Chances are, if you’ve gone through middle school, you know what it’s like to be insulted right to your face. But insults aren’t solely the work of a schoolyard bully—adults dole them out, too. You might deserve the next insult you get, or you might not. Either way, you have a few options on how to respond. You could brawl (but you shouldn’t). You could say nothing and stew about it (but you shouldn’t). Or you could remain calm, respond succinctly or with humor, take any possible lesson from it, and move on. Here’s how to respond to an insult in the moment.
Assess the insult
To start, think about what was just said to you. Is it possible it might be true? Are you being nosy, unproductive, rude, disrespectful, arrogant, or otherwise inappropriate? If there’s any truth to the dig, try to take some kind of constructive lesson from it, even if that information was delivered harshly. Taking negative feedback can be a positive thing—but it doesn’t mean you have to accept being spoken to disrespectfully. You can stand up for yourself and still retain some kind of insight from the encounter.
It’s also possible it might not be true. The other person might be having a bad day, or be armed inaccurate information. Take a few deep breaths. You don’t have to respond right away.
This advice comes from Dr. Neel Burton, a psychiatrist who recently authored a guide on dealing with insults “the stoic way.” There are benefits to stoicism and taking a beat before flying off the handle. For a refresher, check out our guide on staying calm during an argument.
How to respond to an insult if it’s true
Amy Pritchett, student success manager at language organization Preply, gave us some ideas about how to use your words to respond to an insult effectively.
“It can often seem the natural instinct when someone insults you is to fire back and give as good as you got. However, this can often lead to a tense situation that can escalate and become even more confrontational,” she said. “Is there an aspect of this situation you need to take accountability for? If so, you could say something like, ‘I am sorry I have made you feel this way, however…’ before continuing with your opinion.”
Be clear and direct with your response. Do not stoop to hurling an insult back. Defend yourself if there’s anything to defend, own up to any mistakes if there are any to own up to, and make it clear you do not tolerate being spoken to with derision. For example: “I’m sorry you don’t like the work I produced. I will take your feedback into account for my next round of edits. However, I’d appreciate if it you were more respectful when we’re working on these things, so we can both do our best work here.”
How to respond if the insult is totally unprovoked
In the event an insult comes out of nowhere, Pritchett said, there may be “no point fighting the fire.” Instead, just acknowledge their opinion while keeping in mind that it’s not a fact, then “communicate in a clear and calm manner what are the next steps to resolve this confrontation.” Don’t use explicit or aggressive language, she cautioned, and deliver your response in a calm tone.
If the insult really does come out of left field and takes you by surprise, and if you like the person who said it—or at least will have to continue being around them—try to get to the bottom of why they lashed out. If it feels safe and appropriate to do so, ask them if they have a deeper issue they’d like to work through or if they’re going through something they need to talk about.
If it comes from a stranger, though, you can and should just walk away. Their opinion does not matter.
Try humor, if you can
Finally, you can try to deescalate the situation a little bit with humor. If someone has stooped to dogging you right to your face, the situation is probably a little tense. If it’s appropriate and feels safe to do so, go for a joke. Here’s what Burton recommends:
Gentle humour can be an effective response to an insult, and this for three main reasons: it undercuts the insulter and his or her insult, it brings any third parties on side, and it diffuses the tension of the situation. A similar strategy is to run with the insult and even add to it, in the genre, “Ah, if you knew me better, you would find greater fault still!”