A World of Insults, a World of Reactions

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006

You don't have to be a sports fan to know that something extraordinary happened in the World Cup soccer final last week. Ten minutes from the climactic end -- with his country's hopes, the championship and his place in the history books at stake -- French captain Zinedine Zidane violently head-butted Italian defender Marco Materazzi to the ground and got himself ejected from the field.

The foul was on par with biting off your opponent's ear in a boxing match, or getting a hit man to whack your skating competitor's knee. Zidane, master of the penalty kick, knew the match was seconds away from being decided through penalty kicks. France lost by one goal, a goal Zidane could have scored.

What was he thinking ?

Zidane said Materazzi had insulted him with crude references to his mother and sister. He implied that if he had to do it over again, he would . "I am a man, after all," he declared. "I would have rather received a punch in my face."

There are doubtless many people for whom this is sufficient explanation. With the World Cup in the balance and a billion people watching, someone says something about your mother and from that point onward your hands are tied.

This article is for the rest of us. Social scientists have long been interested in insults, not with a view to winning matches but with a view to understanding culture and behavior. You don't need science to know that men are more inclined to use insults than women, and more inclined to violent reactions. Turns out the more macho the society, the more likely it is that men will trade insults.

The potency of particular insults seems closely tied to notions of masculinity: Men from southern Europe are easily wounded by suggestions they lack virility, whereas that carries little weight in northern Europe. One study found that American boys from the South were more sensitive about their reputations after being dressed down in public than Northern boys.

The ancient Greeks called foreigners "barbaroi" -- babblers. In Dutch, to accuse someone of being infected with typhoid is a biting insult. Other rude expressions are specific to religion, body parts and, of course, sexual behavior.

Psychologist Boele De Raad of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands recently had 192 young men from Spain, Germany and the Netherlands list five terms of abuse in response to this imaginary situation: "A man rudely knocks you off your feet; he turns towards you but he gives no sign that he is sorry. You are furious. What do you say to this man?"

Many of the 916 responses, as you might imagine, are unprintable here, but the point of the experiment was not to tabulate cuss words. Rather, it was to detect patterns among the groups, and that is exactly what De Raad found: Insults from the Spaniards focused on references to animals and family members; for the Dutch it was references to diseases. The Germans preferred to cite body parts and functions.

Two factors seemed to be at play. One was machismo. The other was the extent of individualism in a culture. Insults in non-individualistic cultures, where social networks and family reputation are paramount, are most provocative when they demean a man's relatives.

De Raad drew on the work of psychologist Geert Hofstede, who collected data in the 1970s from 100,000 people in 50 countries to rate aspects of culture. The most individualistic country, at least at that time, was the United States, with a score of 91; the least was Guatemala, which had a score of 6. Britain was 89. Pakistan was 14. If De Raad is right, an insult about a man's wife or mother will provoke far more anger in Karachi than in London.

You can't say very much about the Zidane incident based on this experiment, but De Raad guessed Zidane's behavior was analogous to the Spaniards. While France scores high on individualism in Hofstede's rankings, Zidane also has roots in Arab culture, where Hofstede found family honor is taken far more seriously than in Europe.

For all their crudity, there is evidence that insults often follow unwritten rules. Close observation at one Philadelphia area basketball team showed insults about overweight relatives were common among the young men -- except when it came to one player whose mother actually was overweight, said sociologist Kevin Delaney. In other words, insults are fine in throwing an opponent off his game, but a line is drawn when it comes to causing actual offense.

"Men use insults as a way to bond with one anther, perverse as that sounds," Delaney said. "They check out whether they can insult the other guy and will he still stay with me? They are measuring their friendships."

Delaney, 46, and dean of faculty at Temple University, admitted that when he played basketball with his buddies, "within three hours we are insulting each other exactly the way we did when we were 18."

This puts a whole new twist on the Zidane incident. Italian defender Materazzi has acknowledged insulting Zidane but said such talk is commonplace on the playing field. He said he meant no offense, and he even called Zidane his "hero."

Was he just trying to say "I like you"?

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