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How to Be Offended

How to Be Offended

How to Be Offended

    I teach things that many find offensive. Whether it’s articles containing racist language in my “Gender, Race, and Class” course or descriptions of oral insemination as part of the Sembia male’s coming-of-age rituals in my anthropology course, I know that some students are going to be offended, sometimes deeply.

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    Over the years, I’ve come to view offense as a particularly useful state of being – but only when the offense one feels is used properly. Most people view being offended as an excuse for shutting down, even going (you guessed it) on the offensive. They refuse to be party to whatever offensive material is being presented to them, whether it’s someone making a sexist joke or a politician’s attack ad.

    Obviously I can’t have students shutting down – or worse, feeling so put upon that they lash out at me or their fellow students. My classroom is, after all, a learning environment. But being offended is one of the key parts of the learning process. It is through taking offense that we discover the limits of our own knowledge, understanding, or compassion, and therefore it is at the point of offense that we have the greatest potential to grow as people.

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    Consider the kinds of situations that make us feel offended. We take offense when:

    • We are confronted with situations radically different from those we’re used to.
    • We experience situations that conflict strongly with our own values.
    • Our belief systems are challenged or dismissed as inadequate.
    • We are labeled or otherwise treated in ways that are inconsistent with our self-image.

    All of these situations can offer us an opportunity to grow as a person, whether by learning about value systems or ways of living that differ from your own (and which sometimes offer a more efficient, more fulfilling, or simply more reasonable way of doing things), or by increasing our understanding of other people (offering the opportunity, perhaps, to resolve conflicts before they become intractable), or simply by exposing the gap between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves (which can be eye-opening indeed).

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    This can only happen, though, when we recognize offense for what it is – our mind’s way of processing unfamiliar experience. We have a whole set of mental standards that our minds are always comparing new experiences against to guide our actions and reactions; when no “entry” exists that we can categorize some situation into, offense kicks in – “this is wrong,” it says.

    At that moment, we can act in ways that prevent growth – attacking someone, condemning them, walking away, or becoming defensive – or we can use that offense as a trigger to kick us into “understanding” mode. Try thinking about these points next time you’re offended:

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    • Offense is not injury. The most important step to keeping a level head in the face of serious offense is to remember that just because something offends you doesn’t mean that it hurts you in any way. Be careful to sort out your immediate, emotional response from the actual practical effect of whatever offensive situation you’re confronting – most of the time, you’ll find your life can go on just fine regardless of this offensive thing.
    • People aren’t stupid. For the most part, people do things for reasons that, at least at the time, seem like good ones. And when they have the weight of tradition behind them, they’re usually right – societies that do things that are actually and truly wrong tend to be extinct. No matter how difficult it is to accept, you have to acknowledge that many practices that seem utterly impractical and stupid have endured for hundreds or even thousands of years without killing, maiming, or traumatizing the people who practice them.
    • There’s more than one way to skin a cat. The way you do things will always seem like the right, best, and only way to do it – but it’s not. Try to recognize the value in the way other people do things – often you’ll find that, as odd and offensive as it might seem at first, it actually manages to accomplish the same ends as your “right” way of doing things.
    • You’re pretty weird yourself. Never forget that to an outsider, everyone seems weird. We are always exactly as foreign to others as they are to us. Try to look at some of your practices from the outside and see just how weird you really are.
    • Clarify, clarify, clarify. Since offense usually arises at the point of misunderstanding between two people, cultures, or social contexts, dampen your moral outrage for a second to ask some questions. Although asking a question or two might seem easy, in my observations it takes a great deal of courage to ask even the simplest questions – we all want to protect our self-identity by refusing to look ignorant, vulnerable, or unprepared. But of course, we often are ignorant, vulnerable, or unprepared – and sometimes all three. Make sure you actually know what’s going on!
    • Those shoes are tight. You know the saying “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes”? Well, it’s one of those sayings that are actually pretty true. Try to see things from other people’s viewpoints – and often enough, the offense just melts away.

    Of course, there are situations where immediate action is necessary, as for instance when people are being injured. But a lot of us end up with a “think first, justify later” attitude that causes more conflicts than it solves. Welcoming offense as an opportunity rather than a problem is a step towards reducing the conflict around you – by any measure, an entirely non-offensive thing!

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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