On the Subject of Offence

[TW gaslighting, abuse, homophobia, transphobia, racism]

We all have things we find offensive.

This isn’t a post about things that are offensive.

This is a post about what to do when someone tells you you’ve offended/hurt them in some way.

For the TL;DR version, things you shouldn’t do:

  • Double down.
  • Insist that you didn’t mean offence in the way the other person has taken it.
  • Insist that what you said isn’t offensive full stop.
  • Insist that the other person is misreading the context of your words.
  • Refuse to apologise.

And now, the longer version.

As a matter of course, we can’t know every single thing that has happened to every person we know. Some things will be talked about over time, and you will know from talking to your friend if these are subjects that can be discussed/joked about. And that is rad; keep that discourse open.

The thing is, there are some things that happen to us that are difficult to talk about, we don’t want to talk about with someone recently new to our lives, or subjects we just find deeply uncomfortable to bring up in conversation.

You can’t control how someone else feels about a certain subject.

For example, you might have a new friend who is openly queer, but for some reason they get offended when you make jokes about queer sexuality. You might find this strange, because ten minutes before this friend also made jokes about queer sexuality.

In this case, the reason for taking offence is simple: your queer friend was making jokes at their own expense based on their own experiences, and you co-opting that is overstepping a boundary for them. This can happen even if you are queer yourself. It is absolutely not your place to argue here.

It can happen in all kinds of contexts: your friend might riff on racial stereotypes when talking about their family, and get upset when you do it. You might be talking about your country versus their country, we are a global community after all, and something you think is a joking comment might make them uncomfortable.

It can happen for all sorts of reasons, and it is so important to note here that you don’t get to decide if what you said was offensive or not. Someone told you that it was, and that’s all there is to it.

So what to do when someone tells you you’ve been offensive:

  • Apologise: but don’t make a huge deal about it. Don’t put the work on them to make you feel better for having put you in a situation you need to apologise for.
  • Go and learn: probably not in that moment, but your friend might be willing to have a conversation about the issue at a later date. If not, we have this amazing things called the internet with search engines for your educational needs.
  • Remember: don’t bring the topic up again unless you do it in a respectful way. Showing off what you learned isn’t a reason to make someone else uncomfortable.
  • Pay attention: as much as people complain that twitter is just a sea of people yelling at each other, it’s also a useful resource for learning about aspects of race, gender, sexuality, politics, you name it. It might not be a topic you’ve come across before, but people are very good at explaining the problematic aspects of various things, and it could avoid an awkward conversation in the future.

Ultimately, you’re not going to be able to avoid offending people entirely, because as I said above, you can’t know what will upset someone. Be respectful, listen to what people are telling you, and hopefully it won’t ruin friendships for you.

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