Someone will insult you badly over the next few weeks. It's summer and that's one of the things families and friends like to do to each other when they get together for the holidays.
It could be your car, intellect, partner, job, parenting, beer, food or dog. There is a lot for people to work with. Holiday insults are inevitable, how you deal with them is up to you.
Ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca (4BC–AD65) thought a lot about insults. Mostly he thought we shouldn't worry about them. I've been driving around listening to the audiobook of his Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (Moral Letters to Lucilius).
A few weeks ago I went down an internet rabbit hole. Started with gladiators, ended up with stoic philosophy. Several books later it's been a real life-changer.
The 2000-year-old thinking of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus can help a lot when you've been insulted. With some simple stoic tools, you'll be untouchable.
Here's a classic example of a festive season insult: "How does your whole family fit in this place? We struggle in our house and it's twice as big." How should you react to such a comment?
Seneca suggests you pause and ask yourself a few questions. Was the insult accurate? If so simply take it as a stated fact and move on. "Why is it an insult," Seneca asks, "to be told what is self-evident?"
If their house is bigger, it's bigger. Choose to take the comment as a mundane observation.
Next, consider your insulter. As Seneca says "often those who insult us can best be described as overgrown children. In the same way that a mother would be foolish to let the insults of her toddler upset her, we would be foolish to let the insults of these childish adults upset us."
"Our house is bigger than yours" is a childish comment. No need to be offended by it.
Once you have analysed the insult and the insulter, how should you react?
If you are going to hit back, humour is best. If the person is big-boned you could say "I reckon a lot of houses would seem small to you."
That would really kick things off. Do you want that? Maybe some self-deprecation. "Yeah and the way I'm eating this Christmas the place is only going to get more crowded."
But engaging the insult might be what the insulter wants. It shows that they got to you. The stoics suggest a non-response. Say nothing and go about your business.
As Seneca states "It can be quite disconcerting to the insulter, who will wonder whether or not we understood his insult. Furthermore, we are robbing him of the pleasure of having upset us, and he is likely to be upset as a result of that."
If the silence is too awkward try laughing at the insulter. Modern American stoic professor William B Irvine, author of The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient, puts it this way: "Lots of people respond to insults by getting angry. A better response is simply to laugh. By doing so we not only forestall anger in ourselves but make the person who insulted us look like a fool. He hit us with his best verbal shot and we just laughed it off."
The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus (50-135 AD) stated: "Another person will not do you harm unless you wish it; you will be harmed at just that time at which you take yourself to be harmed."
So if you choose not to be offended, the insult disappears. A verbal insult is simply a group of sounds. How you process them determines how much damage they do.
Neuroscientist Sam Harris, in his theory on domestic arguments, wrote: "The moment she leaves, you are talking to yourself. You know how that conversation went. You were there."
So who is insulting you in your head? It's you. Why are you running the insult again internally and getting angry about it? Pointlessly imagining things you should have said. The person who insulted you doesn't experience any of that. The time to respond was when they were with you. Better to laugh it off at the time and move on.
Someone is going to insult you and soon. Luckily the ancient Greek and Roman stoic philosophers have a plan.
1. If it's a fact it's not an insult. It's an accurate observation. It would be silly to be offended by the truth.
2. Don't take on board criticism from people whose opinion you don't respect.
3. Laughing at an insult takes away its power and really annoys the insulter.
4. When it's over it's over. Don't reinsult yourself by repeating the insult in your head.
Follow these simple ancient rules and you can enjoy your break no matter who you're forced to hang out with and no matter what is said.
Merry Christmas. You don't smell very good.