one incident,
Andre w, a deeply re ligious traine e, re late s his feelings when a religious
poste r he had displaye d was removed:
I decide d to use the notice board above my desk to display a yellow A4 poster
advertising a Mission to Gloucester being held at that time. This poster went up
on We dnesday and, while nothing was said to me about it, it was turned back to
front two evenings running
I re versed it the following morning on both occasions.
That Friday, the thirteenth of September, while I was out of the office the poster
was torn down (it ended up in the bin) and a large Health and Safety poster was
put up.
At lunchtime, Chris, my manager, had a quiet word with me in the rest room.
The upshot of this was that she told me I had upset more than one person
fe elings with the poster and that it was official policy for the office manager to
approve posters before they we re put up.
At the time of the incident my feelings were a mixture of pain and anger. It is
one thing to have your beliefs challenge d as to whether or not they are reasonable
but quite another to have your beliefs opposed and not be given the chance to
defend them. When Chris had a word with me it was like she was accusing me
of being narrow minded and trying to force my vie ws down other people
s throats.
This I felt to be particularly unfair since, at the time, my two closest friends were
Muslim and Bhuddist respectively. Looking back at the incident now I fe el a little
embarrassed that such an incident could be the cause of so much pain and worry
for both myse lf and the others in the office. [Narrative 6]
This narrative may be interpre ted in line with earlie r one s; Andre w is
insulte d be cause he feels stere otyped on the basis of little evide nce , as a
religious zealot who seeks to force his vie ws on othe rs. Yet, the tone of
the incide nt and the use of the word
(which does not feature in
any other narrative s) may suggest a dee pe r type of insult than those of the
earlie r example s. Unlike the e arlie r example s, the insult he re is seen as
perpetrated in deed (the removal and binning of the poster) as well as in
word. Furthermore, unlike the previous cases, the pe rpe trator of the insult
is anonymous, unse en and unwilling to take responsibility for his/her action.
It is possible to conjecture the binning of the poster as a kind of profana-
1342 Gabriel
tion, compounde d by the anonymity of the culprit and furthe r exacerbate d
by Chris
s condoning of his/her be havior.
Such interpretation may seem
spe culative and cannot be corroborate d on the e vide nce of the above text
alone . The author, howeve r, knew the student well and on several instance s
obse rve d similar responses to perceived insults to his religious sensitivitie s
and fe els fairly confide nt about the interpretation. The inte rpretation does
suggest that diffe rent insults may strike at different parts of our psyche . In
most of the earlie r example s, insults were dire cted at the individuals
ide n-
tity, pride in their work, intellige nce, or institutional affiliation, in short, at
the ir ego or their social persona. This instance indicate s a de eper type of
injury, an injury predominantly to a person
s ego-ide al, the part of the men-
tal apparatus which contains ide alized image s (such as role mode ls) and
obje cts (such as religious or patriotic relics and family he irlooms) , which
we may seek to emulate or which inspire us. The se nse of outrage when
such idealize d things are insulte d may be even more acute than the ange r
and shame caused by insults to the ego.
In the example s thus far, insulte d individuals feel upset, shamed, and
angry but seem mostly unable to act on these feelings. In the next and
final example , Tonya describe s her outrage at what she vie ws as a sexist
slur, in one of the world
s large st corporate finance provide rs. This report,
which hinge s on an ove rlap of three negative ste re otypes
back office,
elaborates conside rably the points raise d e arlier
and raise s two furthe r issues, re sistance to insulting behavior and the trad-
ing of insults.
I worked in the foreign exchange (FX) back-office, where deals done by our 150
dealers were checked, payme nt instructions were added and queries addressed.
My job was to resolve problems arising from deals. Much of the time, this meant
going upstairs and talking to the dealers.
Social Psych ology of Insults 1343
A different interpretation of the incident is that Andre w simply has not understood the
secular norms of the organization and that he is over-reacting in a situation where no insult
to him or his religious belief was intended. Thus a
observer may adjudge that no
real insult has taken place. Ye t the fact remains that Andrew feels insulted in a profound
moral way and he impute s the intention to insult him in the person who binned the poster.
The position taken in this pape r is that the occurrence of the insult is coexte nsive with the
experience of the victim rather than the intention of the perpetrator which is ve ry much
harder to establish. See Footnote 2 and section
Insults as tests e stablishing organizational
pecking orders.
It is possible that some of the earlier example s also e ntail elements of ego-ideal insults. The
student who has idealize d her University is insulted when some one se ems unable or unwilling
to distinguish it from a supposedly lesser institution. Like wise, criticisms of a trainee
s spelling
strike both at his ego (his competence and performance ) but also his ego-ideal (his idealized
image of himself as a flawless professional).
Now, you never told a de aler that he or she was wrong, even when handling those
dealers who, throughout the whole of my placeme nt, were never correct. You just
briefly stated what the problem was and asked them to kindly look into it.
This particular incident involves Nick, one of the men who always
cocked up.
This time he had mixed-up the currencies on a deal. The payment was due in half
an hour, so it was important to get him to amend the deal. I went up to see him,
but Le e, also from the back-office, was already talking to him about something
else. Because my problem was urgent, I waited for Le e to finish. When Le e left,
Nick glanced at me and then, to my surprise, left his desk and went ove r to another
dealer, John, from whom we had heard juicy comments for quite a while. A group
of dealers assembled and I could hear and se e from the ir behavior that they were
not discussing business.
I we nt over and discovered that the reason for their behavior was two pages from
The Sun newspape r filled with pictures of posing, naked wome n. Some thing inside
me just snapped. I told Nick that my job was actually meant as a service to the
dealers, to help make them aware of errors before it costs them money. I e xplained
how m uch work I had to do and how m uch othe r de ale rs appre ciate d my
corre ctions, so by ignoring me he was not only wasting my time, but his own
right to the service the back-office offers. And with his error-statistics,
I would imagine he had better things to do than to stare at page -3 girls.
I turned round, left my sheet of paper on his desk and departed.
My main emotion both then and now is anger. I felt I had been patient and taken
much more stick and rude behavior than was acce ptable. The way Nick ignored
me to go and look at page-3 girls was the straw that broke the camel
s back. I
also felt helpless and vulnerable. They were discussing naked women in detail in
a room with almost only me n, and I kne w my views were in minority. I was afraid
any reaction from me would be ridiculed. Writing about it now, I also feel proud
for having had the courage to tell him off.
The Foreign Exchange dealers, nearly all me n, were the most arrogant group of
people I have e ver come across in my life. If it had not been for me gradually
understanding some of the reasons for their behavior, an outburst like the one I
have just described would have come much earlier. You need to appreciate the
fact that the FX departme nt is, at the moment, one of the be st departments
re sult-wise in FinInter and this create s a feeling of invulnerability and extre me
se lf-importance among those working there. I did not fe el that this was a valid
excuse for their behavior; still, I learnt to acce pt it.
The back-office policy was to accept any amount of stick from the dealers, and
then let it all come out afterwards whe n you we re safely back at your desk. This
policy was no good as it only helped to increase the hostility between deale rs and
back-office. My telling the dealer off, meant that I had broken the main taboo in
the office. O ver seve ral weeks, I realized that this earne d me much respect. I had
done some thing many of my colleagues had wanted to do for ye ars, but dared not
to. The risk was smalle r for me as I was only there for a short while. So, I achieved
re spect both from the back-office and from some of the dealers. And perhaps,
even more importantly, I respected myself more for having done what I felt was
right. [Narrative 7]
The essence of the insult in this re port is containe d in the sente nce
way Nick ignored me to go and look at page-3 girls was the straw that broke
the camel
s back.
Being ignored is a common enough type of insult. In or-
ganizations, it takes the form of having one
s requests, memos, and reports
1344 Gabriel
disre garde d, or, more commonly, being kept waiting. No fewer than nine of
the 21 incide nts of insult reported by traine es contain direct or indirect ref-
erence to their time be ing wasted. However, it is clear that what is experi-
enced as insulting is not the actual wasting of time but the pre sumption that
their time has a low value compared to someone else
s. This confirms the
Aristotelian idea of insults be ing gratuitous, something aimed at consciously
or unconsciously humiliating someone
s pride rather than at exploiting them
dire ctly economically or eve n politically. The waste d time, howeve r, is often
but a toke n of deeper humiliations. In Tonya
s case, it is cle ar that the wasted
time is symptomatic of a status differential, an attitude of
She can wait; she
only back-office .
Yet, what turns an every day indignity into a major insult
is the dealers
ostentatious leering, which makes Tonya fe el inse cure and ex-
pose d. It is the dealers
sexism, no less odious for being accepte d as the pre-
rogative of financial success, which Tonya finds insulting.
Helplessness and vulne rability turn into ange r whe n compounde d by in-
sult. What sets this narrative apart from previous one s is that it le ads to an
act of resistance, in which Tonya gives the assailant a
pie ce of her mind,
expre ssing he r moral indignation at his be havior. Whe n she speaks out, she
crosses the boundary between acce ptable behavior (
disparage and be little
deale rs behind their backs
) and unacceptable behavior (
tell them to their
). What Tonya told Nick is pe rhaps less important than the act of cross-
ing of this boundary, which turns the incide nt from an instance of psychic
injury into an e pisode of organizational politics (see Gabriel 1991a).
Her rebuke to the deale r is not a head-on challe nge of his sexism,
which may have laid her ope n to ridicule and disparage ment. Instead her
rebuke is
profe ssional,
giving him little leeway for retaliation, but its tail
contains a sting. The meaning of
and with his error-statistics, I would
imagine he had bette r things to do than to stare at page -3 girls
is unlike ly
to have been lost on the dealer. It is, in fact, an atte mpte d insult, in its
own right. We do not know whe the r the dealer read it as an insult and
how he may have reacted. It is certainly the case that, like the other insults
we have examine d thus far, it could be painful even if not exactly true,
provide d that Nick had a sensitive spot about be ing erratic. If, on the other
hand, Nick was the kind of person who, rightly or wrongly, regards the
making of supe rficial mistakes as a prerogative of his brilliance , then the
insult might have gone unnotice d.
This e xample further highlights the political nature of insulting behav-
ior. While individual insults have a gratuitous character, cumulative ly insults
Social Psych ology of Insults 1345
can be seen as a device for keeping subordinate partie s in the ir place , by
unde rlining their he lple ssness and vulne rability. An unanswe red insult has
a lowering effect on an individual
s self-e steem. An unanswe red insult in
the presence of an audience has a still more de vastating effect. What can
be more devastating for a young boy than to see his own fathe r insulte d,
ye t una ble to re talia te . In Dostoe vsky
s Brothers Karam azov, Dimitri
Karamazov insults an old army captain, whom he drags by the beard, in
front of a group of childre n, while Ilyusha, the captain
s son, in vain trie s
to help his fathe r. Karamazov challe nges the captain to a due l, knowing
full we ll that such a challe nge would ruin the latte r. The fathe r
s humili-
ation (both his being dragge d by the beard and his unwillingne ss to face
his assailant in a due l) le ads to vicious baiting of Ilyusha by his schoolmate s.
This incide nt drives one of the most moving subplots of the nove l, which
involve s the younge r Karamazov trying to e xpiate his brother
s wrongdoing
and culminate s in the de ath and fune ral of young Ilyusha at the ve ry end
of the nove l. Freud reports in The Interpretation of Dreams his own disil-
lusionme nt on hearing the story of how his fathe r had received uncom-
plainingly an anti-Se mitic slur and a blow (1900, p. 286).
An unanswe red insult then marks a breach in justice which goe s un-
punishe d. It is highly effective at reaffirming power relations and laying
bare relations of domination and subordination. The insulte d party inter-
nalize s his/her ange r into shame, an inability to restore justice by doing
what is seen as the honorable thing, hence he/she is dishonore d in addition
to be ing humiliate d. The assailant, for his/her part, manife sts his/her power
and draws the audie nce into a coalition at the expense of the victim
(Bacharach & Lawle r, 1980).
By contrast, an insult which is met with a counte rinsult can restore
the honor of the insulte d party, even if it does not transform the balance
of power. It may be acce pted by the perpetrator of the initial insult as
acceptable retaliation, reparte e, or face -saving gesture. As with the trading
of gifts, the trading of insults follows ce rtain rule s of commensurability. A
poor relative may successfully reciprocate an expe nsive gift from a rich re la-
tive by offering a gift which requires a lot of time , care, and thought, even
if it doe s not compare in price with the rich relative
s gift (see Gabrie l &
Lang, 1995) . Like wise an insulte d party may be allowe d to save face with
a token retaliation. Provide d that the magnitude of a counte rinsult is not
incomme nsurable with that of the initial one, it may restore orde r. Football
crowds supporting oppose d te ams routine ly e ngage in the trading of insults,
seeking to outdo each other in wit, inventiveness, and targeting of sensi-
tivitie s, though they rarely exceed the limits which would lead to physical
viole nce .
1346 Gabriel
There are times, however, when unde r the partial amnesty afforde d
by an insult, a disproportionate re taliation leads to a state of continuous
and possibly escalating strife . This is akin to a vendetta where e ach insult
or blow must compe ns