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Psychologists Reveal Tactics for Confronting Offensive Speech

Psychologists suggests tactics for confronting offensive speech.

This election season has been like a virus that’s taken over the otherwise healthy body and mind of America. It has divided the country and pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable tone and subject of public discourse. Seemingly everyday the bar keeps getting lowered. Often we find ourselves confronted with speech that not just challenges us, but incites us and offends the core of what we thought were universally shared values. How should we behave when faced with such speech? 

Here are ideas on how to approach speech that you might find not agreeable or downright offensive. 

1. OBJECT – as a recent New York Times article points out, researchers see even the “politest of objections — or subtle corrections to loaded words” being very effective in stopping an offensive speaker’s behavior. Doesn’t matter if it’s your boss or racist uncle. It’s important to learn to object or psychologists suggest you are passively complying with the speaker, giving them the platform to air out their unsavory opinions. 

“When we hear this egregious, uncomfortable talk and we don’t speak up, what’s actually happening is that the person speaking is getting a green light,” said Dr. Sharyn J. Potter, University of New Hampshire’s co-director of the Prevention Innovations Research Center. “It encourages them.”

How to you stop talk you don’t want to continue?

“Simply saying, ‘I don’t appreciate that comment,’ or ‘That’s not cool’ — well, people aren’t going to like you very much after that,” said psychology Professor Linda Tropp from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “But they do get defensive, and change their behavior quickly.”

2. TRY DISTRACTION – basically, change the subject. Talk about anything else. 

“Even in the locker room, guys can change the conversation, they can spray people with water, or crank up the music,” Dr. Potter said.

3. MAKE IT ABOUT YOU – you don’t necessarily need to pick a fight with the person saying something that’s offending you. Just personalize their words for them.  

“You could say: ‘This is bothering me. One of my good friends was raped,” explained Dr. Potter. “If you put it on yourself, that might feel safer.”

4. USE HUMOR – definitely a good approach in most complex social situations. One approach is to respond as if you think the speaker is being outrageous on purpose, a tactic of many a demagogue and blowhard. 

Say something like:

“I love satire. It’s so weird that people believe that for real and it’s so cool you called that out,” suggested educator Gail Stern, who describes this tactic as “verbal aikido”. 

5. DON’T BE AFRAID TO SPOIL THE PARTY – this is perhaps most true of men, who engage in often-hyperbolized sexual banter or casual racism as a form of male bonding. And if one of them goes too far, others might not want to make any corrections simply not to ruin the moment and the experience. 

As described by Professor of language and communication Deborah Cameron of University of Oxford, men might feel they would be “spoiling the mood at a minimum and possibly putting their relationship to the group at risk” if they were to speak up during a racist rant by one of their buddies. They might also feel like their sexuality would be questioned, if they were to say something when another man is openly demeaning a woman in front of them. 

But, be a man. Speak up.

No matter what tactic you choose, it’s important to not just let things slide. Standing up for what you believe and your values. Or you might find yourself in a world that’s not your own any longer. Offensive ideas have a way of coalescing into movements and changing what might appear as incontrovertible reality.


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