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Name Calling: How to Understand and Cope

It can be overwhelming and confusing when you are the victim of name-calling.

Name calling

“You are an ugly boy,” yelled a child from his driveway when I biked by.  I was in 3rd grade, and I didn’t even know the child.  But, I still remember it.  It didn’t stop me from living a good and meaningful life.  However, it did result in some puzzlement and hurt afterwards. Many of us have similar stories.  Most of the time, those memories can sting.  Sometimes, memories of being called names can be quite painful.

Recently, I was listening to a late-night, talk-show interview.  The guest had been called a name by a politician, and the host asked him, “How do you handle that?” 

“I thought I handled it pretty well.  I just called him names right back,” replied the guest.

Screeeeeeech…….what?  There are better ways to handle name-calling than to just repeat the same misbehavior.  To know how to respond to name-calling, first understand what it is and why people do it.

Why Do People Call Others Names?

Name-calling is common, and can done for several different reasons.  Consider the context and the person who is name-calling.  Here are some possibilities:

Poor Social and Communication Skills.  

By calling you names, someone may be attempting to be funny, to engage conversationally, or to see what you will do.  This is what I suspect was happening in my third-grade example above.  People who name-call for these reasons may be trying to say, “Hey, talk to me.  Interact with me.  Laugh with me.”  Oftentimes when people do this, they are smiling and teasing about other things.  

Sometimes, people may call you a profane name to signal that you are a part of their group.  They want to get your attention and see if you will connect with them. Profanity, although often offensive, is powerful.   It’s breaking a rule. When people do swear, it’s a very visible violation of this social norm, and it gets people’s attention (whether positive or negative).

To put someone down, or to hurt someone’s feelings.  

When people name-call for these reasons, it is a form of bullying or verbal abuse.  So, if someone says, “Hey doofus, get over here,” “She is such a b-word,” or, “Jacob is such a dork,” they are likely trying to make themselves look more important or powerful.  The name-calling labels a person as something negative without acknowledging or considering the feelings of the other person. By verbally stating “you’re bad” in some form, a partner holds power over the other person’s sense of self-worth. 

An even more concerning reason that people call names is to threaten other people.  

It is done as if to say, “If you don’t do what I like, I will call you names.”  This kind of name-calling is verbal abuse, and a way to control others.  These people often care very little about others.  They mostly want things to go their way, even if it hurts people.  They may use words like, “Loser, moron, dummy, overrated, stupid, thug.” Research has found that name-calling like this often damages the victim’s mental health, and causes physiological changes in the brain of the victim.  It is a way of increasing influence through fear and manipulation.  It is not healthy.

To deflect responsibility.

These people may use name-calling to avoid obligations or blame for things that did not work in their favor.  When confronted with a short-coming, they may reply, “I didn’t do that, it was Mr. Fathead over there.”  While others are reeling from the nasty words the name-caller just used, they often forget about the reason for the confrontation.

What To Do if Someone Calls You Names

Model and use good social skills in your interactions with others. 

If people are calling you names to connect, don’t engage in this way by calling them names or laughing it off.  Use appropriate language with them.  By using good social skills and manners, you show that you care and respect the other person.   Remember to be brief, informative, firm, and friendly.  “I would be glad to show you my bike if you like.  You can’t call me names, though, or I’m going to go home.”  

If you are in a relationship with someone who calls you names, it is time to consider moving on.

No one deserves to be verbally abused or have their self-esteem eroded.  When people call you names, is not fair to you, and not fair to your relationship.  You may find it helpful to talk to a therapist to help support your recovery. If it happens in the workplace, contact your Human Resources manager.  If it happens at school, tell your parents, your counselor, or your principal.  Keep reaching out until someone listens.

If you, like the talk-show guest example (above), find yourself name-called by someone you don’t know personally, there will be no easy solution.  But, here are some tips:

  • Do not return name-calling with name-calling. Unfortunately, it only legitimizes the misbehavior and verbal abuse.  
  • Consider your values and who you want to be.  Do you want to be someone who lashes out in anger?  Do you want to be someone who models abusive behavior?  Probably not.  Most of us would like to be remembered as someone who is a good person, or a person who uses integrity and respect towards others.  
  • Practice the pause.  Do not respond immediately.  Take some time to notice and name your feelings, as well as consider the best response. Make room for your difficult feelings and be kind to yourself.  Do not feel pressured to respond right away.
  • Be kind to yourself.  Acknowledge your hurt, remind yourself that you are not alone, and do not buy into the name-calling.  Tell yourself kind and loving things, and take good care of yourself.  
  • Do good for the world.  Michelle Obama once famously said, “When they go low, we go high.”  I love that quote.  It may be worth taking all your hurt and frustration and putting that energy into doing something well.  For example, if someone calls you a b-word, donate some time or money to a women’s group. If someone puts down your background or ethnicity, take that energy and mentor or volunteer in a group that you care about.  If they put down your work, keep doing good things, and find ways to increase kindness and respect at work.  Be proof that there is good in the world.
  • Reach out to your support systems.  You may want to reach out to a true friend, a religious leader, or a therapist. 
  • Continue to speak up.  Emphasize your that name-calling is not a solution for anyone.  Ever.  Treat others with respect and model respectful and civil behavior.  Model the behaviors that you would like to see in others.


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