Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Being Called a Cocksucker Isn't Personal

I caught up with a former pupil, now very good friend, last night. I raised a particular issue to which he referred to a scene from Partick Swayze's Roadhouse movie:
We've got entirely too many troubIemakers here. Too many 40-year-old adolescents, feIons, power drinkers and trustees of modern chemistry.
I would like to say welcome to the 21st century, but the movie was made in the 20th century, and unfortunately it is reflective of human nature throughout history and that of the foreseeable future.
It's going to change.

Man, that sure sounds good.

But a lot of the guys who come in here, we can't handle one-on-one. Even two-on-one.

Don't worry about it. All you have to do is follow three simple rules.

One: never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected.

Two: take it outside. Never start anything inside the bar unless it's absoluteIy necessary.

And three: be nice.

Come on.

If somebody gets in your face and calls you a cocksucker, I want you to be nice. OK. Ask him to waIk, be nice. If he won't walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can't walk him, one of the others will heIp you. And you'll both be nice. I want you to remember that it's a job. It's nothing personaI.

Uh-huh. Being called a cocksucker isn't personal?

No. It's two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response.

What if somebody calls my mama a whore?

Is she?


I want you to be nice ... until it's time to not be nice.
Where this came up was when I was telling my friend that I was watching the football (Australian Rules) when one player deliberately got under the skin of an opposition player who then lost control and punched him. This gave away a free kick resulting in a goal and the offending player lost composure. This is precisely what the niggling player intended.

I didn't understand how professional athletes could lose control when all the other player was doing was mouthing off, aka sledging. I was actually watching the game with another friend, and I said the same thing, to which he replied, 'But you're different to most people.'

Maybe he's right. But this is a lesson that should be numero uno in any activity associated with violence. Martial arts, self defence, security, law enforcement, military - all should be taught not to take other people's words or actions personally. They are just words or actions to elicit a prescribed response. They may be words or actions that are designed to hurt, but they can only hurt if you give them meaning and let them hurt. 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me' - sound advice we give to children through nursery rhymes but which seems to be lost as we grow up. Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me should be a priority in the martial arts, self defence, security, law enforcement, and military training.

These words or actions only become personal when we ascribe meaning to those words or actions and make it personal. Until then, they are just words or actions. An extended middle finger is only an extended middle finger until we ascribe a 'f**k you' meaning to the gesture. Until then, it's just an extended middle finger.

Another football game a couple of years ago. One player tackled another, and as they wrestled on the ground, the tackled player said to the tackling player that he'd f**ked the person who the tackling player had tattooed on his arm. That player went ballistic and had to be forcibly restrained. The tattoo was of his young daughter. So what! They are just words. Words that you know are intended to cause you to lose control. Words that only have meaning if you give them meaning. Until then they are just blah, blah, blah.

Why take these things personally? Only you can make it personal. Until you do, they are just words.

My friend from last night suggested that responding to these words is human nature. If that is true, evolution did us no favours there. Someone calls you whatever, you take it personally, words are exchanged, a fight ensues, pain, injury, death, court cases, victim impact statements saying how they now have a life sentence - they only called you a name. They were just words. Rather than assisting you to survive and reproduce, this 'trait' would appear to be maladaptive. 'It's going to change' - like many self-improvement methodologies, we have to find ways to counter human nature, counter our natural instincts to be idiots. 'Man, that sounds good.'

Provocation is often offered as a defence for why someone assaulted another. They were provoked into assaulting another person because ... they couldn't control your own emotions via the appraisal of the stimuli. The appraisal process elicits the emotion which elicits the behaviour. The defence of provocation is appealing to the lowest denominator of human behaviour. It is encouraging us not to control our emotions via the development of our appraisal process.

On the issue of the provocation defence, raise it at your peril. 'I was provoked'; so was the man that abused his partner, so was the parent that abused their child. We may not agree with the provocation, but it was provoking for those individuals, as it was for those that rely on the provocation defence in more socially acceptable situations.

We have to stand up for ourselves or others we care about. We can't let someone insult us or others we care about. We have pride. They are just words and actions that have no meaning until we give them meaning. If we appraise these words and actions as being benign, they are nothing. There is nothing attacking us or others we care about which we have to defend because we didn't appraise the words or actions as such. There is nothing insulting us or others we care about because we didn't appraise the words or actions as such. Our pride has not been threatened because we didn't appraise the words or actions as such. No feeling nor associated behavioural response was elicited because we appraised these words or actions as benign.

Rule number three - be nice. It's not about pretending to be nice. It's about actually being nice. It's not about teaching how not to respond to provocation. It's about teaching not being provoked; actually not taking things personally. It's about changing mindsets, the appraisal process. It's about changing perception so that provocations are not provocations because they are not made personal by the recipient.

I would like to go into a law enforcement recruit training lecture and say to an indigenous trainee, 'What the fuck do you black c**t think you're doing in this class. It's only for humans not you apes.' Or to a female trainee, 'Piss off b***c. This is men's work and you're too f**king useless to be of any use at all.' This is the sort of abuse they will cop throughout their career. If they let it get to them, it will compromise their effectiveness. I would explain that it's not about putting up with it. It's not about resisting the temptation to retaliate. It is about developing a mindset whereby these words don't elict any temptation to retaliate whatsoever. It is a discipline, but once internalised it no longer means you are an amoeba that simply responds to a stimuli.

Then and only then will you really know when it's time to not be nice.

In the words of Sean Connery from The Untouchables, here endeth the lesson.


  1. Hey John,

    A clue as to why athletes respond to words: because they are trained to!

    First, the words of the coach, the inspirational speech pre-game, or the halftime drubbing down. To hear some athletes speak it was as if coach=god!

    Plus (at least in the US) the endless rounds of interviews, especially the "Did you hear what X said about your team? Do you have any comments?" questions.

    Also, again this may be an US thing but I don't think so: before any major championship it is common for coaches to pin to the bulletin board some derogatory comments made by some bonehead on the opposing team to the press. The players then use it to funnel their drive to win...by quite literally hating the other player.

    So - professional sports, even in this era of hyper-professionalism where no one is loyal to a team, it is still fueled by artificial hatred. Is it any surprise that self-imposed hatred turns into real hatred?

  2. You wrote,
    "I would like to go into a law enforcement recruit training lecture and say to an indigenous trainee, 'What the fuck do you black c**t think you're doing in this class. It's only for humans not you apes.' "

    If only we could do the same thing here in America. That kind of racist crap is what police will have to put up with nearly everyday and I think you are illustrating an excellent lesson that they can internalize from Day-One.

    One of your labels is "Emotional Discipline". I think that would be a very good name to a course taught not only to police recruits but to martial artists of all ages and styles.


  3. Thanks guys. Spaceloom - it is interesting how our insecurities are manipulated, not only in sport but also in the real world. Brett - very, very good idea. I use the term 'emotional discipline' to refer to a science discipline, but, as a discipline in and of itself. Very, very good idea.

  4. Rory Miller talks about the concept of 'othering'. A process of seeing the enemy/victim as different/non-human to make it easier to hurt them. It seems to me that provocation is an attempt to 'other' the other person as a prelude to hurting or beating them in competition, particularly provocation of a racial or sexist nature. If you realise that 'othering' is a psychological tool to demean/dehumanise/demoralise you then perhaps it is easier to not take it personally and to resist responding to it? I think that understanding the psychology of violence is so important in martial arts. It would be easier to discipline oneself emotionally if you understood the psychology of your 'enemies'. Perhaps this should be taught as part of Brett's proposed 'emotional discipline' course....

  5. First, Roadhouse is still one of my favorite movies. Guilty.

    Secondly, it is an art and skill in and of itself to not take the bait. Easier said than done, but ultimately useful. Realizing that the words of a stranger have no power unless you give it to them is hard to swallow, but once understood, the offending person becomes almost comical. If you can somewhat detach yourself from the words, you can see what a small person they are, frantically trying to string together sounds and letters hoping to control you.

    In this type of situation, I've often said words like "Good one", or "Wow, you really got me", essentially making fun of them. In truth, this sometimes escalates instead of calming things, but it's an exercise of power. They get mad that it didn't work. Years of experimentation have led to the discovery that completely ignoring the words leads to the power being taken away more effectively. More often than not, the other person gives up because they end up looking like a jackass spouting off all on their own.

    As for Sue's comments, it is easier to cause harm to someone you've demeaned/dehumanized/demoralized. There is evidence of this in war time, in sports and in violence. It's a good observation.

    Great post. There is no power to words unless you give it to them.

    Try this - Imagine they are speaking another language you don't understand. Then see how foolish they look. Kind of like and angry chicken, clucking away, scratching at the earth (at least that's what I see).

    Good post and comments.

  6. This has proved to be one of my more popular posts.

    To correct my previous comment, I don't refer to 'emotional discipline' but 'emotion discipline' which refers to the science studying emotions. However, I really like the term 'emotional discipline'. Instead of stress training, stress inoculation training, fear inoculation training, and anger management, I can have a broader all encompassing emotional discipline training program. Thanks.

    J-man, thanks for the encouragement. Yeah, I agree that those type of responses can escalate the situation. Sometimes, when you've learnt to not take what another says personally you then have to become disciplined enough not to respond in demeaning manner. I agree wholeheartedly that when you do not react, and that means really not reacting rather than controlling yourself, it takes away all the power of the aggressor. When you're controlling yourself, even though you're not reacting, it's still seen and is a response that the words or actions were designed to elicit.

    I do like your chicken talk method. While I've developed the idea and discipline, I haven't gone so far as to develop ways and means for this discipline to be taught or enacted other than to say don't take it personally.

    Sue, as the J-man suggests, very insightful about dehumanising a possible target of violence.

  7. “I am nice to you, not because you are a nice person but because I am.” Not sure who said that, but I like it.

    Ah Roadhouse. “Well, is she?” A true classic and the scene you refer to has an almost zen koan like quality to it. Your friend is truly wise.

    This is a very interesting subject. Do words have any inherent meaning? Well not, as you point out, unless we ascribe meaning to them. I agree with that notion completely and it is a cornerstone of psychology: that is, we create our own realities and have control over how we react to external stimuli.

    An interesting - if not obvious - question to ask is: why? Why do people react to words if they have no inherent meaning? Even a physiological or evolutionary explanation doesn’t really help in a practical way - ie we can’t really do much about it. Perhaps we react to words because we are conditioned to do so.

    Most of us have a lifetime of conditioning telling us that words do actually have inherent meaning. To overcome such conditioning is very difficult and requires ongoing practice in tolerance, mindfulness and insight. I question whether the majority of people out there are really equipped to do that.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a worthy goal and we should still try to live like that even though it is hard. However, my point is that a lifetime of conditioning sometimes takes a lifetime to overcome. This in turn suggests that we should be emphasizing such “training” early in schools (which is actually happening to a limited extent in response to the bullying problem).

    Another good lesson from Roadhouse is the notion that we should remain nice until the time comes not to be nice. We have a choice in how we react. We can choose to respond or not. Again a tough but worthy goal to work towards. One that martial arts can play a part once we move past all the kicking and punching and train to be better people.

    Great blog John.


  8. Ash - true friend indeed. And, a professional comment. Thank you. Re how did I become so 'enlightened' that I don't take it personally. I remember as a high school student who was asked to stay at a fare stall for security (why is another question). I encountered three chaps after the fare had closed and they confronted me and suggested I was a 'wanker'. I explained that technically I was. After I dusted myself off from the flower stall I had been throwen into, I realised I didn't care either way. No training whatsoever. How do we train others to not take this stuff personally? That is the question, and one which has practical rather than philisophical value.

  9. I had an additional thought about 'why words hurt'...

    I remember reading or hearing that people in the US (where my poorly remember 'statistic' is based) will fight tooth an nail for the stupidest reasons; all having to do with saving face.

    In other words "Honor".

    And that got me thinking, because I would decidedly state that the US is NOT an "honor-oriented" society. Meaning that we, as a people, do not make our daily decisions based on how it will reflect on ourselves, our family, our group, our town, our...etc.

    And yet, to have our honor offended causes many to engage in needless fights and potential murder in the eyes of the courts.

    Perhaps I am wrong though. Perhaps evolutionary programming and it has more to do with the perception of diminished social value and thus diminished mating potential. Maybe it's all written into our bones. Or maybe honor and mating potential are two halves of the same coin?

    - Brett


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.