How to Change the Interaction When Someone You’re With Makes an Offensive Comment

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The audio of a 2005 conversation between TV personality Billy Bush and Donald Trump in which Trump and Bush made unacceptably lewd comments seems to have started a needed conversation. This election cycle, “ethnic, racist, and sexual slurs, not to mention general insults, seem to have become part of the everyday chatter. Polls show that people are increasingly unhappy with the tenor of the national debate but unsure what to do about the decline in civility.” What do you do when someone who you’re talking to starts to say something that you  find to be offensive?

According to Benedict Carey and Jan Hoffman in a recent New York Times article, studies have shown that “even the politest of objections – or subtle corrections to loaded words – can almost instantly curb the dynamics of such confrontation.” Let’s look at Carey and Hoffman’s ideas and see how being relational can help you to change the interaction when people you are with makes a comment you find tasteless or offensive.

Option #1: Keep it low-key

You don’t need to make a huge scene or a “dramatic, principled stand” in order to change the interaction. In fact, it may not be advisable to make a big deal out of the comment if you want to have the most impact. A lot of this has to do with being centered. When you’re centered, you’re in charge of your personal reactivity. You may feel yourself starting to have a strong initial reaction, but you focus on your breath and pull yourself back to center. The best response to the situation is usually different from what your first response to the situation may have been. By being centered, you can find that best response.  It might be as simple as a change in your facial expression, showing surprise.

Option #2: Distract the other person

If you change the subject, the conversation has to shift gears. You could just start discussing something else.  And remember that “’even in the locker room, guys can change the conversation, they can spray people with water or crank up the music.” The distraction should serve as a gentle suggestion that the other person has crossed the bounds of acceptability within the conversation. This isn’t disengaging with the other person, it’s just changing the mode of engagement!

Option #3: Make it personal

You can help the other person get grounded if you relate their statement to your own experiences. For example, “rather than calling out the speaker and shaming him or her publicly, which can carry the risk of retaliation,’’ you can just bring up whatever experience relates their harmful statement to your real life. Showing the other person the real life implications of their statement will help them to be grounded, and may help them to consider those impacts before they make a similar comment in the future.

Option #4: “It’s so funny that you’d say that!”

One way to spin the conversation away from a potentially harmful place is “to assume that the speaker is being outrageous on purpose,” and ask them – “you’re kidding, right?” This functions in a similar way as option #3. The other person may not realize how outrageous and harmful their statement is. Indicating that you think they’re trying to make a joke might prompt a meaningful reflection on the part of the other person and help them to get grounded.

Hold up, you may be thinking… shouldn’t we take these opportunities to engage meaningfully with the other about our experiences and viewpoints? Shouldn’t we seek to understand why the other made that comment and explain to them why it is harmful or offensive?

In truth, maybe, maybe not. It’s context dependent. If you’re an adult in a one on one conversation with a friend, then maybe it is worth exploring the comment further. But if you’re in a company meeting, or with a group of acquaintances, it may feel like too big of task to confront the harmful statement. For example, Cary and Hoffman note that “sexual banter often takes place among men who are friends, and that ‘the function of it is to promote bonding.’ Men 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 possibility putting their relationship to the group at risk.’”

In these situations, neutral diffusers can be incredibly helpful to inspire reflection and to ground the other. These types of “subtle objections can stop people midsentence, in some cases prompting later reflection, psychologists have found.” Being relational doesn’t always mean you have to solve a conflict; sometimes being relational means that you use your tools to transform a negative interaction before it even starts.




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