The Entertaining One-Upmanship of the Zinger

Big Bird. Horses & Bayonets. Romnesia.

Tangy Verbal Punch


What’s the psychology behind zingers? Why do we love these verbal punches, these pithy “gotchas” so much? Isn’t a zinger just a veiled insult?

Don’t get me wrong – I love a good zinger. They’re the savory, spicy, falsely sweet, amuse-bouche of conversation. Zingers can help you win the battle, push back with a twist of wit and humor.
A zinger can be a sort of verbal guerilla warfare, a slyly creative intimidation – and it’s entertaining to boot.

It’s great when our hero beats the crap out of the villain and then gives him a succinct verbal lashing, effectively saying, “I’m not only righteous, strong, and a bad-ass… I’m smart, superior, and you’re a dumb-ass for thinking you could challenge me and win.” From Batman Begins:

Enormous Prisoner: You are in hell, little man!
[punches Bruce Wayne]
Enormous Prisoner: And I am the devil!
[punches him again]
Bruce Wayne: You’re not the devil. You’re practice.

At the same time, we love to love our villians as worthy opponents, real threats with teeth and style. A great Hero/Villian combo is Bruce Willis as officer John McClane and high-class robber Hans Gruber played by Alan Rickman in Diehard.

Hans Gruber: …you have me at a loss. You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?
John McClane: Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really like those sequined shirts.
Hans Gruber: Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?
John McClane: Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.

Zingers can be very satisfying and it feels good to identify with the person who comes out on top in the exchange. A snappy remark that exposes the soft underbelly of the other guy’s position – or better yet – the other guy’s ridiculousness, can expose a whole lot of blather and hot air for what it is. A zinger can drive home a point or take the other guy’s point away in a flash. A well-delivered riposte somehow gives us confidence that we – or the guy we’re rooting for – has a handle on things. The felt truth of a zinger can encapsulate what a long-winded explanation couldn’t. Plus, tallying up the stinging comebacks has become our way of keeping score.

On the flip side, a zinger can distract from the real point of the whole exchange and stop the conversation dead in its tracks in service to one-upmanship. If you’re focused on taking the other guy down – which unfortunately seems to be what our politics have become about in the desperate days right before election day – then not much substantial information comes to light. The dialogue might have energy, but lack in revelation or meaningful insight with which to build understanding.

It seems to me that what we expect and respect on the political stage tells us something about how we handle our personal conflicts. I would bet that most of us have used this tactic of caustic remarks in our arguments with loved ones. When we’re hurt, we want to hurt back.

Zingers help us combat feeling powerless, vulnerable, and transparent. It’s difficult to say your truth with vulnerability instead of humor because it leaves you nowhere to hide emotionally. Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth in the veiled insult of a zinger that might go unsaid otherwise. An unvarnished perspective makes it harder to claim being misunderstood. A straight statement of what you think or feel makes it more difficult to back-pedal or distance yourself with explanations of “what I really meant was…”

I don’t expect the form of our political discourse to change any time soon. We’ll all be – myself included – counting up the clever bon mots to determine which candidate has the heat, the stinging silver tongue, to one-up the other guy and win our confidence and support.  The place we can attempt a meaningful difference is in our personal relationships. What would it be like to forego the half-playful, but-really-true, put-down in favor of a heartful telling of our truth?

Read more by Adele M. Stan–politics.html by Sophie Quinton by Nadja Popovich, Amanda Michel and Ruth Spencer by Jeff Ely by Carl M. Cannon by Clive Crook

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