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What Is Verbal Harassment?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Verbal harassment is language that is directed at another person that causes that person harm, typically in an emotional or psychological sense. Calling a person names, making him or her feel useless, or otherwise diminishing a person's self-worth can all be forms of verbal harassment. This type of harassment is recognized as a serious offense, but unlike physical forms of harassment, it is very difficult to collect evidence that attests to the existence of verbal abuse. Recording the abuse or finding witnesses may be the only solution to the problem if a verbal harassment case must be pursued.

Interpersonal activities usually involve communication, and most societies have certain rules that govern what types of communication are appropriate in any situation. Harassment of the verbal type flaunts these rules and uses words to injure a target victim. Most victims recognize that the words themselves are not harming them, but the fact that the abuser feels that he or she has a right to speak to the victim this way is often even more damaging. The reasons that this type of harassment is effective even when threats are not made are complex, but it is safe to say that the repetitive nature of the abuse makes it particularly disheartening for the victim.

Most workplaces and other institutions have rules about this type of harassment that outline measures that can be taken to punish the abuser. When verbal harassment occurs outside a workplace, though, it can be difficult to prosecute the perpetrator. It is easier to reduce the harassment when it occurs in a specific form, like over the telephone, or when it involves actual threats of violence. Usually, the abuser can be punished with a restraining order that limits the type of communication he or she may have with the victim.

What types of language constitute verbal harassment varies by area and culture, and even within the same city two different people might have two very different ideas about what constitutes appropriate speech. For example, in some cultures it is common for superiors to disparage workers in aggressive ways, while in others, this behavior would be considered unacceptable. Even language that might be meant to be inclusive, such as certain diminutives or racially loaded names, can have different effects on different listeners. For these reasons, it is important to communicate discomfort to the person someone believes is speaking in a harassing manner, as he or she may be doing so with perfectly good intentions. Often a solution to verbal harassment is as simple as explaining why the words are hurtful and asking the person to stop.

How Do I Know If I’ve Been Verbally Harassed?

Unlike physical harassment, verbal harassment is primarily psychologically harmful. It can consist of any verbal communication that causes psychological harm. Name-calling, threats, and harmful jokes can all be types of verbal harassment.

Verbal harassment can make you feel intimidated, humiliated, diminished, or demeaned. Being a victim of persistent verbal harassment can impair your ability to function in everyday life and take a serious toll on your mental wellbeing.

Most workplaces have rules against verbal harassment. While persistent verbal harassment can be devastating to a person’s self-esteem, it can be difficult to prove verbal harassment has happened, especially if it was done in private. Verbal harassment may or may not include threats.

While some verbal harassment is direct and easy to recognize, many people use verbal harassment in indirect or sneaky ways that may make you wonder if you’ve been verbally harassed at all. You might think you’re in the wrong for feeling harmed, or maybe that you’re overreacting. However, a feeling of being harmed is a key indicator of verbal harassment.

No matter what form the verbal harassment takes, if you feel harmed by something someone said, you might want to tell them you were offended by their words. This might be sufficient to get them to stop. However, if they persist in attacking you, you may wish to take further measures, such as asking a court for a restraining order.

Some cases of verbal harassment are prosecutable and can lead to civil liability. A person found guilty of violating verbal harassment laws may be subject to probation, community service, fines, or jail time. If you wish to hold someone else accountable for damages caused by verbal harassment, you need to prove both that the harassment happened and that you can quantify the damages done to you. Without a recording or a witness, it can be especially difficult to prove verbal harassment occurred, and you need to prove that the damages you seek were directly caused by the harassment. In addition, if such a case is to be pursued in a criminal context, the person whom you wish to accuse of verbal harassment must be doing so intentionally.

Not all language that makes you feel harmed can be considered verbal harassment. For example, criticism in itself is not necessarily verbal harassment, even if you feel harmed by it.

What Are Some Verbal Harassment Examples?

Accusations can be a form of verbal harassment. This type of verbal harassment can be subtle and make you question whether you’ve done something wrong. For example, “You’ve been talking to Chris a lot. Is there something going on between you two I should know about?”

Threats are a more obvious form of verbal harassment. A threat can intimidate or instill fear in you. “If I’m not satisfied by your work on this project, I’ll have to reconsider your future at this company” might be an example of a threat.

Insults can be demeaning. A co-worker might say, “I can’t make this any simpler to understand, so I’m sorry if you still don’t get it” is an insult that is intended to make you question your intelligence or competence.

Name-calling can be either obvious or subtle, as all forms of name-calling can be harmful, even if the name being used is said in a neutral or joking context. “You’re still working on the same thing, you dunce” is name-calling and can be harmful no matter how it’s said. Other names might be comments on the way you talk or dress. This is a form of shaming.

Any use of slurs can be verbal harassment. Slurs may be used to insult your ethnicity, nationality, gender, or language, for instance.

Jokes can be especially subtle ways to conceal verbal harassment. If you point out that the words of the other person are harmful or offensive, they may respond that they were just joking, or suggest that you’re being oversensitive.

What Is Verbal Harassment vs Verbal Abuse?

The distinction between verbal harassment and verbal abuse can be confusing, as there is no legal difference between verbal harassment and verbal abuse. Harassment, as a noun, describes the attack itself. Abuse refers to the improper use or treatment of something. If someone says to you, “Is it OK for you to admit you’re a Muslim?” the statement itself is harassment, but the abuse refers to how “Muslim” is used negatively in this context.

In most instances, verbal harassment and verbal abuse can be used interchangeably. The more proper term to use, however, is verbal harassment, which encompasses verbal abuse.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1006726 — On May 09, 2022

I was verbally harassed in college for plagiarism on Zoom in front of my classmates. The night in 2021 that it happened I was an emotional wreck and almost wanted to drop the class entirely. But I had to get through it in order to graduate. I never told anyone about this.

The aftermath was awful and 2021 was the worst year of my life. No one wanted to partner up with me on assignments and I was intentionally targeted for this. I never reported it because I did not want to add more fuel to the fire. My mom almost wanted to write a letter to the president as well but that did not happen. There is a song called That's Hilarious by Charlie Puth and whenever I listen to it, it reminds me of that hellish situation that I went through and when I think about it, I cry. But it also makes me emotionally stronger as well. I also realized that just because I messed up, that does not mean that I am a bad person. On the bright side, I pushed through it and never gave up.

By anon329236 — On Apr 08, 2013

So, sexual harassment seems to be easier to prove than verbal harassment. I have been working for the same company for several years. In the last eight months, one of my bosses has become more verbally abusive to me. He is very belittling, and treats me as a lesser than.

I leave my job crying or sit at my desk crying every day. Others acknowledge his behavior, but no one has spoken with him about it. I am a female in her 50's and at this age, it's sad to say but true: the young generation is looked to more than the Baby Boomer generation.

I've been with this company for 17 years. I know that if I hired an attorney that as your article says, verbal abuse is hard to prove and my co-workers/supervisors know about the abuse but would they acknowledge it? No, it is the white elephant in the room and it is smashing the life out of me.

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