Lessons in the Delicate Art of Confronting Offensive Speech

A New York Times article with that headline observes that we are “in a political season when ethnic, racist and sexual slurs, not to mention general insults, seem to have become part of everyday chatter.”

Dealing with offensive comments can be hard for people generally and there are particular challenges for dispute resolution professionals.

The article states that listeners’ objections can curb the behavior, but listeners understandably fear damaging relationships and inviting retaliation.  On the other hand, when people are uncomfortable and don’t speak up, this can effectively encourage speakers to continue their offensive remarks.

“A body of psychological research shows that even mild pushback against offensive remarks can have an instant effect — as difficult as that can be, especially with a boss, a friend or a celebrity.”

One expert said that “sexual banter often takes place among men who are friends, and that ‘the function of it is to promote bonding.’” She said that “[m]en may feel that if they challenge conversation they find tasteless, or simply don’t join in, ‘they’re spoiling the mood at a minimum and possibly putting their relationship to the group at risk,’ she said.  And sometimes they worry that ‘it will raise doubts about their masculinity or heterosexuality,’ or that they will become targets of bullying.”

Challenging others’ comments that feel inappropriate can trigger strong reactions about both people’s identities and whether they are good or bad human beings.

Experts quoted in the article suggest tactics such as changing the subject, engaging in diversionary behavior, and humor.  For example, one expert suggested a response, “I love satire.  It’s so weird that people believe that for real and it’s so cool you called that out.”

The director of an LGBT project sends volunteers to go door to door to talk with people.  He said, “We are seeking out people who are prejudiced, and they’re using offensive language.  And if you correct that language, just use different words yourself, and your tone and demeanor are kind, people are very responsive, and you don’t have to get into a screaming match.”

This approach seems to be based on deliberate use of empathy.  The volunteers’ kindness presumably conveys understanding and sympathy with people who use offensive language.  And it reciprocally invites the speakers to empathize with the volunteers and the people they seek to help.  The program director said that it “softens” the attitudes of about ten percent of people, so it is far from changing the attitudes of most people.  But perhaps even that ten percent is significant.

While it may be tempting to directly characterize others’ statements – such as saying, “That’s racist! [sexist, untrue, etc.]” – that approach risks stimulating escalation and defensiveness.  It may stop the immediate behavior but it may also lead to counterproductive arguments, cause resentment, and actually reinforce problematic attitudes.

DR professionals not only have to deal with their own personal reactions but also have to manage their professional responsibilities to be respectful.  This may be especially difficult when lawyers encounter problematic attitudes from their own clients.  Lawyers often worry that clients will doubt that the lawyers will fight hard enough, so it can be particularly difficult for lawyers to challenge their clients.

While it may seem counter-intuitive to demonstrate empathy with people who express ideas that feel offensive, it may be an effective tactic for professionals.  And it may open people to be more empathetic with others.  This approach may also be helpful strategically by getting people to consider their situation more realistically, recognizing the other person’s perspective as well as that of potential third party decision-makers.

All that said, these interactions can be extremely difficult to navigate, and there is no guarantee of success.


6 thoughts on “Lessons in the Delicate Art of Confronting Offensive Speech”

  1. This article hits home really hard not that it is not quite 48 hours post election. The things that were said, the things there were published, and the things used as defenses were reprehensible. While I understand where the author is coming from in saying that a little pushback can make all the difference, I don’t think that is the case in most instances, and definitely not advice I will take going forward.

    As a women who worked in a male dominated field, pushing back when a conversation turns offensive does not change the conversation. It further alienates the “pusher” and gives those having the conversation more ammunition. Hearing these conversations was commonplace, ignoring them was the only way to get through a shift without antagonizing the speakers. Pushing back shows the speaker that you don’t like the conversation, but it also shows the speaker how to further get under your skin.

    While pushing back when conversations turn offensive seems like a good idea from the outside, when you are in those situations, and working relationships are on the line, pushing back no longer is an option. As a lawyer-to-be I fear what will run through my mind when I end up in situations where I am either a third party to this language (i.e., an arbitrator) or am faced with it (i.e., a woman in a man’s world (sports)); however, I don’t think pushing back and correcting those around will help matters.

    I know that this article focuses on hate speech and offensive language that is pointed toward minorities, LGBTQ community members, and other similarly situated groups, the speech goes both ways. I cannot count the number of times since I have moved from the South, that people have used awful language to describe me, my family, and southerners in general. I have also been stereotyped, having people place me in the same category with Klansmen, White Supremacists, and racists just because of where I am from, the way I talk, and little else. The rhetoric goes both ways. In my experiences, both here and in my past career, silence (and possibly and eye-roll) has gotten me far.

    I respect the intentions and opinions of the author, but I do not agree that pushback is the answer. Education at a young age, not showing fear/offense, and being successful in the face of the rhetoric is my answer to this problem. Silence, and of course behind-the-back eye-rolling, is how I will move forward in my career and life.

  2. This article invites the use of techniques that one would not usually use when speaking to someone using offensive language. All of the suggestions stem from inherent human behaviors. For example, someone who is non-confrontational will naturally refrain from showing any negative feelings from one’s use of such language. Of those who are non-confrontational, the natural tendency, depending on the individual, will be to either: 1) stay quiet; or 2) change the subject or lighten the mood. On the other hand, one who is more confrontational will naturally push back and feel comfortable stating their issue(s) with what is being said.

    Although it is important to employ different methods when the situation calls for it. As a person who is naturally confrontational, in cases where I am more concerned with the continuance of a positive relationship, I need to be able to handle certain situations with poise rather than my natural inclination to respond with haste. On the other hand, in a situation where one’s language is, what I find to be, unacceptable, I must say something.

    The article spoke to men staying quiet when being confronted with sexually indecent conversation due to the fear of appearing less manly, not fun, etc. However, a strong man isn’t afraid to speak his mind, regardless of his peers. The same is true for women. Social dynamics highlight who we are as people. Are you a sheep, who allows others to speak indecently, or do you speak up for yourself? [Excuse my personal bias.]

    Mainly, we need to know ourselves and assess situations on a case-by-case basis. There is a time and a place to employ each method of response or lack thereof.

  3. While reading this article, I found myself nodding in agreement about the real-life challenges of confronting offensive speech in social settings. Being somewhat non-confrontational, I too have searched for an answer to offensive speech that goes beyond y usual passive exit of an uncomfortable conversation, but that doesn’t invoke defensiveness and/or ruins the relationship. Using “kid gloves” to curb offensive speech rather than harsh criticism allows me to be more vocal about my discomfort with offensive speech, retain the relationship, and most importantly end and discourage further offensive speech. While reading this I was also reminded of the unfortunate rhetoric swirling around this presidential election. Putting aside the comments on the Trump side, Clinton’s characterization of Trump supporters as “deplorable” are the perfect example of harsh criticism that brought about a very defensive response. I’m not sure how using an empathetic approach in that situation would have played out, as a presidential election is already a highly emotional and contentious scenario, but this may be were the “no guarantee of success” disclaimer comes in.

  4. Such a timely topic. As I look at my CNN headlines for the day, the first three are about politicians and their usage of slurs. The increase of these slurs in the media will definitely trickle down and increase usage while the sensitivity of them hasn’t changed.
    As a to-be-lawyer, would it be wrong to ask your client to use a more acceptable term versus a slur? I would imagine it would enforce the idea that the lawyer is trying to be diplomatic and elegant, but still empathizing with the client.
    Some people do not even realize how unacceptable or insulting the terms are. I addressed a client once in an interview as miss, because outwardly that is what she appeared to be, she quickly corrected me and said she preferred to be called sir because he was influx with his gender identity. Miss, was an insult to him. He had to tell me that was insulting otherwise, I would never have known. I feel the reverse would be true, if we could gently chide a client towards using a more neutrally perceived word in the office, then maybe they will carry that term outside of the office as well.

  5. I loved this article and already quoted it in a conversation today about teaching leadership skills. I think it gets to the crux of what can be hard for many people. If we don’t want to be a bystander and we also don’t want to put people on the defensive, how can we deal with offensive comments as it occurs around us? Years ago, my quintessential example (Negotiation Journal article here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1295564)
    was learning how to respond when you (a woman) are asked to get coffee (while more junior men are not). This issue is even more nuanced–what should the guys in the room do when they see this happening? Deflect may work much of the time. And how can we effectively call out a colleague who does this regularly?

  6. These skills are certainly very effective for simultaneously correcting unseemly behavior while not damaging relationships. Unfortunately, we don’t see many examples of this in the media, leading to ineffective communication (which tends to exacerbate offensive actions, as you indicated).

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