THE WAYS in which one human being can insult another are many and varied. When it comes to being nasty, no other animal can match us. The range and diversity of our derogatory signals are enormous - and that is even before we have begun to open out mouths.
Insult Signals vary in intensity from mild rebuffs to attempts at savage intimidation. They also vary from locality to locality. There ars some that we can easily understand almost anywhere in the world, but there are many others that we cannot even begin to interpret without special local knowledge.
How, for instance, would you interpret a gesture in which the trips of the fingers and thumb of the left hand are brought together, and the straightened forefinger of the right hand is moved across to touch the ring of bunched tips? The precise meaning would escape you unless you happened to hail from Saudi Arabia. If you did, you would know that the exact message is: "You are the son of a whore." The clue to the symbolism is given by the literal phrase, "You have five fathers," the five digits of the left hand being the five males in question.
In certain South American countries, a hand cupped just below the chin signals stupidity. It does so because it is meant to indicate an imaginary goiter, which is itself a symbol of stupidity. In parts of Spain, the head is titled, to rest on a supported hand, as a signal of implied immaturity. The suggestion is that the insulted person is still a baby leaning on its mother.
Among Arab children, a major insult is to hook the little fingers together and then pull them apart sharply, signifying the end of a relationship. Gypsies throw an insult by squeezing an imaginary, soft object in the hand, suggesting that the insulted person is behaving in a "soft" way.
In several European countries, a popular symbolic gesture for a male insulter is to hold a hand, palm-up, in front of the chest. This is meant to show how long one's beard could grow, while listening to the boring speech of the victim of the victim of the insult. A Jewish insult is to point down at the upturned palm of one hand with the forefinger of the other hand, the implication being that "grass will grow on my hand" before the speaker's comments come true. In Austria, stroking an imaginary beard is a sign that a comment is "old and worn." In France, the actions of playing an imaginary flute indicate that someone's talking is going on and on and is becoming tiresome. A more widespread version of this is the "yakity-yak" gesture in which the hand opens and shuts like a gabbling mouth.
To an outsider, local signs can be so meaningless that it is possible for local inhabitants to insult foreigners without their knowledge. Visitors to a strange country also can unwittingly offend the locals by unintentionally making a rude gesture. A knowledge of the different Insult Signals is therefore doubly useful. To understand how they operate it is helpful to arrange them into a number of basic categories:
DISINTEREST SIGNALS. The mildest, most negative form of insult is a show of disinterest. This is done by slightly reducing the intensity of the expected friendly reactions; by nodding and smiling less during conversation; by averting the eyes more than usual; or by deliberately and obviously turning away the head.
When social snobbery reached a peak in the last century, the disinterest insult achieved the status of a formal gesture: the Cut. This was reserved for encounters with people considered to be social inferiors and consisted of allowing them to see that you had noticed them and then blatantly turning your head away and ignoring them. "Cutting someone dead" or ignoring a handshake are still used today as exaggerated forms of disinterest in extreme cases, but they have long since ceased to play a role as a regular part of the social scene. Their impact, on the rare occasions when they are used, is therefore all the more severe.
BOREDOM SIGNALS. If disinterest fails to make its usual impact, a stronger response is to display open boredom. A favorite signal employed here is the mock-yawn. Alternatives include deep sighing, a glazed far-away expression, or repeated examination of the wristwatch.
IMPATIENCE SIGNALS. Small movements that indicate an urge to get away from the present situation are also widely used. These take the form of "miniaturized-locomotion" actions, such as strumming with the fingers, tapping with the foot, or repeated slapping of the hand against the body. It is as if part of the body is beating out the rhythm of the get-away. The strummed figners are like tiny pattering feet, running on the spot.
SUPERIORITY SIGNALS. Many insulters perform small actions which make them appear pompous or superior. The most abvious example is the tilting back of head, combined with half-closed eyes, which has given rise to the popular expressions "look down upon," turn one's nose up at and "look down one's nose." This is an exaggerated version of one of the basic high-status signals.
In ordinary status displays, the more dominant individuals carry their heads high, the more submissive hang their head low. The high/low difference is usually rather slight - so slight that we are rarely aware of it consciously. Unconsciously, however, we are highly responsive even to minute difference in "uprightness." When a round-shouldered man enters a room he will have to work harder to gain our respect than will a vertically erect man. He will not be conscious of this and neither will we, but the undercurrent of feelings will be there nonetheless. At the moment when an insult is delivered the insulter, regardless of his usual status, may adopt the "head-high" posture and may push it well beyond the usual limits.
The small child, the teenager, the pupil, the business subordinate, the servant and others who must normally inhibit their dominance feelings in many contexts can be observed to employ these sudden superiority displays when they are occasionally driven to breaking-point and explode with unleased verbal insults. Storming off with heads held high, they may appear almost laughably pompous to their companions because of the sudden contrast between their usually modest posturing and the now super-dominant nose-in-air display. But for them, the incident really was a moment of super-dominance, while it was happening, and the superiority display felt entirely right.
DEFORMED-COMPLIMENT SIGNALS. Sarcastic insults often take the form of distoring a compliment. A friendly response is deliberately modified to make it unpleasant. Two common examples are the Tight Smile and Cheek Crease. Both are deformed smiling actions. In the Tight Smile the central parts of the lips are strongly pursed, while the mouth-corners pull back as in an ordinary smile. In the Cheek Crease all normal smiling elements are omitted except for the pulling-back of one mouth-corner.
Deformed compliments of this kind are particularly unpleasant insults because they are rather like offering a reward and then snatching it away at the last moment. They show us the smile we could have had but are not getting.
There are a number of localized of this type. A good example is the "thumbnail applause" offered in certain Arab and Spanish-speaking countries as an act of derision. Instead of clapping loudly with the palms of the hands, the "applauder" taps the back of one thumbnail against the other. An alternative used in England and elsewhere is the super-slow handclap. However, as so often happens with local gestures, the same actions have different meanings elsewhere. In Panama, for instance, the thumbnail clapping is merely a form of silent applause, lacking irony or derision; and in Russia a rhythmic slow handclap can be highly complimentary.
MOCK-DISCOMFORT SIGNALS. The insulter here uses exaggerated signs of distress to indicate the extent of his displeasure. Melodramatically beating his head with his fist, gasping or covering his face with his hands, or contoring his features into a momentary expression of agony, he deliberately overacts as a way of stressing his outrage. In its more subtle form, this type of signal becomes the pained expression of the martyr, and is a favorite insult technique employed by "long-suffering" parents or teachers toward their children or pupils. By exaggerating the pain they feel, they magnify, by implication, the stupidities which cause the pain.
REJECTION SIGNALS. Somewhere between disinterest and abuse there is an area of moderate insult in which the insulter merely makes a gesture of mild rejection. No warning of violence is involved, as with true threats. Instead, there is simply a "go away" sign, a "get lost" message. The Thumb Jerk is one of the most popular, but the flat hand is also widely used, pushing, flicking, flapping, or swiping away the insulted person, but without touching him. The most insulting one is the Insect Flick - with the hand brushing the companion away as if he were no more than an irritating pest.
Sticking out the tongue is a special form of Rejection Signal, originating from the infant's rejection of the breast or bottle when refusing food. This early oral movement survives as a repulsion device in older children and adults, even though they are unaware of its derivation and think of it merely as "rude."
MOCKERY SIGNALS. Laughing at someone in one of the major forms of insult in our species. To understand why, it is necessary to look at the way an infant first starts to laugh. It does so originally because its mother startles it an a mild way, by tickling it or playfully swinging it through the air. The infant gets a double signal from its monther - one part saying "there is something strange happening" and the other part saying "but it is quite safe because it is coming from mother." Instead of crying, as the infant might do if the tickler or swinger were a stranger, it laughs.
So laughter is really a kind of relief-cry. We enjou a laugh together as adults because we can share the mutual experience of alarm plus relief. But when we laugh directly at someone, we throw them a double insult. We are saying with our directed laugh: "You are alarmingly strange, but - what a relief - we do not need to take you seriously."
This ridiculing form of insult is in one sense worse than an out-and-out threat. Threating actions display hostility and the dangerous possibilit of a physical attack, but they at least give the victim the credit of being worth a fight. Ridicule, on the other hand, displays hostility and belittles the victims at the same time. This is why open derision can so earily provoke the victim into an aggressive response.
Several form of contrived mockery are common. Illconcealed mirth, with the hand covering the mouth but deliberately not obliterating the suppressed laugh, is one. Another is the collusive wink given to a fellow-tormentor, but given in such a way that its usual concealment from the victim purposely fails.
SYMBOLIC INSULTS. A common symbolic gesture is the "I-am-fed-up-to-here-with-you" sign, in which the hand taps against the throat or the top of the head. This is based on a food-refusal signal meaning. "I cannot eat any more, I am full up to here." From food-refusal it has spread symbolically to mean refusal of an idea, with "full-up" becoming "fed-up."
There are also many "crazy" gestures, indicating that the insulted person is so foolish as to be mad. These usually take the form of "bad brain" or "dizzy brain" sumbols, such as tapping the temple or screwing a forefinger against it. There may be local confusion over these actions, since in some countries, such as Holland, tapping the temple means intelligent instead of stupid, the Dutch gesture for stupidity being the tapping of the center of the forehead.
The local varieties of symbolic insults would fill a book, but there is one further major category that deserves mention: the animal insults. Almost any animal will do, so long as it has a bad reputation and is generally considered to be stupid, clumsy, hostile, lazy, dirty, or in some way laughable or unpleasant. The donkey is a favorite model and its large ears are the basis for the "jackass" insults. In Italy there are three versions, but only one of these is widely used: the hands-to-ears flapping action.
Perhaps the most popular and widespread animal sign is the "cock's-comb" gesture called "cocking a snook," "thumbing a nose," or "making a long nose," in which the thumb of the vertically fanned hand is placed against the insulter's nose. It is easy to see why this is thought to represent the hostile, erect comb of a fighiting cock, but there is an alternative explanation which relates it to the ancient practice of imitating grotesque, long-nosed effiges.
Less widely known are such animal signs as the Spanish "louse" gesture, in which an imaginary louse is squashed between the insulter's thumbnails, or the Punjab "snake-tongue" sign, in which the insulter flickers an extended forefinger back and forth like the tongue of a snake.
DIRT SIGNALS. In a survey of nearly 200 tribal cultures around the world, it was discovered that the only aspect of human body appeal which applied universally was cleanliness and freedom from disease. Because filthiness means ugliness, gestures connected with dirt are obvious candidates as Insult Signals and, as expected, they can be found all over the world. Mostly they relate to human waste products - spittle, snot, urine and feces - but occasionally they involve the dung of other animals.
In Syria, picking one's nostrils with the right forefinger and thumb means "go to hell." A similar gesture is seen in Libya, but there it is followed by a quick thrust of the stiffly extended middle finger.
Among Gypsies a final insult, ending a relationship, consists of shaking imaginary dirt from the clothes, followed by spitting on the floor. Spitting by itself is also seen as an insult in most countries, and exaggerated spitting which becomes pseudo-vomiting is also common over a wide range.
In the United States there is joking insult which consists of lifting the trouser-leg as if treading carefully in deep manure, and another in which imaginary dung is shovelled over the shoulder.
In England there is the popular fecal insult which involves pulling an imaginary lavatory chain while holding the nose with the other hand. A simpler version of this - holding the nose as if protecting oneself from a bad smell - is widely recognized as a strong insult.
In Italy, the tirare-saliva - "throwing-the-saliva" - gestue is a threatening insult in which the hand "pulls" saliva from the mouth and throws it ast the insulted person.
Because of their basic nature, most of these dirt signals can be understood by people who do not use them and who may never ecounted them before. But there is one, in particular, that puzzles foreigners when they see it for the first time. This is the Greek moutza gesture.
Superficially it looks rather harmless - like someone saying "go back" with a movement of their hand - but when performed by Greek to Greek it carries a savagely insulting meaning, harking back to the ancient practice of thrusting filth into the face of a helpless prisoner. Today, in its token form, it has several degrees of intensity: The mildest consists of a half-handed thrust, using only the first two fingers (go half way to hell); the standard form is the one-handed version (go all the way to hell); and the extra-strong version is the double-handed thrust (go twice to hell). In a sitting position, and in a slightly jokey mood, it is possible to employ one or even both feet as additional thrusters (go three or four times to hell).
Because of the importance of the moutza insult gesture in Greece, other hand actions which resemble it have to be advoided, a fact not always appreciated by foreign visitors who may use a simple Hand Repel action as a friendly refusal, only to find that its impacat is startling and the reactions to its inexplicable.