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Catch it low to prevent it high: Countering low-level verbal abuse

Arnold P. Goldstein

Verbal abuse can include teasing, cursing, gossip, and ostracism. In this two-part article (to be concluded next month) the author discusses the characteristics of each and provides strategies for working with youth who are verbally aggressive.

As a society, we have far too often ignored the forms of low-level aggression that, when rewarded, grow (often rapidly) into the forms of often intractable high-level aggression that are currently receiving a great deal of society's attention. Thus, our media, our politicians, and our social and behavioral scientists focus broadly and in depth on murder, rape, assault, gangs, guns, and other forms of serious aggression but largely ignore their aggressive precursors – such as vandalism, bullying, harassment, threats, insults, and incivilities. "Catch it low to prevent it high" is a prescription that I and others have increasingly begun to apply, evaluate, and promote. This article focuses on the low-level aggression of verbal abuse and provides strategies for addressing the problem before it can escalate into a more serious form of aggression. Verbal abuse has been defined as behavior that seeks to communicate to other people that they are bad, possess negative qualities, or are not meeting some internal or external standard (T. A. Kinney, 1994). Infante, Riddle, Horwath, and Tumlin (1992) describe it as actions that attempt to attack the self­concepts of other people in order to inflict psychological pain, What are the words that hurt? According to Marshall (1994), they are words that seek to control, corrupt, degrade, denigrate, dominate, embarrass, exploit, induce fear or anxiety, humiliate, induce guilt, induce powerlessness, create jealousy, punish, reject, sabotage, threaten, or isolate.

Four types of verbal abuse appear to be particularly common. They are teasing, cursing, gossip, and ostracism or shunning. Teasing can vary from mild and playful to severe and hurtful; at the latter end it shades into bullying. Cursing is a fact of life that apparently is becoming more and more common. In many American schools, for example, youngsters – sometimes freely – curse each other, curse the work, and curse the teacher. Gossip, like teasing, can be harmless or, at its other extreme, malicious. As we shall see, much of what is written about the functions of gossip is positive, but gossip as verbal abuse is nonetheless a frequent reality. Verbal abuse generally takes the form of one person's saying something nasty to another person. But verbal abuse may also be sharply communicated if nothing is said – about anything. The final type of verbal abuse I will consider is ostracism.

Although in the hindsight of adulthood it may seem that the teasing often directed toward adolescents and younger children by their peers is merely harmless kidding, ask the adolescents and children themselves. For many, teasing can be painful, even traumatizing, aggression directed toward them. True, in the grand scheme of things, it is not the most damaging type of aggression. But it can lead to serious enough effects on the target person that it is important to better understand it and control it. In addition, teasing is by far not an uncommon event. School surveys at several grade levels reveal that at least two-thirds of students are at times, and sometimes frequently, teasing targets (Kelly & Cohn, 1988; Mooney, Creeser, & Blatchford, 1991).

Teasing embodies three qualities: aggression, humor, and ambiguity about its seriousness (Shapiro, Baumeister, & Kessler, 1991). It may mask criticism and insult and thus actually be aggressive, or it may be gentle and friendly and thus contain little aggression. Research shows that its most common form entails making fun of someone or something. Delivering sarcasm, tricking the target person into believing something, using exaggerated imitation, pointing, making faces, physically pestering, taking an item such as the target's hat and refusing to give it back – these are among the several forms that teasing can take (Shapiro et al., 1991).

What are children and adolescents teased about? Mostly physical appearance (especially being overweight), but also intellectual performance (being either too slow or too smart), physical and athletic performance, family members, interest in the opposite or the same sex, personal hygiene, race, fearfulness, promiscuity, psychological problems, handicapping conditions, and more (Cash, 1995; Kelly & Cohn, 1988; Tizard, Blatchford, Burke, Farquahar, & Plewis, 1988). The list is long; a youngster seeking to tease another indeed has many choices.

When asked, young people say they tease others because someone teased them first; as a joke; because they disliked the other person; because they were in a bad mood; or because the rest of their group was teasing someone. Much teasing also seems motivated by an effort to rein in any behaviors that are too different from the group norm. Thus, not only are unpopular, obese, or intellectually slow children teased a lot; so are those who are popular, good-looking, and intellectually advanced. Teasing may be an effort to communicate aggression in a safe way, as happens when two youths engage in verbal dueling. It may also, in its more benign expressions, communicate affection and do so in a way that is less embarrassing to the teaser than its direct expression would be.

The person being teased must decode the message, must figure out how much is humor and how much is aggression, as well as determine exactly what the teaser was intending to say. The parties' relationship, the teaser's tone of voice and facial expression, and what was going on just before the tease all go into this decoding effort.

In families, especially early in children's lives, teasing is more a paternal than either a maternal or a sibling behavior (Labrell, 1994). Fathers tease by blocking their infants' ongoing actions, by pretend fighting or roughhouse play, and by sudden surprise (as in peek-a-boo games or "magic"). Such introduction of upended expectancies, challenge, and novelty, Labrell proposes, may contribute in positive ways to a youngster's emotional and cognitive development. Warm (1997) takes a quite similar position. When teasing moves beyond mild play, however, its consequences seem to be anything but benign.

When asked how being teased made them feel, 97% of the elementary school students in one survey said angry, embarrassed, hurt, or sad (Shapiro et al., 1991). The teaser may be creating what he or she thinks is harmless fun, but for the target person it is anything but fun. Of those surveyed, 10% respond by fighting, 40% by teasing back, and 25% by trying to ignore the teasing; only 12% said they usually laughed along with the teaser.

Adults who experienced in childhood substantial teasing about physical appearance are more likely to report body image dissatisfaction (Thompson, Fabian, Moulton, Dunn, & Altabe, 1991) and depression (Fabian & Thompson, 1989). Words can and do hurt. Teasing, especially teasing with a bite to it, is not playful behavior to be ignored. It is low-level aggression to be actively discouraged.

Cursing is a form of low-level aggression that begins quite early in life and – grows in frequency over childhood and adolescence. Jay (1992) reports that by age 2, children typically know about four words that can be categorized as curse words. By age 4, the number is about 20, and it grows from therewith boys learning both more and more offensive words than girls. By age 10, children can produce between 30 and 40 different expressions containing dirty words. (For adults, the comparable number is 60 to 70.) Much of the content of curse words early in life concerns the rituals of toilet training and elimination. As the child grows to and through adolescence, terms focused on body processes and parts associated with sexual behavior become the most frequently used curse words (e.g;  sh-t, matherf-r), as do those targeted to ancestral allusions (e,g;  b---d, son of a b-h).

Why do people curse? Gilliam, Stough, and Fad (1991) propose several reasons: expression of anger, attention seeking, impression management (i.e; to appear "tough"), imitation, rebellion, and preoccupation with bodily organs and sexual acts. Attention seeking may be particularly significant. The youngster who says "f-k" or "sh-t" in class is immediately and unequivocally rewarded with teacher and classmate attention. Such attention, even if it takes the form of teacher alarm, anger, and criticism, is likely to serve as a positive reward that encourages cursing. For this reason, one of the frequently recommended tactics for reducing the likelihood of such inappropriate behavior is to withhold such attention (i.e; extinction or ignoring). Unfortunately, even when the teacher can refrain from attending to cursing (itself not an easy task), the perpetrator's peers are unlikely to do so. Behaviors rewarded are behaviors that continue. Beyond this concern, although extinction may work to diminish the frequency of some inappropriate behaviors, teacher-ignored cursing (just like ignored bullying, vandalism, or any other low-level aggressive act) is quite likely to both continue and escalate as a result of the attentional or other rewards it elicits from other persons.

An alternative attention-providing perspective offered by Epstein, Repp, and Cullinan (1978) is targeted toward encouraging progressively diminishing levels of cursing. Rather than withholding attention, in this study each time a student used obscene language, a mark was placed on his or her individual "obscene language chart," displayed on the classroom bulletin board. If the student was able to stay below a given level, token reinforcements exchangeable for tangible rewards were provided. Employing a gradually lowering criterion of acceptability, three obscenities per day were permitted initially, diminishing to two, one, and none as the study's phases progressed. Study results demonstrated such differential reinforcement of progressively lower rates of cursing to be successful.

Certain nonviolent punishments may also work. One strategy for handling cursing is negative practice, also known as satiation or instructed repetition. Here, the student is asked to go to a location where others cannot hear him or her (perhaps a time-out room) and repeatedly say the curse word used earlier in public. The repetitions should continue until saying the word becomes not only nonrewarding but even unpleasant. As Gilliam et al. (1991) observe, "Satiation ... involves presenting a reinforcing stimulus at such a high rate that its reinforcing properties are lost" (p. 368).

In addition to the use of such a "swear-down," Novelli (1993) proposes that youth be encouraged to substitute nonoffensive words, acceptable slang, or nonsense syllables for curse words. To be sure, if youngsters can follow this suggestion, "glugyou" has a markedly different interpersonal effect than "f_k you" does.

Perhaps the most potent means for altering cursing (or any other form of low-level aggression) is the long-recommended but far too infrequently employed recommendation: "Catch them being good." Stated simply, it is a recommendation, based upon literally hundreds of studies of the consequences of positive reinforcement, to reward the youngster with praise, approval ,and/or something tangible if he or she refrains from cursing in a situation in which he or she has cursed in the past – or even if the youngster curses but does so less often, less intensely, or more briefly.

Cursing is a common and challenging form of low-level aggression. Considerable energy, creativity, and consistency on the part of the teacher, parent, or other change agent will be necessary to eliminate or even reduce it.


In some cultures ... we stick pins into the effigies of an unliked object; in modern society, gossiping is practiced in place of this mechanism of aggressive hostility and retaliation. (Fine & Rosnow, 1978, p, 166)

A good deal has been written about gossip, and, perhaps surprisingly, most of it is positive, Webster s Third International Dictionary defines it as "rumor, report, tattle, or behind-the-scene information, especially of an intimate or personal nature." Gossip is both process and content, verb and noun. In common parlance, it is "idle talk," but a number of writers emphasize its constructive functions. Fine and Rosnow (1978), for example, speak of gossip as purposeful communication that serves the function of information, influence, and entertainment. It is a means for persons at all ages to become informed about norms for appropriate social behavior. As Szwed (1966) observed, gossip is "a sort of tally sheet of public opinion" (p, 435). Gossip also serves an influence purpose. It is an opportunity not only for social comparison (Suls, 1977) but also for social control (Levin & Kimmel, 1977). Gossip may also entertain, be a "satisfying diversion" (Fine & Rosnow, 1978, p, 164), or "intellectual chewing gum" (Lumley, 1925, p, 215).

In addition to its informational, influential and entertainment purposes, gossip has been noted to provide the pleasure of simply talking to other people (Morreall, 1994), promote a sense of solidarity or closeness with others (Levin & Arluke, 1987), and maintain the dividing line between in-group members (who share the gossip) and out-group members (who do not) (Hannerz, 1967). If the substance of the gossip proposes that its targets are somehow inferior or immoral, then gossiping may enhance one's own sense of self-worth and respectability (Levin & Arluke, 1987). In children, Fine (1977) suggests, gossip serves four functions: socialization, evaluation, impression management, and competency development. Indeed, as noted earlier, the collective "take" on gossip by social and behavioral scientists is a positive one.

There is, however, a darker side to gossip. Gossip can be malicious, demeaning, degrading, and in other ways harmful, not only to absent third parties, but even indirectly to its participants. As Jaeger, Skleder, and Rosnow (1994) suggest, "Although it is described as a pleasurable activity, its consequences may be anything but pleasurable for its targets" (p. 154). These researchers examined gossip patterns and contents over time among members of a university sorority and found that a full half of remarks made emphasized negative themes and target characteristics. D. A. Kinney (1994) reports similar outcomes among high school students. Over a 2-year period, observations and interviews were conducted involving a large sample of female students attending an urban high school. Kinney notes that "the pervasive and intense gossip incited fights in the hallways, altered friendship patterns, and sustained separation between crowds" (p. 42).
In describing the public reputation of gossip, Emler (1994) observes

It is unreliable and inaccurate, an entirely fallible source of information about other people. Its motivations are disreputable; tellers are motivated by mischief, rancor, or spite, listeners by a prurient and improper interest in matters that are none of their business. Gossipers are often guilty of despicable violations of trust. The effects of gossip are frequently damaging –and sometimes catastrophically destructive – to the lives and livelihoods of those who are gossiped about. (p. 177)

Who gossips? Perhaps almost everyone. Folklore has it that women do so more than men, but there is little evidence to support this view. Being generally more relationship-oriented, women tend more than men to engage in gossip about friends and family members, whereas men focus on celebrities, sports figures, and the like (Levin & Arluke. 1987). People who are more anxious tend to gossip more (Jaeger et al., 1994), as do individuals in people-oriented versus non-people-oriented professions (Nevo, Nevo, & Derech-Zehavi, 1994). Because participation in gossiping may place the individual at the center of the created communication network, it may temporarily enhance the gossiper's status. Thus, Levin and Arluke propose, it is the most isolated, least popular member of a group who may be most prone to gossip.

In evaluating the positive or negative aspects of gossip, it is well to remember, as Taylor (1994) points out, that there are two quite different sorts of relationships associated with any act of gossip. For the several reasons described at the beginning of this section, the relationship between gossiper and gossipee may be positive to start with and become even more so as a result of the gossip communication act. However, the relationship between the parties sharing the gossip on the one hand, and the person( s) being gossiped about on the other, may well be made substantially more negative because of this same gossip action. In this sense, gossip is indeed a verbal abuse example of low-level aggression. As Levin and Arluke (1987) note, "It permits the gossiper to communicate negative, even nasty, information about other people with impunity, regardless of its consequences for the well-being of the targets" (p. 21).

This feature: Goldstein, A. (2000). Catch it low to prevent it high: Countering low-level verbal abuse. Reaching Today's Youth, (4) 2, pp.10-16. To be concluded in next month's issue.