Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Suzette Haden Elgin - Why You Need to Master Verbal Self-Defense


When you have mastered physical martial arts skills, you're well prepared for physical conflict. If muggers try to attack you on the street, if you find yourself involved in a fight in a bar or at the beach, if you see someone physically abusing a weaker person, you're ready and able to deal with that. You're also prepared to demonstrate your skills in tournaments and exhibitions. That's all to the good -- but it's not enough.
Stop and think, please. Ask yourself just one question:
"How often am I likely to get involved in physical combat and conflict?
How often does physical fighting come along in my life?"
For most people today, the answer will be that you very rarely need your physical combat skills except when (and if) you take part in tournaments and exhibitions.

But that doesn't mean that you never are involved in conflict. On the contrary! Unless you're very unusual, not a day goes by that you don't find yourself fighting with other people. It's just that the conflict is verbal instead of physical. When your boss chews you out unjustly, the fact that you could have him down on the floor begging you for mercy in seconds is no use to you. When somebody shoves in front of you in a line, your physical skills are no help. When the fight is with your spouse or your teacher or your parents or your kids, it makes no difference how many kicks and holds and moves you know. In the vast majority of verbal conflicts -- which today means the vast majority of all conflicts that occur in your life -- using your physical martial arts skills will get you fired, or arrested, or both.
Even if you work in a field where the potential for physical conflict is much higher, such as law enforcement or emergency medicine, you're rarely free to respond to a physical threat physically. To do that always means risking citizen complaints, malpractice suits, and similar problems. You may have to do it, but it's not going to be your routine first response, and you're going to have to be extremely careful.

For every incident of physical violence that goes on in this country today there are hundreds of incidents of verbal violence. Sane people who aren't criminals don't just walk up to others and start hitting -- which means that almost 100% of physical conflict starts out as verbal conflict. First there is an argument. First there are hostile words, or hostile body language such as shrugs and sneers and insulting gestures. Only then, after the hostile language, do people start hitting. And up to that point -- up to the moment when physical combat begins -- what you need is verbal self-defense.

There are two goals in verbal self-defense:
  • To establish and maintain a language environment around you, by your own behavior and by the power of your presence, in which verbal violence almost never happens.
  • To be able to deal with verbal violence -- on those rare occasions when it really cannot be avoided -- efficiently, and effectively, with no loss of face on either side.

This is the martial art of verbal self-defense. You might not have needed it in past centuries. You might not need it in parts of the world where life is brutal and violent for almost everyone. But in the Western world today, you do need it. Without it, you're not "ready for anything"; you're only ready for things that may not happen once a year. And the rest of the time, you are in the same situation with regard to verbal attacks that people who know no martial arts are in with regard to physical ones: dependent on blind luck to get you through. That's not safe, it's not necessary or sufficient, and you can do far better. Let's begin....

The Four Basic Principles of Verbal Self-Defense

First Principle: Know that you are under attack. 
When an attack is physical, you never have any trouble spotting it; you know immediately when someone hits or kicks or shoves you. You can feel the attack directly, If other people are around, they will usually have seen and heard the attack too, and they'll agree with you that it was an attack. Often there'll be physical evidence in the form of bruises or cuts, to back up your claim.

Verbal attacks are very different. Not that you can't feel them -- you can. But the feeling is what we call a gut feeling; it's not like the pain from a punch or a kick or a slap, for which you could always say exactly where the blow fell. And it's often very hard to spot the actual move the attacker has made. Because...

For English, verbal violence isn't in the words:

It's in the TUNES the words are set to.
We can say any sequence of English words, no matter which ones we choose, in a way that is hostile and brutal. We can say any sequence of English words in a way that is friendly or loving. The emotional messages of English are carried by the tunes we set our words to, not by the words themselves. You may have thought that it would be easy to spot verbal violence because the attacker would be using obscenities and open insults and calling you ugly names. That's false, for three reasons.

  1. Most people who attack in that way do it as part of a physical attack.
  2. It's perfectly possible to set obscenities and "insults" and ugly names to friendly tunes.
  3. Most verbal attackers are careful to choose words that will leave them able later to use this move: "But all I SAID was.....", followed by the same words spoken with a different melody.

In other lessons we'll come back to this question of the tune that words are set to. For right now, what's important is to remember that if what someone says to you gives you a gut feeling that you've been attacked, you should pay attention to that feeling, no matter what words were used. You know the melody of English verbal violence; it's as much a part of the language as any word is, and when you hear it, you recognize it.
Written English isn't very good at showing the tunes that go with the words, but we do have a few ways to at least make a stab at it, and we'll be using them in these lessons. Compare these two sentences, where some words are in all capital letters to show you that the person saying them is really bearing down on those particular words to give them extra emphasis.

"Why do you eat so much junk food?"

 "WHY do you eat SO MUCH JUNK food?

Notice: Those two sentences have exactly the same words, but they don't mean the same thing at all. "Why do you eat so much junk food?" is just a question, asked by somebody who wants to know the answer. It may be a rude or nosy question, it may be a question you'd refuse to answer -- but it's not an attack. The other sentence is very different. Someone who says "WHY do you eat SO MUCH JUNK food?" to you has absolutely no interest in your reasons for eating junk food. That sentence is not a question, it's an attack. And it would still be a verbal attack if it looked like this: "Sweetheart, WHY do you eat SO MUCH JUNK food?" When the tune is violent, throwing in a few "sweethearts" and "dears" doesn't cancel the violence. Don't let "sweet talk" added to a verbal attack confuse you. Verbal attackers will try hard to tell you that you're just being childish, that you're being "too touchy," that you're only imagining things, that "all they SAID was..." something completely innocent. You are a native speaker of English; you know when you are under verbal attack because you feel it, in exactly the same way that you feel it when somebody hits you. Don't be confused: Know that you are under attack.


Second Principle: Know what kind of attack you are facing. 
When you find yourself in a physical fight, you automatically size up your opponent. You make judgments about your opponent's strength and motives and goals. You need to do exactly the same things with verbal attacks. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How strong and skilled is this person who's attacking me?
  • Why is the attack happening? What would be the reason behind it?
  • What is the goal of this attack? What is the attacker trying to accomplish? 

When an attack is physical, you can pretty well judge the person's strength by just looking. Almost always, attackers who are children or elderly people, or who are sick or handicapped, will also be weak. You can't rely on such things with verbal attacks, because they don't require physical strength. A very small child, a sweet-looking elderly woman, a frail-looking elderly man, a person lying sick in bed -- such people can be very good at using verbal violence. Don't let appearances mislead you.

As for the motives and goals, sometimes they will be as mysterious as they are in physical attacks. But stop and think, when an attack happens; you may be able to figure it out. You can tell the difference between a person who's just picking a fight because he's bored, and one who's attacking because somebody else just chewed him out and he needs to take that out on somebody. You can tell the difference between a person who's attacking because she's showing off and one who's attacking because she's so tired and worried about something else entirely that she doesn't really know what she's doing. As you practice your verbal self-defense skills you will learn to recognize many different types of attackers and attacks.

Third Principle: Know how to make the defense fit the attack.
Suppose somebody hits you and you realize that it's because they're just totally out of control and scared and hitting out without even knowing why they're doing it. You don't come back at that person with the same physical force that you'd use if somebody came after you personally with the goal of doing you serious damage. When a confused person who's had too much to drink swings at you, you handle that differently than when the attacker is someone with a clear mind. You don't hit someone who is only half as strong as you are with the same force as someone that you know is your physical equal. In physical combat you honor the rule about not using elephant guns to shoot butterflies. In verbal self-defense, you follow exactly the same principles.

Fourth Principle: Know how to follow through.
You might think that this would be the easy part. It's not -- it's the hardest of the four principles to follow. The reasons for this will become more clear in later lessons, as we study different attack patterns and responses. For now, just remember that nothing is harder than learning to do something differently from "the way you've always done it" -- and the chances are good that the way you've always handled verbal abuse is all wrong. On page 37 of their excellent book, Aikido in Everyday Life, Terry Dobson and Victor Miller wrote that

"Fighting back is one of the most counterproductive responses in most conflict situations."

That is even more true in verbal conflict than it is in physical conflict. What verbal attackers are usually trying to do is prove that they can get and keep your total attention, even if you had other plans for the time involved. They may have additional goals, but the main thing they want is your attention and the emotional charge that comes with it. If that attention comes in the form of fighting back, that's okay; the attacker will be delighted. If it comes in the form of one of the other two ways our society teaches us to handle verbal abuse -- pleading ("Oh, PLEASE don't start that!") or debating ("There are four reasons why you shouldn't say that to me. First.....") -- the attacker will happy settle for one of those, too.

Your natural tendency when someone starts using hostile language at you is to respond by counterattacking or pleading or debating, depending on the situation and your personal style of language behavior. The temptation to do that is very strong; the habit of doing that is very strong. However, when you do it you are giving the attacker exactly what he or she wants. If the attacker can get you to do one of those things and surrender your total attention, the attack has succeeded. In this course you will learn a set of verbal self-defense strategies and tactics that will make it possible for you to keep that from happening.

A Sample Verbal Self-Defense Tactic
Let's close this lesson by looking at a very simple, but very effective, verbal self-defense tactic, so that you can see what the term means. Let's say that your attacker is Bill, a man who works where you work, and he comes at you with that line about eating junk food. He expects you to take his bait and come roaring back at him, so that he can tie you up for fifteen minutes in a stupid argument. He expects something like this dialogue:
Bill: "WHY do you eat SO MUCH JUNK food?"
You: "What do you mean by THAT? I don't eat any more junk food than anybody ELSE around here!"
Bill: "Oh, YEAH? What about that DOUGHnut I saw you eating this morning? You call that HEALTH FOOD?"
You: "Listen, what I eat is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!"
Bill: "Pretty touchy, aren't you? I'd be touchy, too, if I kept stuffing my face with pizza and candy bars and FRENCH fries all day long every day, the way YOU do!"
You: "Now WAIT a minute! YOU--"(And so on.)

Don't give Bill that satisfaction. Instead, do it this way:
Bill: "WHY do you eat SO MUCH JUNK food?"
You: "I think it's because of something that happened to me when I was just a little kid. We were living in Detroit at the time, and... No, wait a minute. It couldn't have been Detroit, it must have been when we were living in Indianapolis. Because that was the summer that my Aunt Grace came to visit us and she brought her dog...."

You see how that works? It's called "The Boring Baroque Response," and it
is one of the most useful all-purpose verbal self-defense moves. The metamessage
it delivers -- the message behind the actual words you say -- goes like this:

"I understand that you want my attention, and that your plan is for me to spend the next fifteen minutes in a stupid argument with you. I won't play hat game, but I won't just abandon you. I'll give you some attention, since that's what you're after -- but it won't be any fun. It will be horribly, excruciatingly, boring."

If you do this right -- which means that you do it neutrally, without being
sarcastic, or setting your words to any other hostile tunes -- most verbal
attackers will give up and go away before you get very far into a Boring
Baroque Response. They may say, "Oh, FORGET it! Never MIND! SHEEESH!" as
they go; that's okay. What matters is for them to go on their way instead
of wasting your time and energy. And if every attempt they make to attack
you verbally gets a Boring Baroque Response, they will soon learn that you
are absolutely not going to be their verbal violence partner and they'll
give up.

The Boring Baroque Response isn't right for every situation. If your boss comes at you with "WHY are YOU LATE every single morning? WHY can't you get here on TIME once in a while?", answering with a BBR is only going to make matters worse. But there are many attacks for which it is the perfect move. It's a good first tactic to learn.

And there you have it!

The first simple, but very effective lesson in. . .

The Gentle Art Of Verbal Self-Defense.



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