A friend was complaining the other day that he had slighted someone at a party – insulted him, in fact – but the next time they met the person carried on as if nothing had happened. My friend was upset. What is the point in insulting someone, he wanted to know, if that someone didn’t realise he was being insulted?
The reverse also happens. You say or do something normal, almost boring, and the other person takes offence; insults are exchanged online, other people are dragged into it, and all because of a misinterpretation.
There ought to be a rule book. Is it an insult if, as you approach someone in a gathering with a ready hello and an outstretched hand, he waves to someone at the other end of the room, says, "Excuse me" and disappears? Sixty-six per cent of those polled (well, two of three friends, actually) thought this counted as an insult; the other was sure it was nothing of the sort.
If people don’t remember your name is it a slight? Does it suggest you have an eminently forgettable face or merely that the other person is showing signs of memory loss. An insult, then, one way or another.
The best place to watch the slighted and the insulted interact (or not) is at family weddings. Uncles and aunts avoiding other uncles and aunts, passive aggressive cousins taking on other passive aggressive cousins ("I would have spoken to you if you weren’t so stuck up. You look down on people like us"), long-lost relatives wondering why they didn’t remain lost for longer, sisters turning their backs to each other – it’s a treat for the outsider who doesn’t really give a rodent’s donkey.
I heard someone ask the mother of the bride at one wedding: "Where’s your sister?" The reply, "Oh! She is travelling," was met with those two words that explain everything: "Family politics?"
Much is also made of the seating arrangement at wedding receptions. Twelve degrees off, and its an insult; but of course there is nothing more deliberately insulting as finding yourself behind a pillar among the family’s ‘losers’, which usually means in a crowd of the unwed, jobless, shelved folk. No words are necessary then.
When you have, over the years, built up a reputation as the guy who loves to insult people, then people are insulted if you don’t insult them. There’s a wonderful story of a couple meeting Groucho Marx. The husband tells him, "My wife is dying for you to say something insulting about her." To which Groucho responds with, "You should be ashamed of yourself. With a face like that you should be able to think up your own insults."
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