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95 DECEMBER 2006
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Catch it low to prevent it high: Countering low-level verbal abuse

Arnold P. Goldstein

This the conclusion of this feature, the first part of which appeared in Issue 81 of CYC-Online. View Part I.

Being isolated, ignored, avoided, excluded, rejected, shunned, exiled, banished, cut off, frozen out, made invisible – all are experiences that give the sense of ostracism. Williams (1997) suggests four types of ostracism, the first two of which I view as verbal maltreatment by what is not said. One is physical ostracism, which includes expulsion, banishment, exile, timeout, and, more generally, physically arranging a person's absence, departure, or isolation. In the second type, social isolation, the person remains visible to others but is ignored, given the silent treatment or the cold shoulder, “frozen out.” Defensive ostracism is a self-protective, preemptive self-isolation in anticipation of negative, threatening feedback (including ostracism) from others. Finally, Williams notes, oblivious ostracism is the perhaps unintentional ignoring of certain people or types of people one views as not somehow worthy of one’s time and energy the elderly, people from low-income environments, people from particular ethnic groups. Ostracism varies not only by type but also by intensity. Such low-level aggression may vary in degree from coolness of tone and denial of eye contact to total ignoring – no speaking, looking, or attending.

Cairns and Cairns (1991) found that over a third of the conflicts among middle school-age girls involved ostracism. Similar heavy use of such peer rejection behavior has also been reported among elementary-age children (Asher & Coie, 1990). Evans and Eder (1993) draw the distinction between neglected children, who tend to be viewed neutrally by their peers, and rejected children, who are actively disliked. Both are, in a sense, ostracized, but for the former it is “oblivious ostracism"; for the latter it is a much more active social rejection. Coie and Dodge (1983) found that youngsters rejected during one school year were quite likely to be rejected in subsequent years. A number of studies note that youngsters with mental handicaps or learning disabilities are disproportionately prone to receive such ostracism from their schoolmates.

Evans and Eder (1993) conducted a lengthy observational study of peer behavior among middle school students. Observations took place in the school cafeteria. Students who were negatively evaluated by peers for appearance, gender behavior, or mental maturity were most prone to be ostracized – to be ridiculed, to be rejected, to sit alone at lunch. In a sense, such youngsters took a double hit. Not only were they ridiculed and ignored by peers who initiated such behavior, but other youngsters seeking to avoid a sort of stigma by association similarly ostracized them for fear of also becoming victims. The investigators followed up this observational study by interviewing many of the observed youths some time later, when they had left middle school and were in high school. In a statement that offers a strong argument for smaller schools in which every student can find a school-associated role and none or few are marginalized, Evans and Eder note

They reported that the middle school status hierarchy was so rigid and so limited that only a few students feltsuccessfitl, whereas the restperceived themselves as “dweebs “or “nerds.” By giving only a few students positive visibility through select extracurricular activities such as basketball and cheerleading, a school tends to increase all students' concern with social status and peer acceptance. (p. 166)

Though I deal in this section with ostracism as low-level aggression, there is a constructive side to its use in some contexts. In the terminology of behavior modification, ostracism might be viewed as a sort of “extreme extinction” and employed as such to alter difficult-to-change inappropriate behaviors – including aggression. Barner-Barry (1986), for example, reports a case study in which a group of children, acting on their own, collectively and successfully used ostracism to reduce the chronic bullying behavior of one of their peers. In the same behavior modification spirit, DeAngelis (1998) notes the tribal banishment of those who commit crimes against the community and the prison use of solitary confinement to punish and, it is hoped, correct serious acting-out behaviors in the correctional context.

Ostracism has also been the focus of a small number of laboratory investigations. Geller, Goodstein, Silver, and Sternberg (1974) found that young women ignored during a conversation by two female confederates of the experimenters reported feeling anxious, withdrawn, frustrated, and bored compared to included participants. Similar feelings – rejection, unworthiness, anger were reported by participants in a second study who were simply asked to imagine they were being ignored, whereas other participants were asked to imagine inclusion (Craighead, Kimball, & Rehak, 1979). In a third investigation (Williams & Sommer,1997), one of two confederate participants, while supposedly waiting for the procedure to begin, noticed and began bouncing a racquetball, first alone, and then to others waiting (one of whom was another confederate, the other the real participant). After 1 minute of three-way play, and continuing for a 4-minute period, the two confederates then bounced and tossed the ball only between themselves, while totally ignoring the real participant. In this and a follow-on study that employed exclusive, two-person conversation and not ball-bouncing, ostracized participants displayed substantial levels of disengagement and discomfort. Study findings also revealed reliable male-female differences. Ostracized women worked harder than did ostracized males on a subsequent collective task, perhaps as a means of gaining acceptance by the others involved. Women were also more likely to blame themselves for being excluded. Male participants neither compensated by working harder nor blamed themselves for being ostracized.

Ostracism, Williams (1997) concludes, deprives people of a feeling of belonging, threatens their self-esteem, robs them of a sense of control, and reminds them of the fragility of their sense of worth. Clearly, it is a form of low-level aggression worthy of continuing, serious attention.

Reducing Verbal Maltreatment
I have examined a series of common verbally communicated forms of low-level aggression – verbal abuse, teasing, cursing, gossip, and ostracism. How may such hurtful behaviors be managed, reduced, or even eliminated? The parties involved in a verbal maltreatment exchange need to overcome the following three hurdles if they are to be successful in lowering their anger arousal levels and moving on to a more constructive dialogue.

  1. Each person must calm down and seek to reduce his or her own anger level.

  2. Ideally, each person will take steps to help the other person calm down and reduce his or her anger level.

  3. The two parties will engage in constructive communication about whatever issues had initially sparked the aggressive exchange.

The sections that follow detail the procedures the disputing parties can follow to accomplish these three tasks (Goldstein & Keller, 1987; Goldstein & Rosenbaum, 1982).

Calming yourself. To start to reduce your own anger level and combat the rush of adrenaline that causes your heart to beat faster, your voice to sound louder, and your fists to clench, try the following methods.

Deep breathing. Take a few deep breaths and concentrate on your breathing.

Backward counting. Count backwards. This is a good distractor from thoughts that keep anger pumping.

Peaceful imagery. Imagine yourself relaxed at the beach, by a lake, or in some similar place on a warm and balmy day.

Other relaxers. Try any other thoughts or actions that have helped you relax in the past.

In the final analysis, whenever any of us becomes angry, it is not directly because of what anyone else does but rather because of what we say to ourselves, including how we interpret the other person's words or actions. So after you begin calming yourself by the steps just listed, it is time to give yourself certain calming self-instructions. Try a simple “calm down,” “chill out,” or “relax.” Perhaps you can tell yourself, “I’m not going to let him get to me” or “Getting upset won’t help” or “I have a right to be annoyed, but let’s keep the lid on.” Further self-direction can include benign reinterpretations of what the other person did to provoke you: “Maybe he didn’t mean to trip me. He always sits in that stretched-out way.” “It’s a shame she needs to pick arguments all the time, but it’s her problem, not mine. No need for me to take this personally.”

Calming the other person. When your self-calming steps are beginning to work, it is time to do what you can to help the other person calm down. Try using as many of the following steps as you can.

Model calmness. One person's calmness in an argument can really help calm the other person down. Use facial expression, posture, gestures, tone of voice, and words to show you are getting your anger under control.

Encourage talking. Help the other person explain why he or she is angry and what he or she hopes both of you can do to settle matters constructively.

Listen openly. As things are explained to you, pay attention, do not interrupt, face the other person, and nod your head or give other signs that he or she is getting through to you.

Show understanding. Say that you understand, that you see what the person means. Repeat in your own words the heart of what he or she said to you. Try to let the person know you understand what he or she is feeling.

Reassure the other person. Point out that non-aggressive solutions to your conflict exist and that you are willing to work toward them. Reduce your threat; inspire a bit of problem solving optimism.

Help save face. Make it easier for the person to retreat or back off gracefully. Avoid cornering or humiliating the other person. Do not argue in front of other people. Try to compromise. Make your goal defeating the problem, not the other person.

Engaging in constructive communication. When a reasonable level of calm has been restored between yourself and the other person, it is time to try for effective discussion of the issue(s) under contention. Good communication, of course, begins with your intentions. If your goal is to defeat the other person and win the argument, it will be difficult to reduce aggression. If your goal is to join the other person to defeat the problem – what has been called a win-win strategy – you've made a good start at likely aggression reduction.

How do you get ready for effective, problem-solving communication? Here are some good starting steps.

Plan on dealing with one problem at a time. Seeking to solve an argument with win-win solutions is not an easy task. Do not make matters more difficult by taking on too much at one time. If more than one problem is pressing, take them up in sequence. Choose the right time and place. Be careful where and when you try to communicate when you are or the other person is angry. Avoid audiences; seek privacy. Also, seek times and places in which you are not likely to be interrupted (by people, television, telephone, mealtime) and will be free to finish whatever you start.

Review your plan. Try to open your mind before you open your mouth. Consider your own views and feelings as well as the other person's. Especially, ask yourself what you can do to bring about a win-win solution to your argument. Rehearse what you and the other person may say. Imagine this conversation in several different forms and outcomes.

Now you and the other person are face to face. Effective problem solvers follow good communication rules such as these. Defineyourself. Explain your views, the reasons behind them, and your proposed solutions as logically as you can. Carefully spell out anything you think might be misunderstood.

Make sense to the other person. Keep your listener constantly in mind as you talk. Encourage him or her to ask questions, to check out your meanings. Repeat yourself as much as necessary.

Focus on behavior. When you describe to the other person your view of what happened and what you would like to happen, concentrate on actual actions you each have taken or might take. Try to avoid focusing on inner qualities that cannot be seen, such as personality, beliefs, intentions, and motivations.

Reciprocate. As you describe how the other person contributed to the problem and what you think he or she can do to help solve it, be sure that you are equally clear about your part in both its cause and solution. Be specific. Avoid vague generalizations.

Be direct. Say your piece in a straightforward, nonhostile, positive manner. Avoid camouflage, editing, half-truths, or hiding what you honestly believe.

Keep the pressure low. To keep matters calm as your problem solving continues, try to listen openly to the otherperson, offer reassurance as needed, do not paint the other person into a corner, and show that you understand his or her position and plans. If anger and aggression return, take a temporary break and reschedule your discussion for a later time.

Be empathic. Throughout your discussion, communicate to the other person your understanding of his or her feelings. Even if your understanding is not quite accurate, your effort will be appreciated.

Avoid pitfalls. Much can go wrong when two people argue, even when they are both seeking positive solutions. There are many pitfalls to avoid: threats, commands, interruption, sarcasm, put-downs, counterattacks, insults, teasing, yelling, generalizations ("You never...”; “You always...”), not responding (silence, sulking, ignoring), speaking for the other person, kitchen-sinking (dredging up old complaints and throwing them into the discussion), and building straw men (distorting what the other person said and then responding to it as if the other, not you, actually said it).

Such rules for good problem-solving communication are easy to present but hard to follow in the heat of the battle. Nevertheless, if you wish the battle to have a nonviolent, conflictresolving outcome for both yourself and the other person, they are rules worth following.

Providing an Alternative to Aggression
At home, on the street, at school, and in front of the tube, many of our children's lives are awash in aggression, which not only is frequent but also embodies many of the lesson qualities that promote rapid and lasting learning. It is arousing, it is seen in specific “how-to” detail, it is often carried out by persons the youth admires, and most important, it very often succeeds. As childhood continues and gives way to adolescence, the youths' well-learned lessons often become more and more evident in their own behavior. The aggression they have so often seen work for others becomes their own frequent way of responding.

Having learned well how to be aggressive, found aggression to be consistently successful, and received generous encouragement and support from important others to keep using it, chronically aggressive youngsters have other qualities that keep the nasty behavior going. One, stated simply, is that they do not know what to do instead. The positive, nonviolent, constructive alternatives to aggression that such youngsters might use instead of fists or guns are alternatives that they have seen too seldom, tried too seldom, and at times been punished for using if they did so. Cursing, bullying, or hitting the adversary is the means chosen because negotiating, walking away, getting help from an uninvolved adult, making light of the disagreement, and other nonviolent solutions are alternatives rarely seen or attempted by the youths and rarely supported by the other people who are significant in their lives. The strategies described in this article provide teachers and practitioners with a way to counteract one of the earliest forms of low-level aggression-verbal abuse and to model alternative ways for verbally aggressive youth to handle difficult situations.


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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.

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