One of the reactions to people who provoke us is to give them ‘the cold shoulder’. In the dictionaries I consulted, I found that the source of this is Sir Walter Scott. There is no reason explaining its derivation but rather descriptors of what the expression reflects, including words such as aloofness and disdain.

Idioms like this and others – for instance, ‘getting our noses out of joint’ - are vivid in the physical images they conjure up. When we are in conflict we usually show it some way in our bodies and faces and we also pick up signals of other people’s bad moods and negativity by their facial and somatic signs. We may not always have the emotions correct but most of us are able to discern when things are amiss and when those things are directed at us.

For this week’s blog consider two situations – one in which you are experiencing or have experienced someone giving you ‘the cold shoulder’. The other is when you have given someone else ‘the cold shoulder’.

  • How do you describe ‘the cold shoulder’ when someone else demonstrates it?
  • How does ‘the cold shoulder’ impact you at these times?
  • What is the message you ‘read’ or ‘hear’ when you experience ‘the cold shoulder’?
  • What do you say or do, if anything, when someone gives you ‘the cold shoulder’?
  • When you give someone else ‘the cold shoulder’ what does that look like?
  • What reasons may you choose to give ‘the cold shoulder’?
  • What does giving ‘the cold shoulder’ accomplish?
  • What message(s) was (were) you meaning to convey in the situation you have in mind when you gave someone ‘the cold shoulder’?
  • What would be a more effective way to give that message rather than give the ‘cold shoulder’?
  • What would a ‘warm shoulder’ look like?

What other ConflictMastery™ Quest(ions) may you add here?

Originally posted at

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Comment by John C. Turley on July 23, 2012 at 11:05pm

I believe that the cold shoulder is outdated and old fashioned.  I think of Betty Davis movies or the court of Louis XIV when the term comes to mind.  It fuels the plot for a Seinfeld episode with Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George entangled in a series of indirect and direct cold shoulders that lead to a calamitous and uproariously funny ending.  As in most Seinfeld episodes, the plot is based on nothing which characterizes the essence of the cold shoulder.  It is a gesture that has lost most of its intended impact and meaning.

People are much more direct nowadays and adept at the gentle art of verbal offense and defense.  Why use the cold shoulder when one can speak their mind with devastating effect?  I rarely am on the receiving end of the cold shoulder.  Perhaps I am too direct of a person.  Insulted people prefer to take me head on rather than cold shoulder me.  I have been slapped, punched, and kicked more often than cold shouldered.  Was it something I said or is it me?

The cold shoulder is a sign of hurt feelings or an indirect or pointed direct way of saying that another person disapproves of you or your actions.  I also see the cold shoulder as an attempt to embarrass another person in company to make them feel unwanted or not accepted by the group as a whole.  It draws attention to a person or persons as if to ostracize them from the immediate setting as a pariah.  On the other side of the coin, the cold shoulder deliverer must be confident that they can deflect any undue attention upon themselves as a result of their actions.  The cold shoulder demonstrates the power of body language to communicate what a person is really and truly thinking about another.  In this context,the cold shoulder speaks volumes

Usually, I know where I stand with people, so the cold shoulder does not come as a surprise to me.  With me, most people speak their minds and let me know where I stand with them if they are offended by me.  If the cold shoulder is proffered to me, I go on the attack or rather the offensive.  I draw the other person out to tell me directly in company the reason for their behavior. This technique is a type of jujitsu move to turn the insult back onto the other party to see their reaction to a deft side step.  I rarely render a cold shoulder;however, since I refuse to suffer fools, I simply make superficial comments or maintain an air of aloofness.  Usually the recipient of my indifference has done something stupid or thoughtless to offend me or a close friend or family member.  I dismiss them from my life and move on without them.  This is their punishment.  Yes, I admit to being a snob;however, people get the third degree from me when they do dumb things or annoy me.  I tend to walk away from boors and boring people.

The cold shoulder accomplishes nothing.  Amongst men, direct insults are more common.  Avoiding another person is different.  I prefer this behavior vs. the cold shoulder since it is less likely to engage in a confrontation. A more effective method than the cold shoulder is the subtlety of a clever verbal riposte.  "I started reading your book last night.  Once I put it down, I could not pick it up again."  Winston Churchill was a master at deflecting a perceived verbal attack.  I prefer this approach to that of a cold shoulder.  The delivery is as important as the content.  Finally, a warm shoulder is a way to engage the other party and to discuss your differences as adults without resorting to verbal or non verbal insults.

This is a great discussion forum.  The topic of the cold shoulder caught me off guard, but I appreciate its role within the dynamics of human interaction and communication.


Comment by Cinnie Noble on July 24, 2012 at 7:08am

Thank you John for sharing your perspectives on the meaning and impact of a 'cold shoulder'.


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