Is it Verbal Abuse?

There are ways of handling things that just shoot you in the foot, and then there are ways that have the other person willingly and happily eating out of your hand. Which would you rather it was?

In this article, I’ve taken extensive material from the web, from books, from years of my own research, and from my site and consolidated it into a ten-point scale, with 1 being the least aggressive and 10 being unquestionably abusive. Each value on the scale is a template for an abusive type of statement. I hope you find the scale to be helpful.

  • 1 – “Do you think I’m stupid?”
    This statement implies bad intentions on the part of the other person. Although it is not abusive, it is somewhat rude.
  • 2 — “I want a reservation, please, for two people, tomorrow at 8.”
    The above was gleaned from a newspaper account by Ralph Gardner Jr. who pointed out that “I want” is forceful. It is also demanding which makes it rude.
  • 3 – “You always put your foot in your mouth. Why do you embarrass me like that?”
    There are two problems with #3. The first is the “You” statement which is the verbal equivalent of finger-pointing, and the second is the “always” which is both impossible and and rude. It’s rude because it’s an exaggeration of the truth and that is why it’s also impossible.
  • 4 – “What you accused me of is dumb.”
    The speaker here is only referring to the other person’s behavior, so it could be worse, as we will see. It is still rude because of the word, “dumb.” Anytime this sort of put-down language is used, we’re in the realm of overt verbal abuse.
  • 5 – “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
    Number 5 goes one step beyond #4. While the last one referred to behavior “what you accused me of,” this one refers to a person’s whole self, that which makes someone human, “You.” This is why #5 is a severe put-down.
  • 6 – “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” [With regard to a person’s field]
    Most people feel that their identity is tied up in their line of work. If you owned an auto repair shop and someone made statement #6 regarding a repair job you planned to do, it would be a grave insult.
  • 7 – “You only said that because you didn’t want to inconvenience yourself.”
    This one is really bad. The speaker is guilty of mind-reading. It is a huge breach of boundaries. The only person who can say what my intentions and reasons were is me.
  • 8 – “You S.O.B.”
    This is name-calling and it is overt and shameless. We were all created in God’s image; we’re all deserving of respect. Name-calling automatically erases respect.
  • 9 – “Nobody would want you.”
    There are so many things wrong with this statement, it could take a book. However, in brief, the “nobody” is another example of #3’s “always.” It is a global statement where none is realistic or possible. Worse, though, is the way it plunges a knife in the heart of the listener because it is a complete rejection of the listener’s being.
  • 10 – Threats of any kind, be they overt or subtle.
    Threats are only one step away from carrying them out. Threats against property are a short step away from violence against a person. Threats are illegal and they represent verbal violence. There is implicit danger in them.

No matter where you are on the scale of verbal abuse, there is a possibility of correction. You may not believe that right now, but I’ve seen it. Identifying verbal abuse is the first step in healing and changing. The second step, of course, is getting the help to make those changes.

Related Articles:
Falling in Love Again with Someone who Hurt You
What Can Couples Do When They Don’t Speak the Same Language?
Embrace Conflict as a Path to Deeper Connection

© Copyright 2011 by By Deb Hirschhorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • jo stanley

    December 15th, 2011 at 2:03 PM

    You don’t know just how demeaning this kind of abuse can be until you have lived with it day in and day out. The bad thing fro me is that now that my boys have gotten older they too think that it is ok to talk to me like I’m dirt. I guess that they have gotten these verbal cues from their dad and now they have started to treat me the same way that he does! I don’t get it! I am the one who does everything for all of them but I am the one that gets trampled all over. I guess in many ways I have allowed this cycle to create itself but I was always so close to the boys when they were younger that I just thought that they would never treat me that way. I was so wrong. It scares me sometimes because I worry that they are also going to do this to girlfriends and wives and that everything is only going to continue until someone gets hurt.

  • Grace

    December 15th, 2011 at 6:32 PM

    Yea, I find this scale helpful but I am in my right mind.
    Someone who really needs help will not see that the things that he says are abusive at all.
    He or she will just think that they are being open and honest and hot hurtful.
    I really don’t think that something like this makes a difference to them until they have to experience it for themselves and see how much it hurts to have someone that you love be so mean to you.

  • Billie Williams

    December 15th, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    “I want a reservation, please, for two people, tomorrow at 8.” Abusive? Seriously? C’mon now.

    Okay, they could have said “I would like” which would have been more polite. However they did say PLEASE and last I heard please was considered polite, not abusive. Ralph Gardner Jr. should have given more weight to the “please” than the “I want.”

    How pompous.

  • Aidan Niles

    December 15th, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    @Billie Williams: Right on, Billie! Why oh why are there so many touchy folks out there nowadays? He or she said please – there’s nothing demanding about that either. I wouldn’t have given a statement like that a second thought.

    Do we really need to tear down a personal word choice where no malice was intended? Pathetic.

  • molly

    December 16th, 2011 at 1:53 PM

    well I think the intent here is not to judge someone by their choice of words but rather for us to tell ourselves how we can identify if we are dpi g this to anybody and hopefully is never wrong to be cautious about what we say even if the caution maybe a little too much at times!

  • Jayden

    December 17th, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    Name calling is something that most of us have engaged in at some point in our lives. Just because you call someone an ugly name does not make it abuse, especially if the other person is throwing all of that right back at you.

  • Paula

    December 18th, 2011 at 8:31 AM

    I try to always be pretty mindful of the things that I say to others.
    If I find that I would not want someone to say that to me then I don’t think that it is too nuce to say that to them either.
    I think that too often we lose sight of that one little key.
    Do unto others is the motto we should all strive to live by.

  • T.F.

    December 18th, 2011 at 10:41 PM

    I don’t think many of these are really verbal abuse unless you seek out to set up the entire situation to be able to say it. I had a boss like that when I was working my first job. He constantly and repeatedly gave me things outside of the following.

    1: My qualifications.
    2: My job description.
    3: What I was being paid to do.
    4: In one case, something I consider borderline legal and refused to do.

    What does he say? Number seven like he rehearsed it.

  • Marisa Hill

    December 18th, 2011 at 11:18 PM

    In my opinion, number two is arguable. Saying “I want” isn’t verbal abuse. If you consider that verbal abuse, REAL verbal abuse would hospitalize you for life! What’s the deal with all this supersensitivity about nothing? Give yourselves a shake!

  • Ward Smith

    December 19th, 2011 at 12:38 AM

    I hate number 6 with a passion. I went to college. I studied the theory of everything, I studied physics, I understand how things work on an atomic level. Yet some idiot will have the nerve to tell ME how I don’t know something in my field? Please enlighten me how your knowledge of physics which culminated in throwing stones at birds is superior to mine, oh wise one.

  • James Wyatt

    December 20th, 2011 at 8:07 PM

    @T.F.:The majority of companies have a zero tolerance policy on verbal abuse, at least on paper. Dig out that handy copy of the workplace policy and procedures manual you got when you started the job and dust it off. If you didn’t get one there will be a copy lying around somewhere as these things have to freely available for staff to consult at any time, or ask HR for one. Verbal abuse is very common in the workplace and there’s much you can do about it if you have the courage to call in the big guns. I certainly hope you dragged him to Human Resources at some point.

  • Justin Nutt, MSW

    June 26th, 2012 at 10:05 AM

    I am so often asked in interviews and by clients, friends, etc. what are some signs that a person may be in an abusive relationship or that they may be in a relationship that is unhealthy and may become abusive. I am currently working on an article related directly to this topic and want to say that I agree largely with this article and most of the items I think are so true. I do have to say that some of them without knowing the context of the situation may be completely innocent and could go either way. What also should be kept in mind is the fact at times it is not what is said so much as the undertone and way in which it is said.

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