How to Insult Someone in Civil Conversation

When you’re dealing with court intrigues, tightly-run organizations, or general polite society, staying out of trouble can be complicated. One of the biggest facets is making it look like the other guy made the first move in a squabble, and the most important way to do that is delivering insults that don’t necessarily look like they’re meant to be insults.

How do we do that?

A good subtle insult is like a concealed weapon—you use it with very close precision, and make sure nobody catches you doing so. The key here is to make sure that while the target catches that he’s been insulted, he can’t actually respond without making a scene, and that if he does, you’ve got some innocuous explanation for what just happened. The results, when the techniques are properly applied, are devastating.

One important element is innocuous phrasing. Consider the following sentences: “Everyone knows you don’t know how to do your job” vs. “Everyone understands why you’re having so much difficulty with this task.” Both of them imply that the target is floundering. However, in the first case, it’s very clearly an insult—the target is being explicitly accused of incompetence, and humiliated into the bargain with the idea that everyone’s familiar with said incompetence. The latter example, on the other hand, is far more subtle. Instead of “You don’t know how to do your job”, it comes across as “Clearly you’re having trouble”; moreover, the “everyone” being invoked is being portrayed as sympathetic, making getting angry seem even more unreasonable. As an added bonus, it also preys on the target’s insecurities; there’s probably something he’s ashamed of regarding his performance on the project in question, and it’s just been implied that everyone knows exactly what it is. Lot of impact for one sentence, isn’t it?

False sympathy is also a powerful technique. You’d be amazed by how cutting a remark (usually casting aspersions on someone’s competence) can be disguised as sympathetic just by careful choice of phrasing. The target will probably get it, sure, but she can’t make a fuss over it; to do so, she has to start ranting about a remark that was just dripping friendliness and concern, and looks downright hysterical in the process.

“But you said to….” This tactic is particularly clever in that it uses the target’s own stated preferences against her. Say you’ve got a newly coronated ruler who, for various reasons, still isn’t comfortable with her title and prefers that her friends address her by her name in most situations. The key word, however, is most. Now, one rather enterprising noble comes up during a Grand Audience and addresses her by her name. In a situation where she needs to keep the appearance of power in a way that most situations don’t. In front of her entire court. See where this is going? And if she reams him out for it, all he has to say is “But didn’t you prefer to be addressed by your name?”

While it’s not as reliable, deliberately misconstruing rank can be scathing in its own right. It mainly requires either the target to be new to his position or the speaker to be a. theoretically unfamiliar with the rank system she’s dealing with or b. known for being a bit of a ditz about little things like titles. Referring to the ambassador with the wrong title, or the general as a commander, or conveniently forgetting that Brashard is now a Master and calling him Journeyman, can take him down a notch while still appearing to be an honest mistake. Note: unless the speaker is willing to deal with a reputation for social incompetence, this tactic generally won’t work in the same form more than once or twice.

Used properly, a good insult can be as dangerous as any weapon and a lot less likely to leave evidence. And as an added bonus, it can be quite impressive to other players of the insulting game. Give it a try!

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