Hey, I take offense to that!
August 1, 2008 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Which communication styles can I use to avoid offending people unintentionally?

For someone who rarely namecalls, brags, yell, or use a lot of sarcasm...I somehow offend a lot of people. The two most common complaints is that I'm too "curt" and make insensitive comments. I really take issue about being too curt. I don't understand what's bad about giving short and straightforward answers to questions. I really dislike giving long answers, and I like to keep my communication simple, but I want to find a way to do so that will be more welcomed by others.

As for the insensitivity issue, I don't know where to start. I think there's some things getting in my way of communicating more sensitively.
1. Not having the experience of interacting with many different types of people, when I was younger. I find it hard to adjust to different norms and values, or worse, sometimes I'm not even aware of them. An example, a few years ago, I really offended someone (person A) by telling another person (B) that they should apply to person A's college because it's less selective. According to person A, I was implying that her college was somehow inferior. I understand how it could be taken that way, but I what meant was person A's college had reasonable admission standards and affordable tuition. Where I come from, "less selective" means opportunity, not inferiority. Person A was raised around a lot of high-achievers and valued competition, me not so much. The first time I started interacting with those type of people on a regular basis was grad school, which is quite recent. But, that's just one example, I get into similar confrontations, with different types of people.

2. I'm not very emotional, and I almost never get offended. I was offended by something I read on another discussion board day before yesterday, that was the first time I've been offened in three or four months. With most people it seems like a daily thing. It's really difficult to understand what's offensive and what's not, when I'm really hard to offend, myself.
posted by sixcolors to Human Relations (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's really difficult to understand what's offensive and what's not, when I'm really hard to offend, myself

That's the hard part about not being offensive, what is or isn't offensive varies from person to person. Avoiding being an offensive jerk mostly involves knowing your audience, and what is or isn't off limits.

I really offended someone (person A) by telling another person (B) that they should apply to person A's college because it's less selective. According to person A, I was implying that her college was somehow inferior

This is a good example. One of the number one ways to offend someone is to say something that is a sore spot for them. If someone is self conscious about their weight, try not to mention anything about their weight. If someone feels that they are not as smart as they should be, don't say things that suggest they are stupid. The most general way of saying it is that if something is very important to someone, saying something negative about it will tend to offend them.

In this particular case, you probably could have said something like "What about Person A's college? It's a great school, and they focus less on academics in their selection process. Most expensive schools are way too focused on standardized tests and don't let people in unless you have perfect scores or you know someone."

It still has the same basic message (try a less selective school), but it focuses on the positive aspects from the perspective of the audience. Basically, the trick is to get your point across, while avoiding any "side effects" in terms of bringing up something that would hurt someone's feelings, and purposely throwing in qualifiers and related points that show your intent. If you think there's a chance your comment might be taken the wrong way, word it in an unambiguous way so that nobody will be confused. And if offending someone is unavoidable, sometimes the best policy is to just not say anything.

I know all of this seems like a lot of work, and is less honest than just saying exactly what you think, but interacting with other people usually involves putting some effort into being tactful.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:49 AM on August 1, 2008


Ok, I know that this can be the declawed circumcised obese puppy-abortion of suggestions on MeFi, but have you talked with a mental health professional about whether or not you fit somewhere on the autistic/aspergers spectrum?

An inability to understand nuances of social interaction and some issues with communication underlie a number of the questions you have asked here. Plenty of people who do not merit a full blown diagnosis still can be located on that spectrum, and if that describes you, then you may have way to see this stuff more holistically, and you could then borrow from strategies that have worked for people with full-on diagnoses.

I don't understand what's bad about giving short and straightforward answers to questions.

All of those "superfluous" social niceties exist for a reason -- they are ways to make sure that the other person is comfortable, that they are feeling understood, that your meaning and intent is understood, and so on. Take them all away and you have rudeness and miscommunication.

I'm not very emotional, and I almost never get offended. ... It's really difficult to understand what's offensive and what's not, when I'm really hard to offend, myself.

Uh, check my first paragraph. I'm not sure if one can learn empathy if you don't naturally have it, but one can sure learn to imitate it. It means always thinking about how the other person might feel, how what you say might be received, what the social expectations are in a given interaction.

Where I come from, "less selective" means opportunity, not inferiority. ... The first time I started interacting with those type of people on a regular basis was grad school, which is quite recent. But, that's just one example, I get into similar confrontations, with different types of people.

Grad school, for better or worse, is full of extremely intelligent people from sheltered backgrounds with limited social skills. You have lots of company. The upside of that is that there are lots and lots of opportunities to interact with different people there, and sometimes even organized "how to communicate effectively" workshops. They might be advertised most heavily for foreign students, but chances are they won't exclude you just because you aren't from overseas.

Your example is a really good one of how being "curt" or "direct" often isn't helpful -- saying "less selective" without bothering to unpack your statement, or to check in with what the other person was feeling and was ready to hear, made for an ineffective communication strategy. A fuller, more emotionally-centered communicative approach might have worked much better, and at the cost of much less ill-will.
posted by Forktine at 9:50 AM on August 1, 2008


I give people a lot of room with insensitive comments and general cluelessness if I feel that they're making an effort but don't understand things. This is different from feeling like they just don't care what I think, or if something they said makes me feel bad. I'm also a little tone deaf to other people sometimes and can sometimes say something that I think is a small teasing thing and it turns out to be a big deal. I feel awful. So, I sympathize.

You're sort of pleading your case here, about the misunderstanding about the school situation, and I don't think that's the way to go forward. Basically person A's feelings were hurt, even if they are an oversensitive spaz [and I'm not saying they are, and I'm not saying they aren't] you can say "oh I'm sorry, that wasn't what I means" or just "sorry I didn't mean to make you feel bad" or "gee didn't mean that, I'm really trying to learn a little tact"

The big hurdle that I think you need to get over is that sometimes you just suck it up and say you're sorry even when you maybe think the other person is being a little uppity or sensitive. This is how polite people behave. And then they shut up about it.

You don't get offended. That's great, that must be useful. Other people aren't like you. You're welcome to not get along with them or try to be friendly with them -- I have some former friends who I felt would take offense at pretty much anything and they were tiresome to be around, so I limit my time with them extremely -- but if your goal is to get along with people more, my suggestions would be

- be ready with a sincere apology if you inadvertently offend someone you'd like to get along with
- learn to have manners generally because that can help smooth social fabric and make you seem like you're making an effort [please, thank you, "oh this is a very nice party thank you for inviting me"] and not seem as abrupt
- be upfront about the fact that this is something you're working on and people should be more forgiving about minor screw ups
- realize you can't please everyone, so try to draw some lines for yourself abotu just how far you're willing to go for this.
posted by jessamyn at 9:52 AM on August 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Ok, I know that this can be the declawed circumcised obese puppy-abortion of suggestions on MeFi, but have you talked with a mental health professional about whether or not you fit somewhere on the autistic/aspergers spectrum?

I was never officially diganosed with asperger's, but it was mentioned as a possibility by one of the psychiatrists I had when I was a teen. I was oficially diagnosed with ADHD and LD in written expression, and was a late talker.

But, I LOVE socializing with other people, learning about their lives, and understanding makes them tick. Isn't that negatively correlated with autism?
posted by sixcolors at 10:08 AM on August 1, 2008


It sounds like some of the offense people take might be that they don't understand the point you're actually trying to make—and brief answers can't help that. FWIW, I tend to do the same thing—some of my family will talk your ear off even when asking a simple question, which has caused me to overcompensate and be militantly concise when answering questions. The problem, I think, is that people interpret our brevity and conciseness not as a polite effort to be clear and simple, but as disinterest in communicating with them.

Some people do offend easily. I had a "friend" who was angry with me every couple days for something new. Once I went to eat and didn't invite him to come with me (which he interpreted as me passive-aggressively getting retribution of some sort, versus me being really hungry and not taking the time to phone all my friends and invite them), another time I wrote a paper in support of a political topic he opposed and told him I wasn't really interested in having a debate over the topic (which was me being hostile and unwilling to have a civilized discussion), and so forth. If you're routinely offending lots of different people, maybe you're not communicating well, but if it's the same person being offended over and over again, maybe they're just paranoid/easily offended.

I really take issue about being too curt. I don't understand what's bad about giving short and straightforward answers to questions.

I've come to the conclusion that, even when I'm clearly the one in the right and the other person is being crazy, it's best to apologize: not for what I did, but for how it came across. "I'm so sorry I seemed curt. It certainly wasn't my intention to be short with you," effectively communicates for me that I feel bad they were offended by what I said, but doesn't necessarily take fault for anything other than them misunderstanding. You can also use this as a good way to undo the damage: "Oh my goodness, I'm so embarrassed that I made it sound like your school had low standards! I didn't meant that at all; with people like you, they're clearly a good school! [A pretty transparent compliment.] What I was trying to get across was that they're not snobs. I hardly meant to suggest that it's not a demanding school!" In other words, go into detail about what you meant to say, being extra-careful to tailor it to strongly denounce whatever incorrect slight they thought you were implying.

FWIW, I, too, wondered about low-grade autism/Asperger's. (I fit many of the signs of Asperger's myself, but haven't ever been tested.) People with Asperger's aren't anti-social, but they can come across as lacking empathy/interest.
posted by fogster at 10:26 AM on August 1, 2008


sixcolors: "I don't understand what's bad about giving short and straightforward answers to questions. I really dislike giving long answers, and I like to keep my communication simple."

Plain toast goes down harder than toast with a little butter on it.
posted by WCityMike at 10:29 AM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Regarding curtness: your answers may be short, but are you sure they're straightforward? Whenever I'm annoyed by people's curtness, it's usually because (1) they don't really seem to have listened to me; (2) they seem to be oversimplifying things; or (3) they're leaving too much up to implication.
posted by ambulatorybird at 10:46 AM on August 1, 2008


Suzette Haden Elgin often writes about related questions. This post in particular discusses hostile language, and how to deal with misunderstandings. There is an index of many of the subjects she discusses: you might want to look under empathy, linguistics, and verbal self-defense for some info. The comments have a great deal of the information -- don't skip them.

Her book (soon to be rereleased) 'The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense', though not quite what you seem to need, has a lot of useful examples of unpacking presuppositions in language.

Be careful if you apologise for how you came across: "I'm sorry I seemed curt" can veer close to the non-apology "I'm sorry if you were hurt".
posted by jeather at 11:01 AM on August 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


There is no communication style that is best for all people. A good rule of thumb is to quickly identify an individual's or group's dominant style and tailor your delivery appropriately.

In terms of overcoming the roadblocks in your own style, I think you should stop to examine whether you're being succinct, or whether you're using shorthand that lacks the same meaning for others. Shorthand is not straightforward. It's loaded with connotation, details, and assumptions, and the "less selective" example you describe is consistent with this.

Put another way, your communication may have been brief, but it was neither simple nor direct. You may have to work against natural inclination to be brief until you've built some skills and reflexes.

Before speaking up, writing, etc., ask yourself what do I really mean? In person or verbal interaction, you can preface this process by saying forthrightly, "Hmmm... let me think for a sec."

It's true that this will make your initial response to people and situations less efficient in the short term. However, in the long term, analyzing your initial impulses and making sure you've included appropriate detail and language will avoid weird and uncomfortable situations, reduce barriers, and therefore make interactions more efficient.

I think you might consider seeing a mental health professional or counselor to get some outside feedback in developing a strategy of how to become more effective in personal communications. This could involve a diagnosis, using a therapy technique to identify, track, and effect behavioral change, or some combination.
posted by nita at 11:02 AM on August 1, 2008


On insensitivity: if you offended someone, just apologize politely: "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you..." . To prevent offending someone, use a positive spin on your comments. So "thrifty" instead of "stingy", "committed" instead of "obsessed", etc. (There was a joke I heard in CogSci class: "he's not unfaithful, he's just practicing!") Words do have inherent negative and positive aspects, and being able to pick them out is a skill to learn.

Don't take my word completely to heart, though, because I have the same problem with words. "Hate" and "dislike" mean the same thing to me even though I know they don't to other people.
posted by curagea at 11:11 AM on August 1, 2008


But, I LOVE socializing with other people, learning about their lives, and understanding makes them tick. Isn't that negatively correlated with autism?

Not necessarily, particularly with Asperger's, and even more so for someone who shares parts of the autistic or Asperger's spectrum but does not merit a full-on diagnosis of Asperger's.

I'm going to quote a few sentences from the wikipedia page on Asperger's:

The lack of demonstrated empathy is possibly the most dysfunctional aspect of Asperger syndrome. Individuals with AS experience difficulties in basic elements of social interaction, which may include a failure to develop friendships or to seek shared enjoyments or achievements with others (for example, showing others objects of interest); a lack of social or emotional reciprocity; and impaired nonverbal behaviors such as eye contact, facial expression, posture, and gesture.

Unlike those with autism, people with AS are not usually withdrawn around others ... This social awkwardness has been called "active but odd". This failure to react appropriately to social interaction may appear as disregard for other people's feelings, and may come across as insensitive.


Now, without going down the slippery slope of making an unqualified internet diagnosis, can you see how at least some of this reflects some of the concerns about social interaction and communication you have expressed in your questions? My point here is not to say "ah ha! we have a diagnosis!" but rather to point you in the direction of discussing this in person with someone qualified to determine whether or not it is something that applies to you.

I think that looking at root issues here will, in the long run, help you a lot more than an ad hoc set of cobbled together responses to these AskMe questions.
posted by Forktine at 11:16 AM on August 1, 2008


I am naturally pretty curt. I don't like hand-holding with delicate people through the dark jungle of my judgments. Raargh.

I think you should use "I" statements and elaborate enough on your personal reasons for feeling the way you do, enough for people to really understand you. Stating your opinion as fact is what often moves people like us over the line from crankypants to dick.

so

"That thing sucks!"
"But that thing is my precious darling favorite creation; I am offended!!"

becomes

"I think that thing is sub par because I have always loved this other related thing and I _totally_ prefer it."
"Okay, whatever. No accounting for taste."

And absolutely seconding the suggestion to be ready to backpedal, apologize, and be humble enough to meet halfway when you do hurt feelings.

A good trick there is to deduce whether the person thinks you've got reasons to feel superior (as in, you go to a very choosy school la tee da) and express that you don't value that notion of superiority, and weren't cheerleading for your own good fortune. Sometimes it's hard to convince someone that you value their abilities and their whole package of mixed talents over the one big glaring accomplishment of yours that gets a lot of attention, but really feeling that way is what humility is all about.

This actually csame up for me not long ago regarding Metafilter! I had spoken about it on and off often with my best friend, who has never been as academically motivated as I, or as interested in reading and writing. So there's D student/Honors student baggage, I guess. She finally confessed to me that when I described it to her breezily as a past time she wouldn't really like, just a bunch of intellectual tuffs shooting the breeze till the ends of the earth, she had been hurt because she felt like I was telling her she wasn't smart enough to participate. On the contrary, I was telling her she wasn't patient enough to enjoy it! I clarified, told her I would NEVER exclude her based on her intellect because DUH she's very smart, and she said "Oh yeah, well I thought if you liked it, why wouldn't I, but I'm not patient at all. Gotcha."
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:19 AM on August 1, 2008


jeather's last sentence leaves me concerned that I may have given unclear/bad advice. I emphasized the "I seemed" in the apology more to clarify the point I was making, that even if you don't think you're at fault, it can't hurt to apologize.

During the course of an apology, you definitely don't want to come across as saying, "I'm sorry if you thought I was being curt, even though I wasn't," which isn't an apology at all, as jeather says. While I'd probably still say, "I'm sorry if I seemed curt" to refer to the way I communicated, a more direct, "I'm sorry I was curt. It certainly wasn't my intention to be short with you" might come across better: the last thing you want to do is have an apology that comes across as an insult!
posted by fogster at 11:28 AM on August 1, 2008


I don't understand what's bad about giving short and straightforward answers to questions.

I'm terrible with this, especially in email. (Oddly, I can be longwinded on mefi.) When people are offended, it's because they weren't looking for a quick answer ("you should do X"). Most likely, they are looking for sympathy first. Think of as a cushion (in italics here). "Yeah, that chemistry class DOES suck. I had Professor so-and-so last semester and his grading is brutal. You know, what you COULD do is take it next semester when [other prof] is teaching it. I dropped my biology class for the same reason and I ended up with an A."
posted by desjardins at 12:04 PM on August 1, 2008


"I really offended someone (person A) by telling another person (B) that they should apply to person A's college because it's less selective.
...what meant was person A's college had reasonable admission standards and affordable tuition."


There's an issue right there - if you mean "more reasonable admission standards and affordable tuition", say that, instead of saying "less selective".

And even if you do mean "they have no standards - they'll take anyone!" - which will insult both person A and person B - still consider the gentler touch of saying "more reasonable admission standards" instead. It's more tactful. (Ideally, your comment should not have got back to person A, but it's still a good example since you it walks a fine line near offending person B, to whom you are directly talking.)

Most negative things can be rephrased as neutral, ambiguous, or positive things, without losing their factual or information value. Either via a positive spin on the same relationship (the example above, where "not as elite" is spun as "more reasonable"), or as positive in relation to a third thing which you introduce. eg "this collage is respected in the area"

Yes, this can be overdone until you reach a level of euphemism that is potentially deriding, but the take-home point is this:

A lot of people are thin skinned. Many cannot handle even constructive criticism. Many think that criticism implies superiority on the part of the critic, and thus you're out of line or getting above yourself to criticize. Many will conflate this with any negative statement. The extend of this varies person to person but is also largely cultural.
So - saying negative things is going to offend people.
So your task is to communicate the information you wish to communicate, without phrasing it in negative ways, if more tactful options exist.

If you want to see it irritatingly overdone - look at any Hollywood interviews. You don't publicly slag off people in an industry where you never know you might be working with next or whose help you might need. Interviewees will tie themselves into contortions to avoid saying bad things about anyone. Someone ruined a project, millions of dollars lost or on the line, and the worst that gets said will be something neutral like "we had a different artistic vision for the project".

Be warned - taken to far, this rapidly becomes an annoying trait, being open is valued and refreshing to many. But it sounds like injecting a bit more upbeat/positive/tactful thinking into your conversation before you say things might help, until you know someone well enough to judge the level of brutality they are comfortable with.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:13 PM on August 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've found that people can get offended when they are corrected, especially over trivial/superfluous points. At the end of the day WHO CARES?! Most of the time, when people do that, they are just showing off or putting down... which IS offensive, or least kind of uncool.
posted by mrmarley at 12:49 PM on August 1, 2008


I really take issue about being too curt. I don't understand what's bad about giving short and straightforward answers to questions.

I have this problem also. What seems to be the case is that people like to talk and be talked to. Just giving a short answer isn't enough, talking is like apes grooming each other, it's just soothing to many people. So learning to prattle on about something could be useful skill to develop.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:05 PM on August 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's not what you say, it's the tone. It's a nuance thing. You can say the exact same words and be perceived as: a) awesome, insightful, helpful or b) a dick based entirely on whether you seem to be coming from an empathic place or not. This determination has a lot to do with tone of voice and acknowledgment of context.
posted by desuetude at 11:29 PM on August 1, 2008


Take some time each day to be quieter than you normally would be in your social interactions. During that time, instead of blurting out what you'd likely say, let the extra space be filled with thoughts about how you could word that thing you were going to say in a more sensitive manner. Start by thinking about how it would likely be perceived by the other person. Where are they coming from? What do they need? What are their sensitivities? Your empathy skills will be improved by this sort of practice. They key is not wording things how YOU would like to hear them best, but how the OTHER person needs your words packaged up, so that they can get the gist of what you're saying in the easiest way possible, FOR THEM. And the best way to start getting good at how receptive people are to different communication styles is by listening and paying attention to what works and doesn't work for them. It's about being cooperative, and part of making discussion productive and cooperative is by adjusting your language so that its not an obscure puzzle for others to decipher. And for some people, 'direct' or 'to the point' is a whole 'nother language.

It's not about picking one communication style and sticking with it, but becoming knowledgeable in all the styles, so that you can convey the important information to others in their 'native tongue' (thereby not making conversation unnecessarily difficult for them). And also so you can adapt to a style that is appropriate for the situation, especially if its one that changes during the course of discussion.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:53 PM on August 1, 2008


'Politeness' is actually a whole topic in linguistics - if the main aim of any communication act is to transfer information, then why do people add all the 'please' and 'if you think you could' and so on? I don't know it well enough to summarise, but it is discussed in Ch.8 of Pinker's latest book, The Stuff of Thought. If you find that interesting, he's got a huge reference list to start you on further reading.
posted by jacalata at 3:39 AM on August 2, 2008


jacalata: "20'Politeness' is actually a whole topic in linguistics - if the main aim of any communication act is to transfer information, then why do people add all the 'please' and 'if you think you could' and so on? I don't know it well enough to summarise, but it is discussed in Ch.8 of Pinker's latest book, The Stuff of Thought. If you find that interesting, he's got a huge reference list to start you on further reading."

Pinker's book, while totally fascinating and wonderful, is a bit of a complicated slog before you build up to the politeness good stuff. Politeness Theory was first established by Brown and Levinson, and there have been extensive studies and texts that have come out of it. It falls under Sociolinguistics–a field that might interest you beyond politeness theory, because it is mainly concerned with human communication (things like Cooperative Principle, Speech Act Theory, Code Switching...all interesting things to learn about and relevant to your post). Pinker's slant is more cognitive science and psychology as they relate to linguistics. No problem with that, but if you were thinking of buying the book for chapter 8's topic of Politeness Theory, I'd recommend a sociolinguistic text instead.

For more about Politeness Theory, a good jumping off point would be the Wikipedia page, which lists a couple of the main studies at the bottom.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:15 PM on August 2, 2008


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