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Break Them by Talking
aka: Breaking Speech

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Her words hurt far worse than the Neck Lift.

"There exists, for everyone, a sentence—a series of words—that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you're lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first."
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When one character gives a talk to another that does or is meant to somehow break down the recipient or gain a psychological advantage over them by claiming uncomfortable things that they cannot deny.

Also known as a Breaking Speech or Breaking Lecture.note 

This is often achieved by a kind of "The Reason You Suck" Speech, telling the other character how pathetic they are or perhaps how guilty of something terrible, perhaps Not So Different from someone unpalatable, but there are other ways of breaking someone down by talking. You could for example instead deconstruct the world, other characters, or their relationship with the victim. The important part is that they can't deny your words, at least not in the heat of the moment, and you gain a psychological advantage over them. Uncomfortable truths (or at least half-truths) and logical arguments are effective for making claims hard to deny, but hitting emotional weak spots is also important and can work even if your statements are not truly reasonable.

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Results, when successful, range from the mere chance of getting to smirk in a satisfied way for rattling someone in an otherwise superior position; through distracting or demoralizing an opponent to make them easier to beat; to bringing about Break the Cutie, Heroic BSoD, Villainous Breakdown or even Face–Heel Turn, More Than Mind Control, or Driven to Suicide. The most extreme form would be Mind Rape by just talking, but be wary of automatically calling every instance of Breaking Them by Talking that.

Obviously, this is easier to pull off from a relative position of power, such as when you have just defeated someone, or when interrogating a prisoner, but it goes both ways. It's even more impressive when someone manages to turn the tables on someone who was in a superior position. When this is done by one being interrogated—and only then—it's the Hannibal Lecture. Naturally, in between these cases there is the one where both parties start out on an equal footing.

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Note that a lot of this hinges on the victim actually caring about what you have to say, or otherwise respecting you enough to take your opinion seriously. If the victim is Too Dumb to Fool, or simply doesn't care about your opinion, then all you're likely to get for your trouble is laughter or a blank stare.

As stated above, there is frequent overlap with "The Reason You Suck" Speech, but the concepts are not the same. "The Reason You Suck" Speech is about what you say, this is about what you do by saying it. You can tell someone they suck without breaking them down or even intending to do so, particularly if you're just annoyed, and you can break someone down without telling them why they suck.

The distilled version of this is the Armor-Piercing Question. If the declarations used as a weapon come from simple clues, this is a form of Sherlock Scan. Some characters have the ability to do this as a superpower, which may be an example of Awesome by Analysis. Can be done as part of Evil Gloating. Shut Up, Hannibal! is a way of countering this trope. The opposite effect is done by a "World of Cardboard" Speech, when the hero tells about his own flaws and how they don't matter now. The reverse or "good counterpart" is the Kirk Summation or Talking the Monster to Death. Hannibal Lecture is a specific subtrope.

For examples of literally breaking someone by talking, see Weapons-Grade Vocabulary or Make Me Wanna Shout. Works using this trope may discuss The Power of Language.

See also: To the Pain, Talking Your Way Out, Just Between You and Me, And Then What?, Verbal Judo.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Pro Wrestling 
  • Raven was well-known for delivering these to his opponents in order to demoralize them.
  • Shawn Michaels was a regular recipient of these speeches, particularly in the later parts of his career once he turned perma-face, but he usually interrupted them with Sweet Chin Music. Occasionally, after knocking his lecturer out cold, he'd deliver his own over their unconscious (or at least stunned) body. (If it's done to someone unconscious, it can't really qualify for the trope.) He was particularly fond of doing this to Chris Jericho.
    • Back in his heel days, he used to hand them out himself like party favors. Even as a face, he'd break them out occasionally, and he's the one guy ever who could get away with throwing them at The Undertaker.
  • Vin Gerard performed a number of these on Shane Storm — playing off Storm's betrayal of the technicos by selling out the counter to the Chikara Special (a Chikara Moral Event Horizon if there ever was one) and then twisting his world on its axis as Vin thanked him for it. Ended with Storm 'transforming' into the rudo STIGMA, dropping the colour from his outfits, the bright mullet becoming a black mohawk and joining with Vin Gerard and Colin Delaney to become the UnStable.
    • Then inverted when Vin tries the same thing on Jigsaw, who had removed his mask elsewhere and hadn't been seen in Chikara for a year. Vin said that he'd never seen the boys in the back as angry at anyone as they were at Jigsaw ("No matter what I did, I never had to buy a ticket!") and there was no way to get back on their good side - Jigsaw might as well join the UnStable. Jigsaw responded with superkicks.
  • Chris Jericho. Back in 2008 and early 2009 when everyone took his heel character completely seriously, Jericho would do this weekly. They rarely worked, but they were awesome.
  • CM Punk in his Straight Edge persona. He is so awesome that he can actually give these while he's in the middle of a match.
    • Punk also delivered brilliant ones to John Cena and Vince McMahon after his infamous pipebomb. So much that Cena responded with a punch and Vince responded to his demands in vigor.
    -Vince: "I apologize, you son of a bitch!"

    Radio 
  • Brilliantly used in That Mitchell and Webb Sound, a radio programme. In multiple segments, Webb's character insults a woman's dress sense, weight or intelligence, eventually turning into a full-blown Breaking Speech. When the woman has been reduced to a wreck, Webb asks for a date, to cheer the woman up.

    Tabletop Games 
  • On the (very) few occasions when the Dark Powers of Ravenloft have apparently communicated directly to anyone, it's been to do this to a potential darklord, delivered in familiar voices. Strahd heard the voices of Tatyana and Sergei taunting him, while Azalin heard the voices of his son and his mentor in wizardry.
  • Chronicles of Darkness sourcebook Slasher (which deals with exactly what you think it does) has this as a talent of the Genius Undertaking and its natural progression, the Maniac. The Genius has the ability to instinctively profile anyone and learn what facts they'd hate to have revealed. The Maniac uses this knowledge to always have advantage over a certain target, and, with time, to convert the target to his point of view (a la Jigsaw).
  • Sith Lords in the Star Wars d20 game have a power that lets them do this more effectively.

    Theatre 
  • The Boys in the Band. Harold destroys Michael with a thorough undressing "The Reason You Suck" Speech at the end.
  • In Man of La Mancha the Knight of the Mirrors does this to Don Quixote, explaining to him in unpleasant terms how the world sees him and using a number of minions carrying full length mirrors to prove it. (It is worth noting that he does not do this in the book, which is why this entry appears in the theater section)
  • 1776: Rutledge breaks them by singing. "Molasses to Rum" has him vividly act out the process of the slave trade from Boston to Africa to the Caribbean and plantations, highlighting both the horrors of it and the hypocrisy of the Northern states in decrying it when their own citizens profit considerably. When he leaves (with all the Southern states), the independence faction is devastated and have no choice but to accept the deletion of the anti-slavery clause despite Adams' prediction that it would come back to haunt them.
  • In J.B., Nickles/Satan's last attempt to corrupt Job is to paint the bit at the end — where J.B. gets all his fortunes back — as actually the cruelest torment of all; that God could ruin his life, and then just put it all back together again because the whole "Take away your fortunes, kill your children and cover you in boils" thing was just a bit of a lark. When J.B. points out that his children are dead, Satan dismissively says, "You'll have better ones!", mocking the notion that everything could really be put right just like that.
  • The Mrs Hawking play series: In part V: Mrs. Frost, what the titular character tries to do after she's captured Nathaniel. She has done enough research to probe all his fears and insecurities.

    Web Original 
  • In Worm Tattletale can do this due to her power. It doesn't matter who your are, if you can hear her, she will get to you. For this reason Armsmaster has some of his team wear earplugs when fighting her and she's frequently targeted first in fights.
    • Contessa and Scion are even more capable at this. Contessa made Bonesaw perform a Heel–Face Turn with a short conversation. Scion made Eidolon depressed to the point where he let himself be killed with 4 words.
  • In Saga of Soul, Downfall does it to Eriko. To put it mildly, it backfired.
  • The Auditor's favourite tactic in AJCO. She's only had the chance to use it on two people - A_J, repeatedly, and Egg - but she left both in tears. Until that point, A_J had never been seen weeping.
  • In X-Ray & Vav, The Mad King uses this to rattle the bonds between our heroes. While it seems that Vav isn't too bothered by it, X-Ray is frightened, thinking that Vav is going to focus everything on his reporter Love Interest.
  • In Sword Art Online Abridged, Rosalia does this to Kirito as a pre-battle tactic. Unfortunately for her, it backfires spectacularly; while it indeed gets to him, it changes him from Jerk Ass Deadpan Snarker to a Laughing Mad Psychotic Manchild... and he's a long time player of the videogame they're trapped in, so he's waaaaaay past her level in terms of sheer stats. It ends quickly after that.
  • In the Camp Camp Season 1 finale, it seems as though David's overly happy-go-lucky spirit has finally been shattered, to Max's absolute delight. As he desperately tries to light a symbolic bonfire that's important to him in the middle of a thunderstorm, Max goes in to lay the final blow
    Max: Do you really think a big campfire and some outdated, honestly kind of racist tradition is going to make anyone care about anything? No one gives a shit, David. Nobody want to be here! It's like you live in this stupid make-believe world where "everything's great!" The universe doesn't work that way, idiot! Just look around! It's what I've been trying to show you since day one! Life sucks. And we live in a world of desensitized, apathetic assholes. Why don't you just get with the program and stop giving a shit....
  • In Episode 81 of Yu-Gi-Oh! The Abridged Series, Dartz calls Yami out for his callous treatment of his friends. It works as Yami almost succumbs to the Seal of Orichalcos.
    Dartz: Look at youwself! Look at everything you've dooone! You got a second chance at wahf! Oh! And how do you choose to spend it? Beating people in games y'already good at, and telling them how much they soock.
    Yami: It's not my fault if they refuse to git gud.
    Dartz: I know you're wight, but what is your fauwt is the way you take your fwends for gwanted or, oh, oh, do you even think of them as your fwewends?
    Yami: Of course I—
    Dartz: Oh, right, you can't even defend yoursewf! Not once have you taken the tahm to appweciate everything they've done for you, how patient dey' been. You're too busy calling Twistan stupaad, or Téa a slooot, or insulting the person whose body you now inhabit.
    Yami: Yugi...
    Dartz: Aww, that's the truth, though, Phawowoaoh. No Orichalcamalos magic, no bullshit powers. You're no hewo. You don't even deserve those fwends you surround yourself with. And you certainly don't deserve to keep wiving in Yugaay Muh-to's body. Just give it up. It's easier than fightin' the twuth.
  • This is how Elias Bouchard operates in The Magnus Archives. He peers into people's minds to find what would disturb and hurt them the most, then tortures them by speaking of it as cruely as possible before directly planting feelings and images in their heads. His victim's are often to the point of breaking before he ever plants anything in their mind.
  • A hilarious example from Tumblr in the comments of a photo of someone drinking Diet Coke out of a bag:
    totheinternetandbeyond: I lost the cap to a soda bottle
    wecanbreatheinouterspace: Then you're fucking stupid. If you can't drink a soda without a cap, then you're fucking stupid.
    totheinternetandbeyond: LISTEN HERE YOU LITTLE SHIT. I COULDN'T FIND THE CAP TO AN ALMOST FULL 2 LITER BOTTLE OF DIET COKE. I WASN'T ABOUT TO DRINK THE WHOLE GOD DAMN THING ON THE SPOT. I DON'T EVEN LIKE DIET COKE THAT MUCH. IF I PUT IT IN THE FRIDGE IN THE BOTTLE IT WOULD HAVE GONE FLAT SO DON'T FUCKING CALL ME STUPID. I AM THE FUTURE.

    Real Life 
  • A series of independent experiments carried out by a sadistic Harvard psychology professor named Henry Murray in the 1960s could be counted as an extreme (and, as it turned out, extremely unfortunate) real-life example of Breaking Them by Talking. University students were instructed to write an essay summarizing their personal philosophy on life and underlying principles, then went into a room expecting to debate philosophy with a fellow student. They instead faced an interrogation by a far more experienced opponent, whose sole purpose was to attack and ridicule their beliefs at length. Since one of the main goals of the experiment was to induce stress and upset the subject as much as possible, it's not surprising that many students came out feeling traumatized. One of them eventually went completely over the edge (for this reason or some other) and became the Unabomber.

    Murray had worked with the CIA in developing a test that tested pilots' wills, preventing them from possibly being brainwashed if captured. He decided to "fine tune" his technique using students as test subjects, but really, the guy was a sadist who got off on this sort of thing. WNYC's Radio Lab covered this story in one of their pieces titled "Oops".
  • A favorite technique of many Trolls is to hurt people in chatrooms and the like with offensive language.
  • In the documentary, I, Psychopath, diagnosed Narcissist Sam Vaknin subjects the filmmaker to these during most of the filming. The filmmaker almost has a nervous breakdown.
  • Many gay men, especially drag queens, have perfected the Xanatos Speed Chess variation of this called "the read", being able to assess someone quickly and jab them precisely.
    (sassy voice) When you read somebody, what you are doing is you slowly chip away at they self esteem, but you do so in such a subtle manner they have no idea what is happening to them; they are simply overwhelmed by a sense of dread.
  • Sadly, some parents, teachers, and caregivers (i.e., at daycare centers, or even babysitters) have done this to their offspring / students / charges, in some cases, when they don't mean to...
    • As one anyone who's experienced this can tell you, verbal and psychological abuse has this as a staple, as, more often than note, the abuser will resort to things like insults, dares, and taunts that prey on the victim's fears, insecurities, etc. As one might expect, this has the effect of the victim latching on tighter to the abuser or being near unable to form healthy relationships because of the trauma.

Alternative Title(s): Breaking Them By Talking, Breaking Speech, Break Him By Talking, Break Her By Talking, Breaking Lecture

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