The Verbal Abuser’s Sneaky Tactics

Never underestimate the power of speech.

Posted Mar 30, 2018

Prasit Rodphan/Shutterstock
Source: Prasit Rodphan/Shutterstock

Words can injure. If a person verbally abuses you, their words are intended to control you or harm you. This kind of abuse is also known as verbal bullying. The real underlying motive behind the intention to injure you is to gain or retain control over you or to prevent you from getting what you deserve (e.g., at work, by making you look bad to your coworkers).

How can words cause injury? The main reason is that words are not just used to describe how things are, but also to perform actions. We do things with words. Sometimes we warn people, sometimes we harm them.

The actions we perform with words are called speech acts. Instances of promising, apologizing, warning, threatening, demanding, ordering, joking, teasing, belittling, undermining, blaming, criticizing, humiliating, insulting, degrading, and so on, are all speech acts (they are called speech acts even if you don't use verbal speech, but communicate in writing, via sign language, or by using conventional facial expressions or body language). 

Whenever you say something, you perform one or more speech act. If you say, “There is a bull behind the fence," you may be warning the listener not to enter the fenced area, or you may be making a promise, which you could also have expressed more explicitly by saying, “There is a bull behind the fence, I promise. I wouldn’t have made you walk this far if there wasn’t.” 

“I promise that there is a bull behind the fence!” and “I am warning you not to enter!” are direct speech acts, because they make it clear what your words are doing.

When you just say, “There is a bull behind the fence,” this is called an indirect speech act, because you are not explicitly saying what act you are doing with your words.

You can also say that you are doing one thing with your words, but at the same time be doing something you are not explicitly mentioning. For example, you can use "I am telling you that there was a bull behind the fence" to inform (a direct speech act) and to issue a warning (an indirect speech act).

Passive-Aggressive Manipulation

People who use speech to manipulate sometimes take a passive-aggressive approach. Their remarks are meant to make you do or behave in a particular way without ever asking you. Some examples:

  • "The dishes are dirty.”
  • “The car is almost out of gas.”
  • “Are you still watching that? My show starts in 10 minutes.”
  • "If you really loved me, you’d stay here with me instead of going out with your friends.”
  • "Don’t you love me? Then why won’t you go see the movie with me?”

Indirect speech acts are, of course, not always instances of verbal abuse, and not all passive-aggressiveness is a kind of verbal abuse, as passive-aggressiveness often isn’t verbal at all.

Defining Your Inner Reality/Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a different type of manipulation that is intended to define the feelings of the targeted person, making them question their senses, memory, and sanity.

  • "There’s no reason for you to feel that way.”
  • “You are too sensitive."
  • “You always feel victimized."
  • “That never happened.”
  • "The sounds you heard last night are probably just in your head."


Disrespecting can take the form of anger outbursts, name calling, harsh language, or rude interruptions. Here are some examples:

  • "Shut the f*** up!"
  • “I don’t give a s*** about your feelings.”
  • “It is none of your goddamn business.”
  • "Do you ever stop talking?”

Character Assassination/Social Undermining

Many verbal abusers will make sure to only threaten or put down their partner when they’re alone. But character assassins are different. They tend to destroy your credibility and reputation by repeatedly calling your personality, character, trustworthiness, or reliability into question in front of others.

  • “I am surprised that you are sick. You don’t really look sick at all.” [conveys that you are feigning sickness]
  • “I saw you yesterday. Where was it? Ah, I saw you enter the liquor store. I think I saw you there earlier this week, too.” [conveys that you have an alcohol problem]
  • You are getting married? Isn’t this your third marriage?" [conveys that you cannot maintain a stable relationship]
  • “Are you not feeling well?” [conveys that you don't look well and may not be on top of things]


Unlike character assassination, condescension is usually done in the absence of an audience. It is intended to undermine your self-worth by trivializing your accomplishments or by questioning your competence, for example, by treating you like a child or imbecile. Some examples:

  • “Sure, your blog post is fine. I just don’t see why you needed to spend all Sunday writing it.”
  • “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  • "See, this is why I have to be the one to handle the money.”
  • “You are too inexperienced to understand what I am talking about.”
  • "How many times do I have to tell you this?”

Discriminating/Showing Prejudice 

Some speech acts are intended to bully people on the basis of their race, gender, nationality, or sexual identity

  • “None of you Cubans can hold down a job.”
  • “People from your country are always late.”
  • “Well, you are a woman. So, it's kind of obvious that you wouldn’t be able to figure this one out.”

Criticizing, Blaming, and Accusing

This type of abuse can proceed by constantly correcting the targeted individual's behavior or by blaming them for whatever happened to the accuser, when in reality, the accuser is responsible for his own actions.

  • "This is all your fault.”
  • “Now see what you’ve done!”
  • "If you knew how to dress at my work functions, I probably would have gotten the promotion." [conveys that your appearance is the reason the speaker failed]
  • You are never satisfied."
  • "You always find something to be upset about."


Threatening speech acts can be direct or indirect. Either way, they convey that something will happen if you don’t comply.

  • “If you don’t start doing what I say, I will leave you.”
  • “If you file for divorce, I will go to court and get custody over the kids.”
  • “If you keep serving me food like this, I guess I will have to find a new wife.”

The trauma of verbal abuse can negatively affect your mental health for a long time. So, if you experience verbal abuse, you should remove or distance yourself from the toxic individual(s) ASAP, if at all possible.