ASK LESLEY: How Do I Stop Accidentally Offending People All the Time?

This is TOTALLY a trick question. Or a trick answer. Or both.
Publish date:
November 13, 2012
social justice, being offensive, political correctness, M

In response to my semi-panicked “WHAT SHOULD I WRITE ABOUT TODAY?” inquiry on Twitter -- an event which, to be fair, happens about once a week -- xoJane’s own Olivia has asked me to respond to a question:

How do I not offend people? It is 10am and I have already offended two people in my life with racial/cultural insensitivity, and I seriously don't know where the line is anymore.

This is a really excellent question, and one I genuinely wish more people would ask. And I have a solution in one easy step. Are you ready? Here we go.

Step One: Give up.

At least, give up on the idea that you can quit being offensive entirely. You will never not offend people. This is a fact of life as a social being, albeit it is one that we’ve come to resent a whole lot as a culture currently evolving with heavy influence from the narcissism of the internets, and the persistent misunderstanding that “free speech” as a constitutionally protected right means “I get to say anything I want and nobody is allowed to tell me I’m wrong about it,” -- or worse, that as Americans we are legally protected from any repercussions that may arise as a result of our own poorly-considered words.

What freedom of speech really ensures is that we are each free to be as big an offensive idiot as we wish to be, and the government cannot swoop in and shut us up, no matter how horrible we might get. This is why things like Ku Klux Klan marches are protected speech, even though they’re hateful and gross.

ANYWAY: saying stuff that is offensive is an unavoidable part of life. It’s going to happen, no matter how much you read and how hard you work to be perfect. You will always offend people on occasion. So right away, do forgive yourself for being an idiot sometimes, both in the past and in the future. Everyone is an idiot sometimes. It’s okay.

And instead of never offending people again, you’d probably be happy with simply offending people LESS OFTEN. The success of that depends on how flexible you’re willing to be.

At one point during the live presidential election night coverage on November 6, NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw offhandedly referred to certain voting patterns as “schizophrenic,” which drew immediate ire from some viewers, who registered their unhappiness on Twitter. Soon after, Brokaw responded on-air, surprisingly enough, by publicly checking himself and apologizing for having used the term inappropriately, acknowledging that schizophrenia is a “serious condition.”

Of course, some folks will see this as Brokaw folding in the face of attacks by some mythical political correctness law enforcement agency, as though heedlessly standing by the unthinking and inappropriate use of a term that actually MEANS SOMETHING to many people is somehow admirable and fearless.

Still, I believe our natural, human reaction to someone saying to us, “What you just said hurt me,” ought to be, “Wow, I’m sorry, I'll do whatever I can to avoid repeating that mistake in future.” And then you follow through, even when this means going out of your way to increase your knowledge and better your understanding about whatever the issue at hand might be.

All too often, our response to someone’s expression of pain or anger as a result of something we’ve done is more likely to be a terse “FUCK YOU.” Fuck you for making me feel badly about accidentally making you feel badly! Fuck you for making me think about a thing I don’t want to think about! Fuck you for distracting me from my own self-centeredness!

And at that point, productive conversation usually fails.

Part of the problem is that offensiveness is not an objective truth -- it varies, dramatically, from one person to another. This is why it can be so hard to avoid. Not all people of color react to jokes based on racial stereotypes the same way, just like not all trans folk object to the word “tranny,” and not all poor white Southerners have a problem with being called rednecks.

Indeed, assuming a universal response from everyone belonging to a certain group is itself pretty offensive.

So given the unknowableness of interacting with a diverse group of people in your life -- which really should be the default preference for all of us -- how you inadvertently offend people is less important than how you react when called on it. It’s natural to get defensive when someone tells us we’ve said or done something wrong, and injured their feelings, especially when the person in question is someone whom we think knows us well enough to understand we didn’t mean any harm.

But sometimes you’ve gotta let people be mad. Sometimes you’ve gotta acknowledge that you said or did something that hurt them. Sometimes you’ve even gotta apologize, and I don’t mean a fake-ass apology like “I’m sorry you feel that way” -- this is actually going to make things worse. I mean a real apology, one that you mean. “I’m sorry I was insensitive.” “I’m sorry I did something that upset you.” “I’m sorry I didn’t know better.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean telling said person their perception of the offense is universally true -- it’s probably not -- but it does mean recognizing that you, individually, had the power to upset that person, and you probably didn’t mean to do it and regret it having happened. Because you’re a good person! Right?

As a result of this experience, you may want to uniformly change your language or perception in the future, or maybe just around that one person. You may not, and in that case you’ll have to face the consequences. There are certain words (like “lame” and “ghetto”) that I’ve scrubbed from my vocabulary because folks objected to them and I realized the risk of hurting someone via their continued use outweighed my own personal gratification at having them at my disposal. Other things I haven’t changed (to the anger and disappointment of some). But I think knee-jerkily changing your behavior simply because you’ve been shamed into doing so is less effective than changing your behavior because you’ve thought about it and decided you didn’t want to be a person who puts bad stuff out into the world.

What it comes down to is not so much whether these assumptions are hurtful to a specific individual, although that may often be the catalyst for thinking about it. I think what it SHOULD come down to is the issue of how our words and assumptions and actions contribute to our culture as a whole, even when nobody's actively calling us out for being offensive, and whether we want to feel good about how we’re participating in the world we all share. If we’re spreading crap around, that means we have to live in crap. And who wants that?

The fact is, if you’re offending people on the regular, this means you’re hanging out with people who are different from you, and that’s a really awesome thing (though it's worth noting if you're constantly being offensive about the same stuff and not learning from it, those people may eventually decide not to spend time with you anymore).

You probably don’t want to agree with everyone you know about everything, and you probably don’t want to live surrounded by people whose backgrounds are identical to your own. That would be incredibly boring. So take your constant offensiveness as a positive challenge -- a chance to learn about the world and the people in it. I think it’s okay to offend people, so long as you’re taking some new knowledge from every encounter.

My personal experience has been that I am far better educated by my catastrophic mistakes -- and my willingness to make them -- than I am by my efforts to avoid conflict. And if I have any guidance to give, it’s that you always be willing to fuck up, as much as possible.

So that’s my advice: Fuck up, get smarter. You’re doing fine.