On being … insulting

By Ingrid Sapona

I went to the Bulk Barn the other day to buy a few things. They didn’t have what I was looking for, but one of my favourite candies was on sale, so I scooped a few into a small baggie. As I put the twist tie on the bag, I made a mental note of the candy’s four-digit product code.

When it was my turn to be rung up, I put the baggie on the scale and told the cashier the code. She looked at me and kind of scowled as she typed it into the cash register. As she did so, she grumbled, “I’ve worked here many years”. I politely explained that I was just trying to be helpful. She scowled again and put the item in a bag as she told me the cost. Her obvious irritation took me by surprise and caused me to think about insults – about being insulting and feeling insulted.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of leveling an intentional insult or two. Of course, at the time of doing so, I always felt it was justified. But, the older I get, the more I realize that my momentary feelings of self-righteousness aren’t always well founded. And, as important, I’ve come to realize that insulting someone usually doesn’t change them or improve the situation. If anything, an insult often makes a bad situation worse, as people feeling belittled or insulted seek to even the score in whatever way they can.

When I realized the cashier felt insulted, I immediately checked in with myself to see whether – on some level – I intended to insult her. I concluded that I really didn’t intend to insult her in any way. I had only made note of the product code because I know cashiers must enter them to determine the cost. I even considered whether I might have made a sub-conscious assessment of her age or mental ability to remember all the different product codes. Since I hadn’t even looked at her after announcing the product code because I was busy fishing through my purse to find change, I really hadn’t paid any attention to her age or seniority.

On my way home, as I nibbled through the 60¢ worth of candy I bought, I couldn’t stop thinking about our brief conversation. I shuddered at how easy it is to misconstrue what someone says and why it is we sometimes feel insulted, even when absolutely no insult is intended. I felt bad knowing that she felt insulted, even though I knew I bore no real responsibility for her feeling that way. Indeed, I came away thinking that her interpretation was more a reflection of her self-esteem than of what was really said.

This little episode helped me see the difference between being insulting and feeling insulted – and it helped me see that a person can feel insulted even when no one was actually being insulting. It’s also a good reminder of how easy it is to misinterpret words! So, in the end, this incident has made me think that next time I feel the sting of an insult, instead of trying to feel better by trying to decipher what the person was getting at, I should be looking inward to see why the comment triggered the feelings it did.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


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