….but we are all fabulous.

Antilocution – sticks and stones may break your bones, but words CAN hurt you too

“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you”– this was a phrase I grew up with – a way of teaching children that teasing was not something to get upset about. The trouble is that it’s just not true – words can and do hurt and worse still they can lead to those sticks and stones as well. “His bark is worse than his bite” is another common saying – it can be true but not in the ‘he’s not as bad as he sounds’ interpretation.


I was first introduced to the term ‘antilocution’ a few weeks ago when some friends from outside academia were discussing how a colleague of those was behaving badly at work. They mentioned that they always warn new colleagues about her and this prompted another friend to explain that by doing so, they may well be contributing to the negative behaviour of the woman in question.

According to the psychologist Gordon Allport, antilocution (badmouthing/bitching/making discriminatory comments etc.) is the first in a series of steps which in worst cases can lead to death. Allport identified 5 stages of prejudice in his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice: antilocution, avoidance, discrimination, physical attack and extermination.  Allport’s Scale is a measure of prejudice in society and is frequently used to explain how prejudice against minority groups can lead to genocide (see this link  for a short ppt presentation by Bedfordshire Police on how the bad-mouthing of Jews led to the extermination of 6 million of them in Nazi Germany and how it currently affects other minority groups).

However, the 5 stages of prejudice Allport identified can also be informative on a smaller scale, such as in playgrounds, the workplace and even families. It starts with antilocution – a bit of supposedly harmless gossip, for example to a new entrant to the environment (new kid at school, new colleague, new in-law) about how an existing member is someone to be careful around or how they are lazy or fat or patronising or whatever. The new person may well feel that they have to join in or laugh along if this is perceived to be the majority view. They are likely to be wary of the absent target or at the very least conscious of them in a way that they would not have been without the gossip. This stage can be halted by challenging or rejecting the gossip – one friend did say that when they recently started at a new job and the gossip started, they said they’d rather not hear it but wait to form their own opinion instead. This may be hard but will probably also engender trust and respect – after all, if you hear someone badmouthing a person when they are absent, it’s not too hard to imagine it will be your turn the next time you are absent.


Antilocution leads to the next stage – avoidance. If the majority or even a significant minority have a negative view of X, they will start modifying their behaviour towards them – avoiding them, not inviting them to social events, or speaking to them in a different way. This has a knock-on effect on X’s behaviour – they might start to become demotivated at work for example – becoming even more ‘lazy’ and perpetuating the cycle. This stage can be halted by challenging X’s behaviour directly if it really is a problem, rather than gossiping and avoiding, by including rather than excluding, and by effectively making the avoiders the minority so that their behaviour also changes.

If avoidance persists, then discrimination starts to occur. Maybe X doesn’t get to hear about the same opportunities at work or they aren’t invited to be on the sports team or whatever. They start to be significantly disadvantaged by the prejudice around them. By now it doesn’t matter if they are indeed lazy or difficult or patronising, by now they are also a victim of prejudice.

In the more extreme cases, physical attacks may ensue – physical bullying in the playground for example before finally extermination occurs, which in the case of an individual might be murder but might also be considered to be constructive dismissal, resignation or suicide as this news story from 1998 demonstrates: “Choirboy hanged himself after years of bullying”

In the past, I confess I have been guilty of anti-locution (I have also been a victim of it but that’s another story). Of bad-mouthing a colleague or acquaintance who was the butt of everyone’s jokes. It always left a nasty taste in my mouth, but I often got carried along with the laughter my comments inspired and the feeling that I was one of the in-crowd. Shallow of me I know, but embarrassingly true. Over the past few years I have been trying to distance myself from that behaviour and the people who indulge in it, but it was not until I was introduced to the term antilocution that I realised the potential harm I had previously contributed to.

So what is the answer – well, there are lots of more appropriate well known phrases out there such as “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. A good rule of thumb might be to not say anything about a person you wouldn’t be happy to say to their face. If you encounter others badmouthing a person, either challenge it or refuse to join in. If X is really exhibiting unacceptable behaviour such as being lazy or difficult or patronising, then this should be challenged by you or a teacher, manager or trusted family member rather than becoming the subject of behind their back conversations.

I know first hand that it can be lonely and distressing being excluded and knowing you are the butt of other people’s jokes and comments. It’s incumbent upon us all to stop it happening.


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