Petra Kottsieper, Ph.D.
I recently was part of a conversation where one person told of having been asked a “rude” question, which by extension, seemed to deem the person who had asked the question as rude. The thing was, I did not think that the question was inherently rude at all. It made me think about how many times a day irritation, arguments, ruminations, stewing, and the slow demise of relationships ensue due to a question or comment we might have thought innocent, but which was taken as offensive. And to think this through even further, if communication can go so wrong between two people from roughly similar socioeconomic backgrounds, countries, ethnicities, interests, you name it, what happens when we step outside our comfort zones, (which we increasingly do through the internet, globalization, media, and travel)?
To this end, a plethora of advice columns exist just to help you deal with these situations, and what or what not to say in response. Usually, what we do is locate the blame for the incident squarely with the other person, hopefully with some kind of witty or snarky retort that does not only occur to us hours later. By this time we have judged the utterance itself, and often, judged the person as well, based on the utterance. And then we often sashay away with our head held high while wallowing in moral superiority or disgust over what kind of creatures we are forced to inhabit the planet with. Yet, how many of us stop and ask why we were so offended in the first place?
Well, why are we? Interestingly the topic of politeness has been studied in the field of pragmatics for about 30 years. However, impoliteness or relational insensitivity (my new favorite term) has not been given the same research attention, but has gained tracking in the last 10 or so years. And while there is apparently a scholarly debate occurring over the semantic similarity or differences between impoliteness and rudeness, most of us would probably agree that intentional rudeness or impoliteness is uncool and often an act of aggression and/or display of power. Yet herein lies the first problem. How to we infer “intent”?
Intent is a very important aspect of human behavior and state of mind. Take for example its role in law, where it is needed to differentiate if something was a planned crime, a crime of passion or an accidental act, with the former being punished most harshly. Sometimes intent is clearer to infer than at other times, for example, when someone says something to you that clearly violates some culturally accepted social norm. Someone saying to you “Well, I saw that one coming, you are just not smart enough” seems to clearly have some intent to hurt the receiver of the communication. If this communication is truly intended by the speaker as hurtful, of course, still depends on a number of contextual, cultural and social variables. Specifically, the relationship the speaker has with the receiver, the cultural norms they share, the event, and so on. All things being equal, however, calling someone stupid would be a hurtful thing to say to someone.
How about a situation when you infer intent and it was not intended? Research shows that even communications that are not indented to be rude, and are known to the receiver as largely unintentional, can still be perceived as hurtful as others, as outlined by Jonathan Culpeper (2011). Culpeper argues that intentionality is likely perceived on a dimensional scale (from weak intentionality to strong intentionality) and its “strength” is perceived by the presence or absence of a number of factors such as a “ desire for certain effects, a plan of action, ability to carry out the plan, responsibility for the action, foresight of consequences”. So when someone asks you if I you have gained weight, the person asking may not have planned to be intentionally rude to you, but the consequence of you being upset by such a question might have nevertheless been foreseeable. Now again, Culpeper points out that how upset you are by this question, might depend on the relationship you have with the person. Obviously if you know the person well and he or she knows that you struggle with weight issues you may find this comment more offensive than if it was asked by a casual acquaintance you had not seen in a while. Or conversely if you have a very honest relationship with a good friend you might expect or want her or him to say this to you, but would not from someone you do not know very well.
Well, where is all of this going and what are we to learn from this research?
First off, it is important to remember that communication is a complicated business and we infer and judge and interpret the meaning and significance of what is said constantly. Sometimes we are right and sometimes we are wrong, and often we will never know how something was truly intended, because we either do not ask, or we do not get honest answers if we ask.
There is something I think we can do, however, in situations where someone says something to us that we think is rude, maybe because we perceive it as an invasion of our privacy, or an uninvited comment on something we are sensitive about. The first step would be to refrain from inferring intentionality immediately when it is possibly not present. Maybe we can “choose” not to see the incident immediately as intentional when it is likely not. Even though we might still be hurt we can look at ourselves and ask why this really hurts us, or why something really rubs us the wrong way. In other words, you can be hurt and offended, but recognize that this is your issue to own.
On the other hand we can educate the “offender”, letting him or her know that their choice of words is hurtful, and, if you dare to be vulnerable, why. Then this person can choose to become more aware of how their words may have impacted the other person, or what they signify to this person. Then the speaker can make a choice and has the opportunity to change their behavior, especially given they might have not truly meant their words to be offensive or hurtful.
Or preferably you can do both, although we all be a lot busier than we already are, but I think that would be worth it. For the person that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this would have meant looking at why a question.
Culpeper, J. (2011). Impoliteness: Using language to cause offence, Cambridge University Press.
Culpeper, Jonathan (2009) Impoliteness: Using and Understanding the Language of Offence. ESRC project website: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/projects/impoliteness/