Social Minefield: When A Friend Offends


We’ve all been there — a friend drops a comment that leaves us seething, but rather than say anything, we just let the resentment rankle. No longer! Here’s how to speak up when someone’s out of line.

Few things are more disturbing than someone you’re close to suddenly espousing views you not only disagree with but actively abhor. Sometimes there’s no going back — if the person, say, just accused black people of being hypersensitive while spouting the n-word eleven times. But sometimes the friendship is worth trying to work through whatever bullshit your friend just said. Only you can tell the difference, but here are some possible guidelines:

Is The Person Ignorant?

Not that it’s an excuse, but sometimes someone just hasn’t considered that, say, calling a guy a pussy is offensive to women and men alike. A lot of prejudice is unconscious, and sometimes all someone needs is a wakeup call in order to stop using offensive terminology (I’d argue that kids who toss around “that’s gay” are often also an example of this). If what needs correction is ignorance rather than malice, the whole conversation has a way higher probability of being a teachable moment rather than a fight.

Is He/She Otherwise Caring?

Your friend may be the type of person who would be really upset to find out she’d said something prejudiced, and eager to correct it really fast. These people are a) probably good friends to have, and b) the exact right kind of people to have a “what you said was actually offensive” conversation with. The sad reality is that even caring people say fucked-up shit sometimes — but a good friend will want to know about it so he/she can make amends.

It’s Not Your Responsibility

I’m of the opinion that just as you don’t have to stand for every member of whatever group you belong to, you also aren’t obligated to speak out against every statement you find offensive. Nobody owes anybody an education, and being a member of a marginalized group doesn’t make a person some sort of designated first responder to all the shit jerks (and, on occasion, nice people) are capable of spreading around. You, whoever you are, have the right to decide when and if you want to talk, and what you want to say.

Now say you’ve decided you do want to speak up. What then?

Have A Script

This is good advice in a lot of difficult social situations, but especially here, it’s helpful to know what you’re going to say before you say it. Even if you’re responding in the heat of the moment, take a second to think through what you want to get across. As Slate‘s Dear Prudence points out, if you’re talking to a friend, it’s a good idea to be as calm and un-inflammatory as possible. Whatever your friend said may actually warrant a blistering smackdown, but people often get upset at even the politest hint that they might be prejudiced (more on this below), and your friend is more likely to listen and less likely to shut down if you keep things pretty civil. Prudie offers this sample script to an undergrad with a racist roommate:

Jenny, I’ve been thinking about what you said last night about minorities on campus. I was so taken aback that I didn’t answer. But having thought about it, I need to tell you I couldn’t disagree with you more strongly. And your statement that all the minority students don’t belong here and have taken the place of more deserving white students is flat out wrong.

It’s short and to-the-point, but I’m not sure I agree with Prudie’s assessment that the student needs to keep her own personal feelings (and racial background) out of the equation. As an alternative example, here’s what blogger/author/sometime Jezebel contributor Kate Harding once told a friend, when she “finally mustered the nerve to ask her to quit telling me I’m not fat, on the grounds that we both know it’s a crock”:

Thin women don’t tell their fat friends “You’re not fat” because they’re confused about the dictionary definition of the word, or their eyes are broken, or they were raised on planets where size 24 is the average for women. […] when they say “You’re not fat,” what they really mean is “You’re not a dozen nasty things I associate with the word fat.” The size of your body is not what’s in question; a tape measure or a mirror could solve that dispute. What’s in question is your goodness, your lovability, your intelligence, your kindness, your attractiveness. And your friends, not surprisingly, are inclined to believe you get high marks in all those categories. Ergo, you couldn’t possibly be fat.
But I am. I am cute and healthy and pleasant-smelling (usually) and ambitious and smart and lovable and fun and stylish and friendly and outgoing and categorically not icky. And I am fat — just like I’m also short, also American, also blonde (with a little chemical assistance). It is just one fucking word that describes me, out of hundreds that could. Those three little letters do not actually cancel out all of my good qualities.

Be Prepared For Defensiveness

As someone who’s privileged in a lot of ways, I’m still working on my tendency to get defensive when someone calls me out on said privilege and/or prejudice. So I know firsthand that when someone hears that they just might have said something offensive, they tend to freak out. Their emotions aren’t your responsibility, and if all they can do is dither about how they can’t believe you think they would blahblahblah, then it may be time to give up — at least for now. However, it is possible for people to move past defensiveness, and you can help them along by reminding them that all people harbor unconscious prejudices, and you don’t think they’re some uniquely horrible person just because you happened to notice theirs.

Stand Your Ground

If you’ve already gone to the considerable trouble of confronting a friend, it’s worth it to hold the line — even if your friend tries to argue about how what he/she said wasn’t actually offensive. Sure, be polite, and sure, listen to the friend’s arguments if you want, but don’t feel pressured into backing down just to keep the peace. If you end up admitting you were wrong when you still know you’re right, you’ll leave feeling even worse.

Walk Away

With any luck, following your script will lead to a productive conversation between you and your friend. But it might not — and if it’s clear that you’re not making any headway, it’s time to walk away. Don’t capitulate, and make it clear that you stand by your position, but just table the conversation for another time. Maybe after sleeping on it, your friend will come around. Maybe not — and at that point, you need to decide if the friendship is worth continuing despite this disagreement, or if, in the words of They Might Be Giants, “this is where the party ends.”

Intolerance 101 [Slate]
Does My Butt Look Fat? [Salon]

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For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

Image via Eduard Titov/

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