It’s arguably easier now than any other point in history to be insulted. Tone gets lost in translation over text and email. Social media is a breeding ground for backhanded compliments (“You look great, I didn’t recognize you!”). General online incivility runs rampant in Twitter debates and comment sections.
While technology may be shepherding in a particularly nasty age, humans have long been concerned with how to cope with insults. It can often feel like the only good response is a zinger — we love a takedown, a good clapback, a commitment to standing up for yourself in the face of a cutting remark. But arguing online isn’t exactly great for your mental and emotional health — and for the sake of both your time and your psyche, it might be in your best interest to pause and imagine a different way. And, perhaps, to look to the past for inspiration.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the Stoics, a group of philosophers who preached the value of emotional resilience — and whose teachings have plenty of modern-day devotees — urged adherents to let insults go. “Many have taken small injuries much more seriously to heart than they need,” wrote the Stoic philosopher Seneca. “The best revenge,” advised fellow Stoic and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, “is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
The Stoic approach is just one of many ideas for how to handle conflict, but there’s one element of their philosophy that feels particularly applicable in these insult-happy times. The Stoics weren’t pushovers — they just knew that not all insults were created equal. And most importantly, they knew how to decide which ones to ignore and which to take to heart.
“Insults will be especially painful if they are delivered by people we like and respect,” says Nicholas Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne — something that’s as true now as it was in the Stoics’ heyday. Imagine, for example, the difference in emotional reaction between having someone yell profanities as they cut you off in traffic, and realizing the driver is your mother-in-law. Or bringing a home-cooked dish to a potluck and hearing another guest remark that it’s oversalted…