This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue.
Sometimes, a “social” interaction is closer to being anti-social, and you want to make it clear what you think of the person you’re talking to. You could resort to any of the insults or imprecations you learned growing up, and it’s likely they’ll provide some level of emotional release… but will your target actually understand them and take them as intended?
If your target is from a cultural background related to your own, it’s likely, though not guaranteed, that you’ll have a common base of insults, differing only in details of phrasing and perhaps intensity of reaction. The old standbys of scatological, sexual, and maternal insults will probably be useful in some form. But what if your target doesn’t work from the same set of core cultural and/or biological assumptions? Are your insults going to be meaningful, and understood emotionally as insults?
If you craft your insults to the person, based on their own likes and dislikes, their skills and their weaknesses, you can often have some measure of the effect you desire – but be aware that this can backfire on you; for example, attempting to insult a professional singer with a large fan following and many sales of recordings by asserting that they can’t sing may be turned around to say more about your appreciation (or lack thereof) of True Art, or the acuity of your hearing, than about the singer’s ability.
The best insults you can ‘throw’ at someone are those which show that you are familiar with their culture and cultural assumptions (or culturally-based fears). For example, calling a Russian “некультурный” (pronounced approximately ‘nyeh cool-tour-knee’ and meaning ‘uncultured’) has a larger negative impact on them than calling an American (U.S.-style) an ‘uncultured lout’ after a social ‘goof’, because there is an (unacknowledged, even strongly denied) undercurrent of what is best called ‘cultural inferiority’ running throughout Russian culture.
It’s possible to overdo it, however; consider how in U.S. political discourse it has become essentially meaningless for one person to call another a ‘Nazi’ or a ‘Communist’. Those terms have been thrown around so much and so inappropriately that they’ve lost most of their negative connotations when used as insults.
A mistake that is easy to make is to seize on some characteristic of your target, and then applying your own cultural assumptions to that characteristic, without considering whether that assumption is appropriate within their culture. This is true of both humans and aliens, on either side of the insult – a Vargr who is unfamiliar with the long history of the association between humans and dogs is unlikely to recognize being called ‘Fido’ as an insult; the human unfamiliar with the Vargr preoccupation with Charisma might not take umbrage at a comment about not being able to convince anyone to follow them.
If, however, you instead focus on your target’s important social constructs, an insult can be quite provocative – a male Aslan of any position will not react well to being told that he is a better technician than a warrior (and his sister the engineer will similarly not take it well if you assert that she’s a better warrior than a technician). This plays to the very rigid separation between gender roles in Aslan society; even Outcasts who perforce have had to learn skills that are culturally inappropriate to their gender will never openly acknowledge it.
Be careful about which cultural characteristics you focus on, however – something that is “typical” may not be fundamental, and playing an insult off it may miss your intended mark. On the other hand, if you choose a characteristic that is too fundamental, you run the risk of a stronger reaction than you anticipated. The nature – or perhaps one should call it the ‘direction’ – of the insult can also be important; even if you pick a key characteristic and use it, if you imply something that is too far outside your target’s cultural bounds, the attempted insult may just be met by incomprehension.
On the other side of the coin is the unintentional insult, which can also arise from a lack of cultural (and/or linguistic) knowledge. An example from the present-day Middle East is – even accidentally – showing the bottom of your shoe (or foot!) to someone else. In the Traveller milieu, a Vargr might have an intellectual appreciation of the physical characteristics that make a human woman desirable as a mate, but most human women likely wouldn’t take it well if the Vargr signalled that appreciation by suggesting that he wouldn’t mind if she would ‘whelp a litter by him’, even if she might appreciate a human male telling her ‘I want you to bear my child’. This type of insult can be very insidious, and the person giving insult may even be doing what he/she thinks is a normal, innocuous action.