“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is an old saying that one University researcher has found to be false.
Terry Kinney, an instructor in the Department of Speech-Communication, is currently researching the effects of verbal aggression on people in order to find ways to prevent violence within society.
Kinney has done field observations, laboratory experiments and accumulated the research on verbal aggression in his ongoing research into anxiety-causing situations.
Kinney said 90 percent of all relationships in the United States contain instances of physical and verbal violence. Researching the causes and effects of verbal aggression is important because most physical conflicts begin with a verbal confrontation, Kinney said.
Verbal aggression, defined as an attack on another’s self-concept, takes many forms, Kinney said. Comments like “you’re stupid” or “you’re lazy” are examples of verbal aggression, he said. But sarcasm and teasing can also be forms of verbal aggression.
Kinney said one example of verbal aggression that escalated into a physically violent situation was a recent multiple homicide and suicide near Sauk Center. In that incident, a 74-year-old man shot and killed four members of a neighboring family over a property line dispute. He then fatally shot himself in the head.
Nobody knows how verbal aggression can escalate into physical confrontations, Kinney said. “I’m trying to figure out how that occurs so that we can stop it.”
The stress caused by verbal aggression can also make a person physically ill, Kinney said. Stress, he added, has long been known to weaken people’s immune systems. “If you’re parents abuse you, the potential exists for you to form physical ailments.”
Kinney presented his most recent research in May in a paper titled “Dimensions & Functions of Racial, Ethnic & Gender Slurs” at a meeting in Chicago of the International Communication Association.
“It seems to be the most noxious form of verbal aggression,” Kinney said. “People get irate immediately when exposed to those things.”
Stephanie Lieberman, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, said work-related discrimination complaints often involve race, ethnic and gender slurs.
In one recent instance within the University, she said, “a white male said to a black female that the workplace environment is very reminiscent to a plantation.”
The black woman expressed concern about the comment to the white man but received no apology, Lieberman said. Because the man refused to apologize, the comment was considered intentionally aggressive and discriminatory rather than just ignorant, she added.
Kinney also said verbal aggression affects victims by negatively altering their perception of the world. This is especially true in cases involving child and domestic abuse, he said. “If you think the world is a hostile place, you’re going to start acting that way.”
Lud Spolyar, a psychologist at University Counseling and Consulting Services, said the most common cases of verbal aggression he sees in his work with University students occur in parental or romantic relationships.
Spolyar said verbal aggression as a form of abuse is often used as a control technique in such relationships. “Sometimes it’s used to make the person dependent on the aggressor.”
Spolyar said treating instances of verbal abuse involves a “fight or flight” approach. One way to deal with the situation is to “stand up to the person and deal with an aggressor in a verbal way,” Spolyar said. In other instances, he added, the best way to deal with a verbally abusive situation is to simply leave the situation.