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How Verbal Abusers Exploit Conversational Norms

* I generally write using the pronouns he/him when referring to narcissists, but females are just as likely to be narcissists or exhibit narcissistic traits. So please don't think just because article uses the word him or he that it could not be a woman in that same role.

Within what is considered ‘normal’ conversational principles, by which we mean the agreed upon terms by which we all communicate and treat one another, there are various ways that verbal abusers can exploit these rules to achieve dominance. Keep reading to understand How Verbal Abusers Exploit Conversational Norms.

How Verbal Abusers Exploit Conversational Norms

To understand how this can occur, it is important to get a sense of these terms, and what exactly we value in a conversation. 

Conversational Maxims

Within normal conversation, there are four predominant (yet unconscious) rules we all (mostly) try to stick to. These are: quality, quantity, relevance, and manner. 


This refers to the validity of what you are saying – such as something that you know (or believe) to be true, and which you can back up with sufficient evidence. 

Now whilst we can always be wrong, or misinterpret something in the wrong way, by and large we try to communicate what we perceive to be facts.

This is because we stand to get the most benefit from communicating correct information, particularly if it is pertaining to ourselves, our loved ones, or the situation at hand. 


This is the size of our contribution to a specific conversation, and the appropriateness of it in the specific instance. 

For example, if you converse with a stranger at the bus stop, and they happen to make an idle, throw away comment about the weather, then it would be considered unusual for you to then go on a long diatribe about your personal situation. 

Similarly, using too much dialogue in a transactional or official capacity (such as a store or doctor’s office) could be inappropriate for the setting. 


When someone says something to us, the conventionally accepted way to respond is to build on what they have said and communicate something that is relevant to the conversation. 

If someone said something and you replied with a completely unrelated reply, then that wouldn’t be relevant to the conversation, and would get you strange looks from the person you are talking to. 


Our manner is the efficiency of the way we communicate information to another person.

This involves the avoidance of cryptic expressions, obscure references, and ambiguous statements that neither apply to the conversation, answer the question of the other person, or benefit the conversation in any way. 

Verbal Abuse In Conversation

Of course, within these considered conversational norms, there are many ways that verbal abusers will exploit them for personal gain or power. 

Verbal Abuse of ‘Quality’

Verbal Abuse of ‘Quality’

Self Help For PTSD/CPTSD- Steps to Start Your Recovery

With regards to quality, there are many ways that verbal abusers might try to exploit the conversation. 


While sarcasm can often be a source of humor when done playfully, it can also be used as a tool to make someone feel stupid, ignorant, or silly. 

This can take the form of abusive language, or personal insults based on physical or verbal actions.

Both of these are used to make the other person feel ‘small’, and are common tools used by abusers. 


Making something seem unimportant or trivial is a commonly used weapon by verbal abusers.

This can be used to lessen a person’s achievements, undermine their ability to function on their own, or make their complaint seem like an overreaction. 


Belittling is a personal attack which aims to make the recipient feel small or insignificant.

Many abusers will use belittling to break down someone’s self esteem and confidence, and make them believe cruel mistruths about themselves, their appearance, or their abilities – for example making a skinny person feel overweight, or a perfectly intelligent person feel inferior. 


Undermining violates the maxim of quality by criticizing your suggestions or ideas.

This is another tool for control, and is designed for them to get their own way by reducing your own confidence in your ideas. 


Gaslighting is perhaps the most cruel of all of these violations, and involves one person making another believe false information about themselves, convincing them they have done something they haven’t, or otherwise making them feel like they are losing their mind, and their understanding of themselves or a situation. 

This occurs a lot in toxic relationships, and can be quite damaging to a person and their mental wellbeing. 

Verbal Abuse Of ‘Quantity’

The main way of violating this maxim is through the withholding of attention, interest, or information. 


If a person goes into a lot of detail about a certain topic that is important to them, and you barely give them anything back in response, then this could be seen as purposely withholding enthusiasm and interest. 

Verbal Abuse Of ‘Relevance’

This can seem like a difficult one to grasp, but generally revolves around blocking and diverting. 

Blocking & Diverting

This is when someone comes to you wanting to talk about a certain issue, and you shut them down before they can even properly communicate what they are trying to say. 

Whether this is done by shutting them down completely, or simply diverting the conversation into one where you have the power and dominance, is entirely dependent on the situation. 

Verbal Abuse Of ‘Manner’

Abusers may violate this maxim by using pretentious language to make those around them feel unintelligent or inferior.

This is a common tactic used by abusers, and can be seen commonly as a way of boasting, or establishing dominance amongst mixed groups. 

The abuse of ‘manner’ can also be used by gaslighters, responding with unrelated information to make them think that they were not communicating effectively. 

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, everything you need to know about the maxims of normal conversations, and the ways that verbal abusers will exploit them to gain power within a conversation. 

It is important to note that if you are experiencing any of this, that this isn’t acceptable behavior, you don’t deserve to experience this, and that there are groups out there that can help if you think you might need it.

Emergency Numbers

Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) is the nation’s largest organization fighting sexual violence: (800) 656-HOPE / (800) 810-7440 (TTY)

988 Mental Health Emergency Hotline: Calling 988 will connect you to a crisis counselor regardless of where you are in the United States.

911 Emergency

The National Runaway Safeline: 800-RUNAWAY (800-786-2929)

Self Abuse Finally Ends (S.A.F.E)

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Trauma & Child Abuse Resource Center

Domestic Violence Shelters & Resources

Futures Without Violence

National Center for Victims of Crime

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

National Network to End Domestic Violence

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

Prevent Child Abuse America

Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (SPARC)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine: 1-800-950-NAMI, or text “HELPLINE” to 62640. Both services are available between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. ET, Monday–Friday

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255); www.suicidepreventionlifeline.orgOr, just dial 988

Suicide Prevention, Awareness, and Support: www.suicide.org

Crisis Text Line: Text REASON to 741741 (free, confidential and 24/7). In English and Spanish

Self-Harm Hotline: 1-800-DONT CUT (1-800-366-8288)

Family Violence Helpline: 1-800-996-6228

American Association of Poison Control Centers: 1-800-222-1222

National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependency: 1-800-622-2255

LGBTQ Hotline: 1-888-843-4564

National Maternal Mental Health Hotline: 1-833-TLC-MAMA (1-833-852-6262)

The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 678678. Standard text messaging rates apply. Available 24/7/365. (Provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning—LGBTQ—young people under 25.)

The SAGE LGBT Elder Hotline connects LGBT older people and caretakers with friendly responders. 1-877-360-LGBT (5428)

The Trans Lifeline is staffed by transgender people for transgender people:
1-877-565-8860 (United States)
1-877-330-6366 (Canada)

Veterans Crisis Line: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net

International Suicide Prevention Directory: findahelpline.com

The StrongHearts Native Helpline is a confidential and anonymous culturally appropriate domestic violence and dating violence helpline for Native Americans, available every day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT. Call 1-844-762-8483.

‘Find a Therapist’ Online Directories


UK & Republic of Ireland

  • Emergency: 112 or 999
  • Hotline: +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90 (UK – local rate)
  • Hotline: +44 (0) 8457 90 91 92 (UK minicom)
  • Hotline: 1850 60 90 90 (ROI – local rate)
  • Hotline: 1850 60 90 91 (ROI minicom)
  • YourLifeCounts.org: https://yourlifecounts.org/find-help/

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