What To Do When: You’ve Said Something Offensive

Well, I’ve got a true story for you. I was sitting in a meeting last week and, out of ignorance, I blurted out something that was offensive. We were trying to look up something via the school portal and we were getting a heaping helping of nope. I said, “yeah, my Internet’s been garbage off and on for the past couple of weeks.”

Little did I know that a director in information technology services was in the meeting and of course she was the chair of the group. Of course. She took it graciously and we had a jovial banter, but believe you me, I felt awful. Afterward, she approached me and said she understood that I meant no harm and to let her know if my Internet connection was dodgy; it was most likely do to icky old cable in our building. This person had been nothing but welcoming and kind to me, so naturally, I felt like a heel. Of course I apologized, but it seemed weak. Here’s how I dealt with it and hopefully this will give you some ideas on how you can recover when you’ve said something offensive.

First, recognize what you said was offensive.

The first step to anything is often the hardest. Even if you don’t think the person’s reaction to what you said was warranted, it’s imperative that you understand that it was offensive to that person. Period. This will take you stepping outside of yourself for a moment, but I bet you can do it. A term that we use colloquially in our social groups may not be taken well by others based on their culture, experience or value system. In my case, I said a negative comment about her direct area, which seemed like a criticism of something that obviously meant a lot to her. How would I feel if she said something critical about one of my most cherished projects? Devastated, that’s how!


Most of the time, we really don’t go about our day with the intention of being offensive. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here – you probably didn’t intend for anyone to get offended and were probably taken off guard a bit at the receiver’s reaction. After you have understood that what you’ve said was offensive, I’m sure you’ll want to apologize. Don’t apologize because you think it’s the right thing to do; apologize because you can display empathy for another person and you probably don’t want to see them hurting from something you did. If you can, apologize in person or over the phone. Your genuine apology will be best conveyed with a combination of tone, body language and eye contact.

Understand how and why your statement was offensive.

After you apologize, most people will be happy to explain why they felt offended and will immediately go into it. However, some won’t. When/if prudent, ask to know more about your offense. I’m willing to bet their explanation will educate you on their experience and you’ll come away better informed. In my case, the other person had been catching flak about the service quality lately due to circumstances beyond her control and she was naturally feeling a bit twitchy about it.

Employ the apology sandwich.

After parting ways, I like to provide an additional apologetic layer. I keep credit in my Paperless Post account for quick greetings or (forgotten) birthdays and it came in handy last week during my shameful experience. The recipient was grateful and sent a kind response. It lets the other person know that she was in your thoughts and the learning experience wasn’t lost on you. Sometimes I also like to send candy or silly notes to friends in other departments via interoffice mail (sorry postal service!), so that’s also an option. If you’re feeling particularly generous or if your offense was especially grievous, you  may need to employ flower delivery or a nice delivery from Edible Arrangements or Shari’s Berries!

Engage that person when appropriate.

Even after apologizing, you may still be smarting from your experience and seek to avoid that person when possible, as to reduce another spell of offensive word spillage. However, if you have a question only she can answer, ask her! The other person will see that your relationship is valuable to you and will most likely reciprocate. If you see the other person in public or at a gathering, make sure to fit in a quick hello or at least some eye contact, a smile and a wave.

Understand that the relationship may be over.

Depending on the severity of your statement and the depth of the offense, you may have to resign yourself to the fact that the relationship might be over or you may need to give the other person a good bit of distance for an undetermined amount of time. Luckily this wasn’t the case for me. However, like other potentially negative occurrences in our lives, you may recognize that this was a learning experience and this person’s time in your life is now over. *sigh*

Forgive yourself.

Let’s face it – you’ve said something hurtful or offensive before and chances are, you’ll do it again before you leave this earth. It might be out of anger, or it might be out of ignorance. Be who you are and say what you think – but prepared for the consequences. Just like with anything else, you’re going to make mistakes and if you can’t forgive and love yourself, you’re not caring for yourself – and who else will take care of you if you’re not taking care of you?

Okay, share time, friends! When was the last time you’ve said something offensive to someone you cared about/respected? How did you recover and move on? Was it the end of the relationship or did you become closer? Do tell!


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