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The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense

4.4 7
by Suzette Haden Elgin

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Don't turn the other cheek and fume quietly; know what to say when someone throws out the snide backhanded "compliment," subtle insult, cruel criticism, or outright verbal blow. Inside these pages is an arsenal of tools for fending off that attack and neutralizing the harm spiteful words inflict. Learn to identify modes of verbal assault, such as laying blame, and to


Don't turn the other cheek and fume quietly; know what to say when someone throws out the snide backhanded "compliment," subtle insult, cruel criticism, or outright verbal blow. Inside these pages is an arsenal of tools for fending off that attack and neutralizing the harm spiteful words inflict. Learn to identify modes of verbal assault, such as laying blame, and to recognize when someone is about to launch a linguistic strike and the motivation behind it. Sample scripts prevent you from getting tongue-tied, and a progress journal helps you use voice and body language for maximum effect. Find out how to handle the eight most common types of verbal violence, and redirect and defuse potential verbal confrontations so skillfully that they rarely happen. Special suggestions are included for college students, men, and women, and for handling emergency situations such as an angry crowd.

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Barnes & Noble
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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

EXCERPT: From pp. 14-19 in the new revised and updated edition of The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.

There are three major reasons why learning verbal self-defense can be the most important step you take in your life. Let’s look at them one at a time.

The Link Between Verbal Violence and Physical Violence

The reason we don’t have enough money to do the things we want and need to do is that we spend so much of our money dealing with physical violence and its consequences. We spend enormous sums on law enforcement, on jails and prisons, on the legal system and the courts, on security, on insurance, on preventing and dealing with domestic violence, on the ininsured medical costs of violent criminals and their victims. We all know that those costs keep growing, and how out of control they are.    But the “words can’t hurt you” idea keeps us from noticing the obvious: that almost all physical violence starts as verbal violence–as hostile language. Sane people don’t just walk up to other people and start hitting. First there is an exchange of hostile words; then the physical violence starts. Even in cases where someone walks into their school or church or workplace and starts shooting, there is almost always a history of hostile language leadiing up to that final tragic event.    Once violence becomes physical, we need professionals to deal with it–police officers and emergency personnel and medical experts; it’s out of our hands. But while the violence is still “only words,” every person who speaks a language can learnhow to deal with it and how to keep it from escalating into physical violence. To get a handle on physical violence and stop wasting our resources on it, we need to tackle it where it starts, while it’s still hostile language. That means learning verbal self-defense. It means learning how to establish and maintain a language environment in which hostile language is very rare; it means learning how to deal with hostile language effectively and efficiently when it truly cannot be avoided.

The Link Between Language and Health

Sometimes things that seem obvious and self-evident–like the flatness of the Earth when you look at it as you’re driving through Illinois–are only illlusions. Sometimes we aren’t able to see that, because we don’t have the right technology for working with the data. The link between language and health is like that. Only recently have we been able to get a good, clear look at that link and begin to understand what it means.
    We used to have to study medical histories with paper and pen and calculator, and that gave us one picture–one very limited picture–of what was going on. Today, the powerful computers that can show us hundreds of thousands of medical histories over the course of decades give us a very different picture: they show us that over time, hostile language maims and kills just like sticks and stones and knives and guns maim and kill. We couldn’t see that before, because we didn’t have enough data. Now we can see it, and the data tell us that hostile language is perhaps the most dangerous of all “risk factors.” More dangerous than obesity, more dangerous than smoking, more dangerous than high cholesterol, more dangerous than all those things we put so much effort into avoiding. The information that appears when you look at enough medical data to see long-term patterns tells us unambiguously that people who are chronically exposed to hostile language get sick more often, are injured more often, take longer to recover from illness and injury, and die younger.    And there’s more, thanks to those same powerful computers. We now know that hostile language isn’t dangerous just to those who are its target. It’s also dangerous to the person dishing it out, and it’s dangerous to innocent bystanders who can’t avoid it. That changes things dramatically. That means that it’s just as important for verbal abusers to learn how to communicate without hostile language as it is for verbal targets to learn how to defend themselves against their attackers. Hostile language is toxic; to keep it out of your life, you need to learn verbal self-defense.

The Link Between Language and Success in Today’s World

    There was a time when most people got jobs and stayed in them for many years; there was a time when most people worked for one company, maybe two, until they retired. Individuals might move up through the ranks over time, but the company was like family; everybody knew everybody else.
    In those days there was plenty of time for people to get used to one another at work. When new people were hired, somebody would fill them in. Like this:

“Don’t pay any attention to the things Jack says; he’s really a nice guy, and he doesn’t mean to sound like such a jerk.”
“Just ignore Amanda when she starts mouthing off, she doesn’t mean any of it.”
“Don’t let the way Henderson talks fool you–he sounds stupid, but he’s really one of the smartest guys in the company.”

 As long as you showed up every day for work and did your best, you could assume that you’d get ahead, even if your communication skills were poor. That has now changed dramatically. Now people change jobs, even change their whole careers, at a moment’s notice. Within a single job, they move from project to project, and from team to team. To succeed today you need to be able to make a good impression immediately, establish instant rapport, and communicate successfully with people you’ve only just met. The luxury of lead time for gradually adjusting to others in your workplace has disappeared. Poor communication skills today are a serious barrier to success.    You may feel that this doesn’t matter to you personally. You may already have succeeded in your chosen field; you may already have climbed high enough on the ladder. But if you have children and/or grandchildren, I assure you that it still does matter. If you want a tranquil retirement, free of children and grandchildren desperate for your help because they can’t earn their own livings in today’s world, you need to learn verbal self-defense so that you can make sure their language skills are topnotch.
    Developing your verbal self-defense skills is in your own best interest, and it will repay your investment of learning time and energy many times over. To learn verbal self-defense, you need only your fluency in your native language, your common sense–and this book. The book will teach you the following things:

1. How to recognize patterns of verbal abuse in your own speech, so that you can stop using them
2. How to recognize verbal target patterns in your own language behavior, so that you can stop using them
3. How to recognize patterns of verbal abuse in the language behavior of others, so that you will be aware of them and know where the sources of contamination in your own language environment are
4. How to use a set of verbal self-defense techniques that will let you either defuse verbal attacks in advance and avoid hostility, or respond to them effectively when the confrontation cannot be avoided
5. How to use patterns of language that will improve the way others perceive you when that perception is based on your language behavior
6. How to eliminate patterns of language behavior that detract  from the perception others have of you

7. How to interact verbally and nonverbally with others in such a way that your communication is more efficient and more satisfactory

It’s not true that these accomplishments are limited to people with advanced degrees in communication, language arts, and linguistics, or to people “born with a silver tongue in their mouths.” You are equipped to do all these things, no matter what your present level of expertise may be, simply because you are a native speaker of your language. 

Welcome to the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.


Please see the author's answers to frequently asked questions here:http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin/Verbal_Self_Defense_FAQ.html

Meet the Author

Suzette Haden Elgin, PhD is the founder of the Ozark Center for Language Studies and a retired professor of linguistics. Her works include science fiction novels, poetry collections, guides to transformational grammar, and more than a dozen books on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, including You Can't Say That To Me! and How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable.

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The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have spent all my life defenseless against verbal attacks; not one to attack others, I was always caught by surprise by an unkind remark. I just never had the mentality to prepare to defend myself. Reading this book has changed my life. I learned that it is okay to defend myself against snide comments (previously believing that to do so was ungraceful and coarse) that left me feeling sad, weak, and unsure of myself. While it will take me a while to learn all the techniques, I am encouraged that I no longer have to laugh off veiled 'jokes' made at my expense, or wish later that I had a more appropriate response to a negative comment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book as a present for my Daughter. Her work environmnet is fairly rough, and I felt she might benefit from reading this book. In her "Financial Institutes" work place who ever can through someone out first is the winner. I believe this book helped her to menage these "barracudas" in a very appropriate way, not reciprocating in kind. She was and is more able to take the high road, without loosing her position. It should be available to all employees at every work place.
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Jambosrule More than 1 year ago
While the book was at times very interesting and eye opening, I found that one of the themes was reverse sexism. Having never quite picked up the male patterns of verbal confrontations, I thought this book would be helpful. It was to some degree, but nothing even close to what I expected. The For Men chapter was downright insulting, and I can honestly say after coaching my daughter's soccer team for eight years, some of the things in the For Women chapter made me chuckle. The author seems to pattern most of the confrontations around things familiar to her and her scope of being. However, having said that, there are some practical tips that I did find to be useful and interesting. Not a waste of time by any means, but not the guide that it is made out to be either.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ms. Elgin explains basic linguistics, rhetoric, and psychology that we use everyday. Her book contains real-life examples of verbal attacks that we've all seen and explains not only how to respond to the attack, but also how we can better communicate to reduce conflict. This book is helpful for students, teachers, parents, attorneys, and anyone who has to deal with people.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this is a fascinating book with terrific details for both men and women. This book does not only tell you how to defend yourself, but also why people say the things they do. With many specific examples for the work place, at home, in public or with a group, followed by the right and wrong responses, this book could not be more straight forward. Because this book was written by a professional, it has many psycholinguist tips that are sure to help you grasp the full intent of a single sentence including it's hidden meanings . I recomend this book for anybody who finds the subject interesting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I got this book from a friend who had 'read it so many times, it's memorized.' And after I read it, I understood why. It IS a bit muddy...sometimes I felt like Elgin was talking over my head...sometimes she was right at my level. Sometimes I couldn't find a way to apply her situation to my life, sometimes she was right on. Sometimes I re-read a sentence because it was muddy, sometimes I re-read it just because I enjoyed her phraseology so damn much! I highly recommend this book...it taught me a lot. I've read it three times -- it's one of those books where if you read it more than once, you get something new every time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While I prefer _You Can't Say That to Me_ as a basic Elgin primer, there is a reason why this book has sold several million copies and why almost anyone doing counselling has a copy. If you are dealing with the normal types of verbal abuse, with the standard patterns of baiting, or with the other conflicts that most people deal with, this book is right on point. Now, if you are the cause of your own problems, if you refuse to work on solutions (the book sets out how to work on solutions, with drills and concepts and practice and such), or if you are dealing with out and out advanced sadists, this isn't the book for you. But if you want to deal with 95% of the human experience as it relates to verbal violence in every day life, you need this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I received this book yesterday, and I eagerly grabbed and peeked through it hoping it would be a good read. I bought this book because I have been finding lately that certain people were baiting me into arguing with them and I didn't realise what they were up to until it was too late. 'The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense' sounded like the perfect solution to this. Unfortunately this book doesn't live up to the 'reviews' and promo on these pages. It seems to be targeted to certain people/backgrounds instead of the general public, and while on the surface the areas covered appeared to be very broad-spectrum they are not. Many books that are 20 years old (or older!) contain a lot of fabulous information, but this one is outdated and useless. It's clumsy to read (you find yourself trying to translate the strange, perhaps outdated, metaphors used) and the sections aren't clear-cut. Personally I could only see using the so-called hints and tips on certain people, not in everyday life. I wish I didn't have to, and with all due respect to the author (who I am sure is a wonderful and talented person) but I'm sending this book back. It's just not what I expected or was lead to believe it would be.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Speak is an inspiration to woman who are stuck in sticky situations where they can't figure it out themselves and need the guidance from some one who has already experianced it.I enjoyed evey moment of suspence and day of her triump to let her secert go. The pain she felt was very emotional because you could feel as if you were right there in her position trying to figure out what to do and if you do it what would happen. In the middle of the book it starts to take a turn where she finally relizes that she has more to live for and that if she keeps this secret bottled up inside then she'll always have the guilty conscience of not telling anyone what happened the night of the party.