An introduction to the social psychology of insults in organizations

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100 Citations (SciVal)


The author argues that insults are an important social and organizational phenomenon, which causes powerful emotions and enters people's 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 identify details, ingratitude, scapegoating, rudeness, broken promises, being ignored or kept waiting. Even more potent insults result from the defamation or despoiling of idealized 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 organization's political process which establishes, first, lines of domination/subordination, second, finer gradations of status and power, i.e., a pecking order, and third, opportunities for building coalitions and alliances. 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. They also enable audiences to take sides, thus influencing and testing the operation of coalitions and alliances.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1329-1354
Number of pages26
JournalHuman Relations
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 1998


  • Conflict
  • Emotion
  • Exclusion
  • Harassment
  • Insults
  • Organizational politics
  • Psychic injuries
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Stereotypes
  • Survival

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Social Sciences
  • Strategy and Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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