Help me take more offense so I stop offending others
March 19, 2012 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Is there a way for me to increase my sensitivity to the insults of others, and thus maybe decrease my aggressiveness/harshness? I think I don't take enough offense, and so don't realize how offensive I am.

It is really difficult to deeply insult me and even harder for me to stay angry at someone. Aggressive behavior (yelling, etc) doesn't really faze me. When someone says something critical I try to look at it from their point of view and usually conclude "They do have a point about this and that thing". Then I resolve to improve on those aspects. Not infrequently I've had observers of a negative interaction comment on how harsh, out-of-line, or disrespectful the other person was and marvel that I'm still able to interact with them normally. Meanwhile I'm not bothered or upset about it at all.

I guess not being easily offended is great--but the flip side is it means I don't realize when my behavior towards others is too aggressive. At best I get told I'm forthright. But it's not uncommon for me to make a comment and then have someone tell me later I was right, but pretty harsh. (So God knows how the person who thinks I wasn't right feels!) I've also had people tell me they were intimidated by how aggressive I get during debates and that I don't know when to drop it.

For the debating, I now try to stop way before I think is necessary because I figure that is everyone else's limit. But I still struggle with the harsh comment thing. I generally only figure out when something's crossed the line after I say it and someone else tells me.

An example: an exam for a core major course tested my class on some basic structures central to the subject of the course. During a class discussion after an exam, a classmate complained to the teacher that these structures weren't necessary to know because we could always look them up. I pointed out that if the classmate truly wished to pursue a career in the subject, in the working world they could not simply pause discussions or meetings so they could look up basic pieces of information. Later other classmates agreed, but also joked that it was a "burn" or "rough". I didn't mean it that way at all, I thought it was just being realistic.

Generally I am not terrible at being empathetic, but this is a huge blind spot. If I wouldn't be insulted by the comments I make or the tone I use, how do I figure out if others would be?
posted by schroedinger to Human Relations (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is something I'm working on myself, i.e. figuring out what's actually going on during interactions with other people and why I sometimes seem to totally fubar a interaction. Like the other day when a perfectly normal conversation with a classmate suddenly transformed into a debate about petty details that none of us really cared about.

I haven't found any bulletproof solutions but one thing that I'm practicing is to slow down (speak less, don't get caught up in own thoughts) and really focus what the other person is saying both verbally and with their body language. People are actually pretty open when they communicate and by reading them you can often figure out where the interaction is heading. So don't ignore body language or those verbal cues that people send out signaling that they are uncomfortable, bored, angry, etc.

Another thing I'm trying is to ask myself if I really care about the underlying ideas or implications of the current discussion. So often I've found myself getting caught up in heated discussions that are ultimately pointless because they deal with trivialities. In you example with your complaining classmate, does his whining really affect you? If not, maybe it's just an utter waste of your time. But changing this behavior is really hard because we, at least I, tend to take the implications to their extreme ("of course this matters because it's wrong ... what if everyone did like that ...).
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:52 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have the opposite problem - I am extremely sensitive - and the way I have (sort of) made progress has been to spend a lot of time observing the interactions of other people who are less sensitive than me, but not so far away from my comfort zone that I'm actively repulsed. I also check with other people, whose comfort with conflict/tensio/etc. is higher than mine, to see if my behavior was appropriate and I was interpreting the reactions of others (non-verbal stuff) correctly.
posted by SMPA at 8:53 AM on March 19, 2012


I don't see anything rude about the example. (Maybe i'm just rude as well). Although, as Foci for Analysis seems to imply, it wasn't really that necessary for you to comment on.

Then there are people who take offense at others just disagreeing with their opinion and there's not much to be done about that.

General advice would be: Listen to others more and try to see things from the others point of view, but you said you already do that.

There's always the chance it might be the delivery that's off putting / aggressive so you could always smile more and before you disagree with somebody, apologize for disagreeing with them etc. (Excuse me, not that i don't see your point, but ...) though that might come off as patronising or fake if you overdo it.
posted by revikim at 8:58 AM on March 19, 2012


In the example you give, I think tone and phrasing are critical.

If you said, in sort of a thoughtful tone, "Well, I can imagine a situation in a job where this might come up in a meeting, and I would want to have this information right at the tip of my tongue. It could look really bad to the other people in the meeting if I had to run off and look it up," that would be one thing.

But the fact that others regarded what you said as a "burn" implies that you expressed the sentiment in an aggressive way, as an attack on the other person, rather than a respectful disagreement with their statement.

When issues like this come up, I might be worthwhile to talk to your friends and say, "How could I have phrased that in a more respectful or neutral way?"
posted by BrashTech at 8:59 AM on March 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


Apologies if I'm off my mark but... Your wording here makes it abundantly clear that you think others have the issue: that your handling of such commentary is more mature and reasoned, and that you must now stoop to understanding your emotionally-stunted peers. Which of course points back to your own immaturity in this area. Granted, you've professed the desire to change.

I mean, c'mon. You know what you're doing wrong. Just dial the criticism back and keep your mouth shut more often (did you really need to defend the teacher? Surely they can handle themselves professionally?) but more importantly, forgive the rest of society for having to be treated with greater sensitivity than you might need.
posted by MangyCarface at 8:59 AM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I would actually avoid debating at all, especially if you're worried about being abrasive. I've never seen an instance in which someone's point of view was actually changed by arguing with someone else who disagreed. It's always fine to just keep your mouth shut and not get involved; I've started doing that the last several years and it's improved my life in a lot of ways.

As far as that example you presented - that doesn't sound harsh to me at all. Are you sure your classmates really took it that way, or were they just joking around?
posted by something something at 9:00 AM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


An example: an exam for a core major course tested my class on some basic structures central to the subject of the course. During a class discussion after an exam, a classmate complained to the teacher that these structures weren't necessary to know because we could always look them up. I pointed out that if the classmate truly wished to pursue a career in the subject, in the working world they could not simply pause discussions or meetings so they could look up basic pieces of information. Later other classmates agreed, but also joked that it was a "burn" or "rough". I didn't mean it that way at all, I thought it was just being realistic.

Why did you make it about them? You basically said that they were being myopic and called their intelligence into question in front of the entire class. What you saw as being realistic, they saw as an attack on their dedication and professionalism. If you feel the need to say something like that (and really, what was the need here?) then say something that criticizes someone *privately* to them.

If it doesn't rise to the level of importance needed to bring it up to them privately, it doesn't need to be said at all.

Be respectful and avoid needless criticism. Don't be a dick.
posted by inturnaround at 9:05 AM on March 19, 2012 [8 favorites]


It sounds like you're pretty impervious in general, but is there anybody in specific from whom you hear even mild-mannered correction as amplified beyond reason?

Like, say, your mom when you were 13?

Or maybe someone in the past, a specific coach, an older sibling, etc.

If you do, then running things past that filter ('How would I feel if I were 13 and my mom said this to me?') before saying them out loud.

If you don't, then I think you might think about why you're saying what you're saying and whether it needs to be said.

For example, the other person didn't ask you, "Why might I ever need to have these things memorized?" Neither were they about to go into a test or an interview where you would be arguably be doing them a huge favor by reminding them that a memorized answer could make the difference between unemployment and employment. They may be mistaken, but they don't have any need (that they know about or acknowledge or would acknowledge) to be corrected by you.

I'm not saying that someone else couldn't introduce their perspective in a way that facilitates further mutually comfortable conversation, but it sounds like that person is not you and knowing that about yourself and avoiding it may be the best workaround.

Honestly that example doesn't sound too egregious to me, but if I take it as prototypical, I think that maybe you have a case of, "But someone is wrong on the internet!" in real life. Letting other people be wrong may be half the battle for you.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:05 AM on March 19, 2012 [8 favorites]


I think people tend to use themselves as the model as to how others will react, but if you're not so much like others, this doesn't work so well.

I found something helpful in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin that maybe you could use. I can't seem to link directly to the passage, but it's public domain, so here goes:

My list of virtues contain'd at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show'd itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc'd me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list) giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix'd opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag'd in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos'd my opinions procur'd them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail'd with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.

posted by Feel the beat of the rhythm of the night at 9:07 AM on March 19, 2012 [32 favorites]


I pointed out that if the classmate truly wished to pursue a career in the subject, in the working world they could not simply pause discussions or meetings so they could look up basic pieces of information. Later other classmates agreed, but also joked that it was a "burn" or "rough". I didn't mean it that way at all, I thought it was just being realistic.

What you said was fine, the way you said it was rude because you made it about him. (Assuming you really did say, "If you want to pursue a career in X, you can't simply pause meetings, etc.") If you'd said, "I personally would rather be tested on this stuff now. I wouldn't want to be working in X and have to pause a meeting to look this up; I think it's important that we really learn it" I doubt anyone would have found it remotely offensive.

I think a good deal of being considerate is simply presenting your opinions as your opinions and not ultimate truths. Even if you know you are right, there's usually no need to put anyone else down to assert yourself.

(On preview, what BrashTech said.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 9:08 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


For example, the other person didn't ask you, "Why might I ever need to have these things memorized?" Neither were they about to go into a test or an interview where you would be arguably be doing them a huge favor by reminding them that a memorized answer could make the difference between unemployment and employment. They may be mistaken, but they don't have any need (that they know about or acknowledge or would acknowledge) to be corrected by you.

Exactly. You were "right" but it wasn't at all relevant to the situation. In the case of examples like the one you mentioned, it would be helpful to ask yourself, "Is this the proper place to correct this person? Am I the proper one to do it?" In the case of a learning environment where you are not the teacher, the answer to both questions is no.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:10 AM on March 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


The issue isn't whether you're capable of being offended, it's whether you're capable of being hurt. It's a lot easier to be mindful of the feelings of others if you know how yours can be hurt, even if your skin is several orders of magnitude thicker than theirs, as it seems to be.
posted by mcwetboy at 9:13 AM on March 19, 2012


Just don't suggest that another person is wrong, especially in public, but even in private, unless you have a very good reason to. In your example, the teacher had a good reason to tell your classmate he was wrong, but you did not.

Most people feel insulted when told they are wrong, regardless of the truth.
posted by callmejay at 9:16 AM on March 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Does your college have a debate team? Consider joining it! You might be a great asset and it could provide you a better outlet for arguing your points. Stop debating with people in social situations until you have a much better feel for when it is appropriate. Hint: it rarely is.
posted by Wordwoman at 9:37 AM on March 19, 2012


Thinking about this some more. My college education involved a lot of commenting on others' work, which was often necessarily commenting on others' interpretations of material or even their behavior, looks, or other personal attributes. We were very strongly encouraged to present these comments/criticisms as personal opinions. So it was OK to have the opinion that someone's performance was bad, but you'd have to say "I didn't like it because..." and not "That sucked!" as if your reaction was the be all and end all. I think we may have even been stopped and told to start the sentence again if we spoke the 'wrong" way. (It was a while ago, I can't remember exactly.) This was hardly a sensitive, snowflaky program, by the way - it was in fact tough to the point of occasionally being pretty brutal.

To this day I'm still careful of how I do this, and not only when talking about artistic performances. I qualified that my opinion was mine twice in my comment above and didn't even realize it. Sometimes I encounter people who were educated or raised in the opposite way, the "always express your position as definitively as possible and accept no other argument" kind of way, and I always find it surprisingly aggressive and unappealing.

You probably don't have to worry so much about what you feel, or trying to imagine what they feel, or changing your personality. You can handle most of this by changing your behavior, which is much simpler. And this has nothing to do with being blunt and speaking your mind - I am, and I do, and I prefer other people to be and do so too. I am just careful to do it only about myself.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 9:45 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Most people feel insulted when told they are wrong, regardless of the truth.

This. I assume that schroedinger is in the sciences and other technical fields, where arguing that someone is wrong is a legitimate claim.

Of course, those people are hypersensitive people who don't care enough about the truth to want to be corrected when they're wrong. But this is the way "normal humans" operate, and you kind of have to work within those boundaries.
posted by deanc at 10:08 AM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ah yes. Many of my students have this problem.

Here is a big lesson for you:

In an academic discussion, avoid referencing the people that you have having the discussion with.

Your statement:

"I pointed out that if the classmate truly wished to pursue a career in the subject"

You basically just questioned this persons ability to make it in their chosen field. What good did that serve? Not only didn't it support your argument, but you also looked petty in front of people that you will need to network with later.

A better statement:

"Sometimes you are not in a position to looks Important Thing up. Such as during meetings. In that case, it would be helpful to have it memorized"

Unless you are quoting a person's data to support your point, there is no reason to mention your classmate/co-workers/professor/boss. Technical discussions should not be personal. Making them personal to try and get a one up on the other person's argument just makes your point appear less valid.

I know this in not how you mean to come off, but it is what you are doing regardless.
posted by Shouraku at 10:35 AM on March 19, 2012 [8 favorites]


*that you are having...
posted by Shouraku at 10:36 AM on March 19, 2012


"offended" is emotional. When you say you "I try to look at it from their point of view," you mean their intellectual perspective. What you need to do instead is to take their emotional perspective. Intellectually, you are correcting their point of view but emotionally you may be attacking their self-worth, competence, intelligence, sacred-cow. If you're very careful, you'll find it is possible to do the former without the latter. It's a skill worth learning.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:44 AM on March 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is all really great advice. I have become much better about toning down/eliminating the debating, but I still struggle with the one-off comments.

If you do, then running things past that filter ('How would I feel if I were 13 and my mom said this to me?') before saying them out loud.

This is perfect.
posted by schroedinger at 11:08 AM on March 19, 2012


I'm not seeing anything wrong in your example, either.

Did you call someone out publicly for a stupid statement? Yes.

But it doesn't appear you did it out of harshness - they were the ones who put themselves out there in the first place by posing the complaint publicly. If you'd been in a study group and they'd been struggling to memorize something and you snapped at them, that would be rude. But no, they asked, "why?" and you answered honestly.

I don't think you needed to sugar-coat it at all.

I agree with the poster who said some people are just too sensitive, anything besides sycophantic head nodding is considered a "burn" to them.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 8:48 PM on March 19, 2012


I love that Ben Franklin quote above, and I think you've gotten a lot of good advice on depersonalizing and thinking about your most sensitive moments.

I've also found that there are two approaches to disagreement. You can first focus on where you disagree, or first focus on where you might agree. Which is your first response?

Some people just have a natural instinct to point out where things are different, where you disagree, where points diverge. That can be the sign of a very good analytical mind, but it can also be exhausting, as it means that your typical conversational response is negative. When you have conversations and debates with people, are you ever saying anything positive? Or are you only ever saying negative things? E.g. "That's wrong because", "No, things are actually like this", "That's not how you do it", etc.

In your conversation with the classmate, the tips on either depersonalizing or making the statement about yourself are good. "I want to learn this because it will help me in a professional situation" is also a positive statement about why you think a particular thing is a good idea, rather than a negative statement about why someone else is wrong. If you wanted to focus on where you'd agree with your classmate, you could even say "I agree that we need to use our class time well, but for me this is helpful because of XYZ."
posted by lillygog at 6:31 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hey, I think someone should applaud you for working on this. Except for in cases where I'm having an intellectual debate, or hanging out with friends that I feel comfortable with, I'm pretty hypersensitive to criticism, yelling, etc,- not because I dislike being corrected (I actually like being corrected! I would rather know!), but because I feel hurt if I feel attacked, and the kind of interaction you're describing can totally feel like a personal attack, even though it's not. So thanks for trying, it's really appreciated.

One thing you might want to consider trying too, is just warning people about your personality. It might sound stupid, but if you're about to offer an opinion on a debate, or correct someone, or you're meeting a new group pf people, you could always just say something like "I just want to warn you, sometimes I forget my manners and come off as being kind of harsh/critical/however you personally would actually say something like that. Just let me know if I'm being mean, and I'll stop- it's nothing personal".

That approach wouldn't work in every situation, but if I met someone and they told me something like that, I would be way less likely to get upset if they said something that would otherwise hurt my feelings, because I wouldn't think "that jerk's attacking me", I'd think "Oh, that's just Jim Smith being Jim Smith. He's got a good point."
posted by windykites at 3:11 AM on April 3, 2012


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