How to Respond to an Insult, According to Therapists

8 minute read

Have you ever been stunned into silence by an insult—only to think of the perfect witty comeback two hours too late?

Of course you have, and there’s a physiological reason why. “When someone says something offensive or harmful that hurts us or hurts a member of a community that’s really important to us, our nervous system can get activated,” says Kerry McBroome, a psychologist in Brooklyn. “The parts of the brain that are responsible for coming up with clever or witty things to say are just not online—they’re nervous and sensing a threat.”

That’s why planning ahead is essential. “There’s something really life-affirming about having something to say ready to go in your back pocket,” McBroome says. Pulling off a sharp response can boost your confidence and “be such a source of pride.”

We asked therapists to share their favorite comebacks that either invite additional dialogue or shut down the conversation.

“Hey, flag on the play.”

When Ajita Robinson, a therapist in Bethesda, Md., is taken aback or confused by the words that just rolled out of someone’s mouth, she pulls out a sports term: “Hey, flag on the play.” In football, a flag indicates that an official believes a player committed a penalty, like pass interference or roughing the kicker. By flagging what someone just said, Robinson is making it clear that their words were out of bounds or require further clarification. “Folks usually respond pretty well, like, ‘What are you noticing?’” she says.

One of Robinson’s clients, for example, recently went on a date with a man she thought was too sexually suggestive. The woman said, “Hey, flag on the play,” and he understood that he’d crossed a line. “I thought that was pretty cool, because she used it as a way to express that this was something she was uncomfortable with,” Robinson says. “It’s lighthearted, but sends a signal that the comment or interaction crossed a boundary.”

“Thanks, but I’m not accepting unsolicited feedback.”

There’s a sub-zero chance that you want to hear your great-uncle’s opinions on your pants size, reproductive choices, or dating life. The odds are much greater that he’ll express them anyway. In such cases, Robinson suggests replying: “Thanks, but I’m not accepting unsolicited feedback on [fill in the blank].”

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“People are surprised to hear someone push back,” she says. “It reminds them that even though they might be well-intentioned, it’s still unsolicited. It stops it in its tracks.” Plus, she adds, the response isn’t disrespectful—so you can keep the peace while sticking up for yourself.

“Are you okay?”

These three simple words pack a punch, says Melanie Williams, a psychotherapist in Baltimore. “There’s so much packed in this short comeback,” she says. Imagine that a colleague just made a sexist remark. If you ask them if they’re okay, they might look at you strangely and reply in the affirmative. Then, Williams notes, you can follow-up with a quick observation: “Just checking, because that was completely inappropriate.”

Asking someone if they’re okay immediately lets them know that the spotlight is on them, rather than on whomever or whatever they were talking about, she points out; plus, it signals that what they said was problematic and opens the door to self-reflection.

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“Could you repeat that? I don't think I heard you correctly.”

This line is particularly effective when you’re in a group of people, or when someone mumbles something under their breath, says Amanda Stemen, a Los Angeles-based therapist who teaches mindful communication skills. “A lot of times when people say something rude, it’s really impulsive, and they’re not thinking about whether it’s the wisest thing they can say in that situation.” By asking them to repeat themself—even if you had no trouble hearing them—you’re extending an opportunity to rethink and rephrase what they said. “Often, they’ll realize there are a bunch of people around, and they don’t want to say it louder, because the shame is going to kick in,” Stemen says. “It deescalates the situation.”

“What a wild thing to say out loud.”

McBroome’s favorite comeback is useful when someone says something prejudiced or outright bigoted. She smiles and brightly responds: “Wow, what a wild thing to say out loud.”

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“They don’t see it coming, and by throwing them off their rhythm or startling them, they’re able to question something they previously hadn't questioned,” she says. She’s found that people often realize they need to examine their bias and reflect on why something they thought was acceptable to say didn’t go over well.

"What was your intention with that comment?"

This comeback is both effective and therapeutic, says Jessica Good, a therapist in St. Louis. She suggests using it with people who are trying to insult someone else: critical or judgmental family members, toxic coworkers, frenemies. “It makes them say the quiet part out loud,” she says. At best, someone might pause and reflect on their statement. Or they could deny any ill-intent—in which case they’ll still learn that they can't get away with such behavior, because you’ll call them out on it. Either way, Good says, it will curb passive-aggressive or demeaning comments. She recommends delivering the line in a calm voice with a curious tone, while making direct eye contact that signals your confidence.

"I know you’re likely threatened by an educated woman, but..."

Kaytee Gillis, a psychotherapist in Lansing, Mich., used this retort during a holiday gathering when a male relative tried to explain a certain mental-health diagnosis to her, despite the fact that she had far more expertise than he did. She recommends following the “but” with whatever you’re being challenged on. For example, if you’re sharing your professional experience and someone thinks they know better, you could say: “I know you’re likely threatened by an educated woman, but this is something I have a degree in."

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You can replace "educated woman" with whatever the situation calls for, Gillis says. “In my experience, it shuts down the conversation,” she adds. “It can be a gentle but assertive reminder for them to be respectful, or, when it’s said with a stronger tone, it can put the person in their place.”

“I wonder why you feel comfortable saying that to me.”

If somebody makes an inappropriate comment about a group of people—maybe it’s racist, homophobic, or misogynistic—use this line to call them out on it, advises Kristen Suleman, a therapist in Houston. “It makes it clear that you’re not engaging in the conversation in the way they expected you to,” she says. “It’s effective because it’s direct, respectful, and factual.” You probably do feel genuine curiosity about why your conversation partner made such an ignorant statement; here’s an opportunity to dig into the why and encourage self-reflection and critical thinking. Aim to speak in a calm, curious tone of voice, Suleman suggests.

"You should come with a warning label!" 

Your cousin keeps bringing up politics at a kid’s birthday party. A friend’s sense of humor makes the group feel uncomfortable. Aunt Gladys has decided it’s a good time to dispense diet tips. To handle these unwanted conversations, Gillis sometimes opts for a lighthearted response: “You should come with a warning label!” It makes people laugh, she’s found—diffusing a potentially tense situation while letting them know they’re crossing into inappropriate territory. Most people successfully get the message that they should change their tone.

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“I don’t get it. Can you explain the joke?”

Perhaps you’re eager to shut down the conversation, especially around an inappropriate “joke.” Asking the person to explain what’s so funny is a terrific way to hold them accountable for their behavior, Suleman says: “They might think twice next time.” She recommends delivering your question with genuine interest while trying to maintain compassion. The goal isn’t to humiliate the other person or appear holier than thou, Suleman clarifies—it’s to create curiosity about the purpose of their comment.

When all else fails: let silence speak louder than words.

Sometimes, there’s simply no reason to dignify a difficult person with a response, Stemen says. That’s especially true if you've already tried other comebacks that failed. “Go straight to silence,” she advises. Look at the other person, and maybe raise an eyebrow, but don’t speak. “Without even having to say anything, it communicates to them that you’re not going to engage,” she says. “If you feed into it in any way, it will fuel the fire. But for the most part, if you don’t add to that drama, it will fizzle out.”

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