"Iron my shirt!" "Old people...should just die." "All the hunters gather up..." The authors of a new book on diversity have announced their list of the Top Ten most offensive publicly reported comments of the year, with tips on how to respond to such comments.
Why recount a list of offensive comments? “Comments like these don’t exist in a vacuum,” says Patty Bates-Ballard, co-author of Navigating Diversity: An Advocate’s Guide Through the Maze of Race, Gender, Religion and More. “They usually are accompanied by actions that at the very least exclude, and often directly discriminate. Many times people of conscience don’t know how to respond to racist, sexist, ageist and other insensitive comments. I believe it’s important to address this year’s most offensive comments before they settle into our national subconscious,” she says.
Asked if the list and the book are politically correct, co-author Gregory Smith rejects the concept. “The constitution guarantees our right to say almost anything,” says Smith. “We provide tools for those who choose to balance that right with a desire to be respectful. We hope the list will spur people to think about how they can respond to similar comments they may hear,” he adds.
The list is heavy with comments from the 2008 presidential campaign, and includes comments from all sides of the political spectrum. The list of comments was compiled by the authors over the course of the year. Earlier this month, visitors to the website navigatingdiversity.com were invited to identify which comments they considered to be the most offensive, and to submit additional publicly reported comments.
Bates-Ballard readily acknowledges that the list is a means toward an end. “We hope to hook people with the comments, and then encourage them to think about how they would respond to them. Because in the heat of the moment, most of us don’t really know what to say. And when we don’t respond, the silence often is interpreted as agreement. So it’s not about demonizing the people who made the comments. The website navigatingdiversity.com offers a range of suggested responses to several of the top ten comments that are designed to open up a dialogue,” she explains.
Responding to offensive comments
Bates-Ballard and Smith have identified five different types of possible responses to the comments, corresponding to basic human interaction styles.
Thought-provoking responses are questions that cause the speaker to think about what was just said. “What is your experience with that?” and “What led you to say that?” are some thought-provoking questions that can de-escalate the situation and sometimes lead to a constructive conversation.
Personal statements about one’s own experiences and feelings related to the comment are often very powerful. Sharing personal experiences and feelings makes an argument less likely to occur, the authors say. “I am extremely upset about what you said” and “I feel really sad when I hear that kind of comment” are examples of personal responses.
Informative brief facts can also be helpful, if the person who made the comment seems interested.
A Light satirical comment or rhetorical question is another option, when the setting or time doesn’t allow for a more in-depth exchange. Light responses allow one to say something when otherwise he or she might say nothing at all.
Authoritative statements that require respectful behavior are appropriate for parents and others in leadership positions. “That language is disrespectful and I don’t want to hear you say that again” is an example of an authoritative response to an insensitive comment.
In offering suggested responses, the authors stress the importance of tone of voice, intonation, and the words emphasized. “More important than what you say is how you say it,” says Smith. “If your how is off, many of these suggested responses can come off as snappy comebacks or gotcha’s, and can get you into trouble. The key is to using most of these responses is to be curious,” he advises.
In the tradition of David Letterman, the list starts with number 10 and counts down to the most offensive at number 1. The list is as follows:
Tenth most offensive comment of 2008