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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

An Introduction to the social psychology of insults in Organizations

The author argues that insults are an important social and organizational phenomenon, which causes powerful emotions and enters peoples personal histories. It is suggested that insults involve a perpetrator, a target and, often, an audience. The intention to insult is not necessary, as some insults are the result of misunderstanding or accident. However, the experience of being gratuitously offended and the corresponding feelings of shame, guilt and anger are fundamental to insults. Several types of insults are observed, such as exclusion, stereotyping, obliteration of significant identity details, ingratitude, scapegoating, rudeness, broken promises, being ignored or kept waiting. Even more potent insults result from the defamation or despoiling of idealised objects, persons or ideas. Different insult dynamics are noted; these include an apology, a commensurate retaliation, a disproportionate retaliation and possible escalation, a retaliation against a surrogate and weaker target than the perpetrator of the initial insult, an affected indifference with a possible delayed retaliation, or more commonly a resigned tolerance which may fuel subsequent insults. Insults as well as retaliation and resistance to them are part of an organizations political process which establishes, first, lines of domination/subordination, and second, more finer gradations of status and power, i.e. a pecking order. It is argued that insults allow for a certain mobility within a pecking order, by offering matches for contestants to pitch their wit, venom and courage against each other.