Verbal Attack Patterns

by | March 25, 2016 |

Last week at the Y I met a woman named Laura. We struck up a conversation, and among other things Laura mentioned she’d begun to do tai chi again after a thirty-year hiatus.

She told me how she didn’t like her tai chi teacher of thirty years ago and hadn’t found another class in the meantime. She went on to say, “That teacher thirty years ago was strange. It was like she didn’t want beginners. I was a beginner. When I came to class for my third time, the teacher looked at me and said, ‘Oh, look, she even bought tai chi shoes.’ After that I didn’t go back.”

Normally I don’t get into big discussions of verbal behavior with people I meet for the first time. But this “Oh, look, she even bought tai chi shoes” was too juicy for me to pass up. Laura was clearly hurt by the teacher’s comment and rather bewildered by it, since she mentioned it to a perfect (but sympathetic) stranger thirty years after the fact.

I told her that I’m a linguist. I mentioned Suzette Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, and I pointed out to Laura that she had been the victim of a Verbal Attack Pattern (VAP), such as Elgin describes them.

VAPs pack a punch because the attacks are not in overtly ugly words. They’re in the presuppositions and thus they are hard to pin down. That’s what makes them so sneaky. Elgin says the first step in dealing with a VAP is to realize you’re under attack.

Here’s a VAP group:

“Even if you do forget my birthday, I’ll still love you.”

“Don’t you even care if the neighbors are laughing at us?”

“Even you should know proper MLA citation.”

The seemingly innocent word even is doing the damage:

“Even if you do forget my birthday (which you’re going to do because you’re an uncaring partner), I’ll still love you.”

“Don’t you even care (you really don’t care) if the neighbors are laughing at us?”

“Even you (who’s no great shakes as a student) should know proper MLA citation.”   

“Oh, look, she even bought tai chi shoes” translates to “She doesn’t know what she’s doing, but she made an effort to make it look like she does.”

Another VAP has the form of “If you really ….”, as in “If you really cared about your health, you wouldn’t eat junk food.” Presupposition: you don’t care about your health.

Then there’s the infamous “If you really loved me, you’d ….” Presupposition: you don’t love me.

True story: an older gentleman on a dating site fell in love with a supposed beauty in another country. Upon his arrival in that country, she texted him at his hotel and asked him to accept a package from someone in the lobby and then take it to another location. Since he had just arrived and was tired and wanted to go to bed – he had not even (!) met her yet – he texted back that he would do it in the morning.

After some texting back and forth, the supposed beauty attacked him with: “If you really loved me….”

It worked. He went down to the lobby, did was he was told to do … and got arrested for drug trafficking.

The person who told me the story is the lawyer who defended the scammed man against some of the legal ramifications in this country of his arrest in the foreign country. The lawyer told me the story knowing I’m a romance writer, and he wondered if any of the characters in my books ever used a “If you really loved me” line.

I told him about VAPs and assured him no positive character in a book of mine would use such a verbal attack.

It’s difficult to believe the scammed man became infatuated with a person he never met. Nevertheless in 2015 victims were bilked out of $200 million on dating sites.

See Kate Murphy’s “Online Dating, Sextortion and Scams”

Recognizing a VAP when you hear one can have bigger consequences than deciding whether to return to a tai chi class or not. If you ever hear or read “If you really loved me” you’re on your way to being parted from your heart, your money, your good name or all three. Run the other way.


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This post was written by Julie Andresen

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