When Geraldine Ferraro was campaigning in Mississippi on Aug. 1, 1984, she encountered what she apparently thought was some male chauvinism from state Agriculture Commissioner Jim Buck Ross.
"Can you bake a blueberry muffin?" the 70-year-old commissioner asked.
"Sure," said the vice presidential candidate. "Can YOU?"
That widely reported incident, says psycholinguist Suzette Haden Elgin, shows Ferraro stumbling over the political side of verbal gamesmanship -- and it cost her votes in conservative areas.
"She's a woman with a lot of political experience, but she lost track of what was going on," Elgin says. "As a courtesy to a new politician, Ross was allowing her to show off her verbal skills."
Even if Ross intended a put down, Elgin says, Ferraro still made a mistake when she sassed him, because she was perceived as rude and disrespectful to her elders. And for many voters, Elgin writes in her forthcoming book The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, "The thought of Geraldine Ferraro in Washington, challenging the aging Soviet males as she had challenged Jim Buck Ross, was horrifying."
Ferraro thought she was being attacked, explains Elgin, so "she tried to defend herself when she shouldn't have." Here are four guidelines to avoid making a similar mistake:
* Know when you are under attack. "If you take a classic sentence like, 'You're a little devil,' you can say it tenderly, threateningly, lovingly or as if you're crazy. It's the intonation, not just the words. And there can be endearments even if there's abuse." Trust your ears, says Elgin: They know what they're hearing.
* Know what kind of attack you're facing. "It's like a martial art. There are certain moves and appropriate responses," says Elgin. "For example, I teach never to blame back at a blamer. If someone says, 'You never consider anyone else's feelings!' you can't reply: 'So do you! You always pick on me!' Come back at them in a different mode -- say, 'That's a problem with a lot of relationships.'"
* Know how to make your defense fit the attack. "If someone's shooting at you with a rifle, you don't prepare for hand-to-hand combat. Often, it's a good idea to deflect the emotion and respond impassively. That'll get you out of the feedback loop."
* Know how to follow through. "Most verbal victims feel guilty all the time. Women, in particular, feel that it is their obligation to always be nice and never make waves. But allowing a verbal abuser to get away with it is not kind. It's just like giving an alcoholic a drink."