Social Mistake: Unintentionally Insulting People
Many social mistakes aren't that big a deal. You may not want to make them, and cringe at yourself when you do, but no one else cares that much. Like if you stumble over your words, or talk about your hobby a tad too long, you might come across as a bit nervous or clumsy, but no one's going to hate you for it.
One type of social gaffe that is a bigger deal, and can get quite a negative reaction is when you unintentionally insult someone. That is, you do it entirely out of social thoughtlessness and obliviousness. Even if the other person realizes you didn't put them down on purpose, they'll still feel annoyed for being insulted, and that you didn't know how to avoid being hurtful. (Of course, putting someone down deliberately is also bad, but that's not what this article will focus on.)
Examples of unintentional insults
- Matter of factly commenting on someone's facial feature, one they're likely to be sensitive about (e.g., "Did you have trouble finding glasses that suit your face, because you've got such a big nose?")
- Matter of factly commenting on a personality trait someone might feel touchy about having (e.g., "You must have a really clean apartment. I can tell you're uptight.")
- Accidentally trashing someone's taste (e.g., telling someone "Ugh, I keep hearing that new song by (singer X) on the radio on my way to work. Aren't they the worst?", when it turns out they like that artist.)
- Asking someone if they're in a group that traditionally has unflattering stereotypes associated with it (e.g., "Are you an accountant? You've got a total accountant vibe." - Even if you meant nothing by it, they may not appreciate that you see them as belonging to a profession that's often thought of as being boring and buttoned-up.)
- Telling someone they don't seem like they could belong to a group with some positive traits associated with it, e.g., "You go camping most weekends? Uh... really? I wouldn't have figured you for the type." (They may think you're implying you see them as an out of shape, unrugged shut-in.)
- Informing someone you thought they had an unflattering trait at first (e.g., "You know when I first met you I thought you were annoying and tried too hard to be the center of attention, but as I got to know you I realized you weren't really like that.")
- Telling someone one of the reasons you like them is because they have a trait they may not see as entirely positive. For example, a woman telling her male friend she appreciates how docile and unimposing he is.
- Casually telling someone they remind you of a celebrity or public figure who's mainly known for having unappealing traits (e.g., saying they look like an actress known for playing a frumpy, absent-minded character on a sitcom.)
- Telling someone they remind you of an odd or annoying person they used to know (e.g., "Ha ha, you're so much like this guy Daryl from the summer camp I went to as a kid. He was always doing strange things like eating bugs.")
- Letting a friend know you didn't like something they created in a particularly blunt, tactless way. For example, saying, "I tried listening to your new song you uploaded. I got bored and stopped after the first two minutes." No one expects every piece of art to suit your tastes, but it is possible to word your opinion in an unnecessarily harsh way.
- Assuming an overweight woman is pregnant.
- Thinking you're good-naturedly teasing someone, but going too far or hitting a sore spot (e.g., you make an overly cutting joke about their acne).
- Letting it slip that you're hanging out with someone because they were your second choice, or that you figured you had to invite them along ("I was going to hang out with Jess tonight, but then remembered she's visiting her Mom this weekend, so I decided I may as well see what you were up to.")
- Using a label that has both a good and bad meaning, like "geek" or "nerd". Applying it to someone who will take the insulting connotation from it. For example, telling a friend they're nerdy. You meant it as an affectionate way to describe their interests and sense of humor. They think you're saying they're unstylish and socially awkward. (More than the other points on this list, this one is easier to do purely by accident, as some terms mean different things to different people.)
How not to accidentally insult people
As I said, the cause of comments like this is thoughtlessness about other people's feelings, and obviousness about what kinds of things are socially appropriate to say or not. Here are some ways to avoid these types of gaffes in the future:
- Before you say anything use some empathy and ask yourself how the other person is likely to react. Would your average person not appreciate hearing it? Don't rely too much on whether you'd personally be offended or not, because what does or doesn't offend you may not apply to everyone else (e.g., don't conclude, "I don't care if someone comments on my bald spot. It's just factual information. So no one else should be touchy about their thinning hair either.")
- Try to learn some basic guidelines on what kinds of things are okay to say or not. In general, it's a bad idea to casually comment on people's negative physical or personality traits. Be careful about telling someone they fall into a group when they may not appreciate being lumped into that category. If you're going to say something negative or critical, watch how you phrase it. Like don't declare everyone who likes a certain show is a moron, when the friend you're talking to could very well be a fan.
What to do if you accidentally insult someone
If someone gets annoyed and tells you you've offended them, take it seriously. Don't make the mistake of brushing them off with a "Nah, I didn't mean anything bad by it." Even if you think they're being too sensitive, you still hurt their feelings. You're going to look bad if you try to argue with them about it. Give them a brief, sincere apology. For example, "Sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. I clearly didn't think before I spoke."
Reflect on what type of inappropriate comment you made, and try not to say that kind of thing again in the future. In a sense, it's good that you got called out for your behavior. That's better than if the other person was silently irritated at you and stopped inviting you out in the future. At least now you know what you did wrong and can avoid doing the same thing going forward.
Also, ask yourself if you really made the comment completely by accident. Sometimes people make seemingly unintentional hurtful remarks out of passive-aggressiveness, not obliviousness. For various reasons they resent others, but don't feel able to confront them directly. Instead, they jab at them with cutting remarks that they can plausibly deny as being said out of thoughtlessness. Sometimes they're aware they're doing this. At other times their motivation is unconscious. If you think you're sniping at people in a passive-aggressive way, learn to communicate more assertively.