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How can I know if what I say is offensive or not?

July 19, 2021 , by Dr Julian Northbrook

Potentially, anything can be offensive or rude.

At the same time, even the rudest of things that you say can be perfectly acceptable and not rude… if the context is right.

A good example of this is a question one of my coaching clients asked recently in a call:

“Is it rude to sigh in a meeting?”

She said someone sighed at something halfway through, and she thought it was rude and improper. And well, yes, it is rude to sigh in a meeting, but it depends on how it’s done. If you sound irritated when you do it because of something someone said… that’s rude. But if it’s lighthearted (for example you struggled to explain something, now you’re done and you’re like, “phew!”), then that’s not rude.

Context is everything.

Finding something offensive is more to do with a sensitivity to culture and social dynamics.

There’s just no easy way to manoeuvre around it other than really learning to understand whatever it is you’re saying.

For example, in very casual British culture, it’s common to swear and call each other the most horrifically disgusting names. But it’s a part of Britain’s social bonding culture; totally in good humour.

Finding something offensive also depends on how you say things in different ways. If it’s confrontational or aggressive, it may sound offensive. Again, context is important.

However, there would be instances where anything that you say can always be rude to somebody. It’s not necessarily that you’re rude, but some will just see you as is.

I have a fantastic example of this:

Some time ago, I sent an email about the topic of the meaning of life. I talked about the concept of cosmic meaning i.e., is there a God, a creator of the world, that kind of stuff. And one person obviously did not like that email. She sent me a reply saying “oh well in that case, you should just have a pint of Guinness, sit down, and die because life is meaningless.” So I thought I’d reply to them by saying “I don’t believe there has to be a point to life for us to be able to live a meaningful life”. But I really shouldn’t have replied at all because she sent back a reply with the most horrendous insults. The point is, for me, it was an interesting discussion, but to that person, it was incredibly offensive.

So, yes, anything can be offensive. Some things are obviously going to be offensive if you use words out of context and in the wrong way. There’s really no easy way to learn what is offensive and what is not aside from understanding people, psychology, and social values in different cultures.

Hope this helps.

I help high-level English as second-language speakers live freer in their work and day to day life without English becoming a barrier. If that’s you, you might like to sign up for my daily English tips to speak better English.

Dr Julian Northbrook

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