June 24th, 2008

ozarque figure

Linguistics; questions about hostile language...

On May 24th, in the context of a discussion about why I use the term "hostile language" instead of the more standard term "verbal abuse," recovered_dream posted this comment:

"... I get a lot of people saying I am being abused, when what I see instead is that there are some bad communication skills and really awful examples that have become ingrained. This has brought me to wonder: Is it verbal abuse when the person attacking intends harm, or when the person under attack perceives harm/intent to harm, or both? Also, when dealing with adults, how does one go about making abusive patterns known so that they CAN be changed (or at least so the offending party can be aware that the behavior is not acceptable)?"

Those are very good questions, and have much to do with empathy; I've been thinking about them for a while. I'm grateful to recovered_dream for posing them, and I'd like to try, briefly, to answer them here. With three things specified in advance: (a) that my answers are just my opinions, not items I'm claiming as "scientific facts"; (b) that I'm prepared for a negative reaction to what I'm about to say, and will live through it; and (c) that what I'm about to say holds only for language interactions between people who are both native speakers of the same language and who are both neurotypicals.


Question 1.
"Is it verbal abuse when the person attacking intends harm, or when the person under attack perceives harm/intent to harm, or both?"

The attacker's intentions are irrelevant to the question of whether an utterance is verbal abuse or not. The only meaning an utterance has in real-world spoken language is the meaning the listener understands it to have; that's the meaning that the listener will respond to and act upon. If the attacker intended to do harm, and the targeted person didn't understand the utterance that way, the utterance has failed as an attack.

When the target's understanding of the utterance is that it was intended to do harm and is hostile, that's the relevant real-world meaning.

In both cases, the target may have misunderstood, but it's the target's perception that matters. If your perception of the words someone speaks to you is that they cause you pain, then that is the meaning they have for you, and they are verbal abuse. If you don't trust your own judgment, and you worry about whether it's "neurotic" for you to be hurt by those words, you are adding another layer of pain to the pain you already feel. Plus, you are decreasing the odds that you'll be able to find your way to an honest discussion that would make it possible to clarify the situation and perhaps settle it. You should feel free to trust your judgment.

Question 2.
"Also, when dealing with adults, how does one go about making abusive patterns known so that they CAN be changed (or at least so the offending party can be aware that the behavior is not acceptable)?"

The best way I know to do this is to use the three-part message pattern. As in...

"When someone says [X], people are likely to perceive it as hostile language [or "as verbal abuse," if you prefer that term] because [Y]."