“I’m offended!” “You’ve offended me!” “That’s offensive!” No matter how we say it, I don’t think it captures what’s really going on. Offense is a personal thing. Some claim it after feeling individually attacked. Others allege its occurrence hoping to retreat from a difficult conversation as they point a finger at someone for saying something they would rather not face. But what IS offense?
Unfortunately, looking up the word “offense” in something like an online dictionary isn’t as simple as I thought. Offense has so many layers; so many nuances; so many flavors. Perhaps that is why the word is attached to so many emotions and thrown around so loosely. But I like words, so here goes something.
In legal terms, an offense indicates that a social or moral rule has been violated. Some would refer to offense as a transgression or sin. Still, offense is viewed as an attack or assault… something that displeases or is resented. In sports, to be on the offense is to be in control of the ball and in a position to score or advance.
Whether we look at offense from a legal stance or a sports perspective, the success of an offense depends somewhat on the tactics of an adequate defense. We defend ourselves from theft by securing our property. In sports, we carefully consider how the opposing team lines up and recall ways in which they’ve previously played. We consider all possible outcomes and do our best to defend against the opposing team scoring. But how do we take that same stance in our relationships? How do we defend against offense from a family member or co-worker?
Most of the time when I hear someone say they were offended by someone or something, I wonder if I would be offended by the same behavior. In many cases, I wouldn’t. This led me to wonder if being offended is more about personal perception than it is about what was said or done. It’s like when I hear people say, “You’re intimidating.” I’m quick to point out that no, just because you feel intimated doesn’t mean I’m intimidating. There is a difference.
An initiating behavior or action can only be intimidating or offending if the “receiver” perceives it to be so. It’s true we can provoke. We say hurtful things. We attack and demean… Yet, it only becomes offensive if the one attacked agrees to be offended by what was done. Otherwise, what happened could be dismissed as rude behavior or an insensitive action by the attacker and not something internalized as offense by the attacked.
Offense: Take It or Leave It
Now, I understand not everyone will embrace my way of seeing things when it comes to offense… and I’m okay with that. I’ve learned that when it comes to offense, I can take it or leave it. I believe I have the power to choose my emotions and responses to what is being said or done to me.
Below are a few ways we can insulate ourselves from what we deem as an assault… both the intentional and unintentional kind.
Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes: What are possible reasons behind that individual’s behavior? Were they speaking in general but we felt slighted by something not really directed at us? Is it possible the person was acting more out of their own fears and insecurities? If it’s a situation that upset you, was what happened a deliberate attempt rattle you or a poorly executed plan? Keep in mind we get to decide what rattles us and for how long.
Assess Your Own Emotions: There will be times you will want to know more about the person or situation and there will be time self-assessment is more helpful. When we take issue with what someone said or did, it may be good to determine if the incident is bringing up painful memories? Why are we offended; did we have an expectation that was not met? Are we really dealing with feeling hurt, sad, or disrespected? Do you have a hard time accepting criticism? These questions are not designed to place blame, but to get a clearer picture of what is going on internally.
Look for cultural difference: Different cultures express themselves differently. What is considered rude in some cultures isn’t in others. There are those who are much more direct in their statements and requests than what you may be accustomed to hearing. Rather than jump to conclusions it may be best to ask some questions. Observe the other person’s overall behavior. Are they consistent? Do their actions show they care or are supportive most of the time?
If you can’t take it, don’t dish it: I have observed that some of the most sensitive people are also some of the most insensitive as well. The same ones who use sarcasm like others use soap can be the first to cry foul when another person mimics their behavior. Often, being abrupt with people is really an attempt to guard ourselves from being disappointed by people and relationships. To overcome this, we must commit to holding difficult conversation and taking emotional risks. If you find yourself insulted easily; first ask, “Did I say or do something that was off putting or offensive?
To make sure there are no misunderstanding, I am well aware that there are toxic narcissists and ill-intentioned people who deliberately provoke and feed off inflicting pain upon others. Having healthy boundaries with this type of person is often the key to maintaining the buffers we need for emotional peace. What is written here is to challenge us to change how we react to others who behave badly.
Taking offense is a personal choice. Read that again. Can you think of anything you took that you didn’t choose to? Let’s say that someone tricked you into holding something; you then had to make a decision about how far you carried it, right?
So you took offense, but how far though?