We talk and we talk and we talk about what needs to change in this world and the various things that we need to call people out on. But rarely do we talk about how exactly to do that.
I’d like to say that it doesn’t matter how you say something, it’s what you say, and in some cases that is true, but in this case, the “what” and the “how” are equally important. The “how” might even be more important.
Here is why – imagine that you’ve written something (it can be anything, even a text message), and someone reading it says to you, “Um, excuse me, but just so you know, semicolons are actually only supposed to be used when bla bla bla bla. I mean I don’t expect most people to know that, I’m just a huge stickler for grammar and I went to school for Creative Writing.”
Did reading that kind of piss you off? Because it pissed me off just to write it. Doesn’t whoever that person is sound like a stuck up douchebag? They sound like they’re lecturing, and not because they actually care about teaching you something, but because they want to show off the ways in which they are better than you.
This person is just assuming that you are less intelligent than they are and as a result they are being condescending AF.
Or maybe you’ve published an article online, and someone comments, “OMG, how did this even get published? This chick can’t even write, the grammar is ATROCIOUS. Burn it with fire”.
Um, harsh much? You see this kind of behaviour online all the time – less so in real life because most people hate confrontation, but it still happens. Youtube comments are notoriously bad for this, but it occurs everywhere, including platforms that are seen as “intellectual” and “open-minded” and “progressive”.
Or how about a time when you’ve said the wrong thing with completely good intentions, and someone blows up at you for it? All of a sudden they won’t speak to you, or they’re reaming you out. That’s no fun, right? Friendships end because of things like that, often unnecessarily. Most people are good and deserve a second chance and an opportunity to apologize.
Now reverse those roles. DON’T BE LIKE THOSE PEOPLE.
First of all, these approaches are rude and sometimes hurtful.
Second of all, they’re not effective. If you were in the above situations, how would you react? You might just not take the person seriously, or maybe you would be so angered that you’d just think, “Who the fuck cares about that anyway? In the REAL WORLD no one knows how semicolons work and it’s just not practical to learn how to use them properly.” It would probably seem really arbitrary and stupid to you. Maybe you would be so hurt by your friend’s sudden dismissal that it would shatter your confidence and you’d fear ever saying anything at all.
As with basically everything in life, approaching things with kindness is the best way to go. That does not mean that you just coat what you’re saying in a veneer of politeness, tossing in “sorry”s and “not to be _, but”s every now and then. It means that you view yourself and the other person as equals and you
treat them with compassion.
Some people believe that people can’t ever change and you’ll never change someone’s behaviours or beliefs. This is simply not true. We have all grown up with certain values and internalized prejudices that were handed down to us by older members of our society. Many of us have never had the opportunity to think about these issues for ourselves critically, because we’ve never had reason to.
The fact is that when someone says something offensive, unless the tone is angry or malicious, it’s likely because they don’t know it’s offensive, or at least, they don’t know why it matters that it’s offensive. You can be the one to teach them, if you do it right.
If you calmly explain to someone why something they said or did is hurtful, either to you or someone else, they are far more likely to listen to you. The key is to make them feel like they are not being attacked – more like you’re having a heart-to-heart, or like you’re just making an offhand comment in the same way they are, depending on the situation – because 9 times out of 10, they don’t deserve to be attacked.
They need to know that you are aware that they’re not a terrible person, and you’re not tearing down their character. Just because someone is wrong about one or two things doesn’t suddenly negate all of their other wonderful qualities and actions. Everyone is flawed, and everyone has said, done, and believed stupid things in their life, including you.
I wish I could give you a script of exactly what to say and how this situation should play out, but I can’t. This is still something that I struggle with constantly, which I wrote about last year in this post. All I know is what not to do, and that this is what the overall vibe should be.
All I know is that a decent rule of thumb is to think about how you would want to be treated, and then follow that.
Chelsea Ricchio is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the SPEAK OUT blog. She is also the Communications Manager for Healthy Minds Canada. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2015 with a BA in English Literature and Book & Media Studies. She was the former president of the student group Active Minds at UofT, which hosts SPEAK OUT events on campus (from which this blog takes its name). She was diagnosed with Dysthymia and Social Anxiety. She is 23 and lives in Toronto with her cat Genie.