You’ve all heard the famous saying a thousand times, the one about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. But how many of us can truthfully say we implement that thought process in our everyday life? For most, especially within individualistic cultures, we tend to think in one perspective: our own. But how does that affect what we see as offensive, and how we communicate about potentially offensive material?

How We Perceive Offensive Material

Part of the struggle with evaluating what is or isn’t offensive is that it is almost entirely subjective. Depending on our beliefs, background, and relationships we may have very different ideas about what is offensive and how offensive certain things are.

Is this a problem?

Well, no… at least, not until it is.

Some people may outright decide they don’t care about what other people find offensive, but for most of us, we just don’t think about how certain things we say or hear may impact those around us. In our own minds, it doesn’t offend us or stand out as offensive, so it should be fine, right?

It’s easy to fall in love with a political commentator that represents your own views, and decide that that isn’t offensive, but what happens when you’re on the other side of comments like that?

It probably doesn’t feel so great.

Individualistic vs Collectivistic

The United States is an individualistic country, which means that we tend to think in terms of what is best for ourselves, our families, our friends… and maybe not much beyond that. This can mean that the way we process potentially offensive material is largely focused on what may be offensive to us, and not what may be offensive to someone with a different ethnicity or political party.

Collectivistic cultures tend to think differently. In places like Japan, China, and Korea, the focus is weighted on the wellbeing of the group, not the individual. Society in such places revolves around cultivating harmony and cohesion. This means that as people from these cultures process material, the focus is less on how it impacts them personally and more on how it may impact society as a whole.

Neither type of culture is inherently good or bad, but in many ways, we in the U.S. have a thing or two to learn about thinking how something may affect someone else before saying or sharing it.

So, what’s actually offensive?

We would love to tell you that this is the part where we give you a quick, easy, 3-step process to evaluate whether something is offensive or not… but we aren’t, because it just isn’t that simple. Our best advice? Live out walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

This sounds easy, but most of the time it isn’t. We’d prefer talking about the color of said shoes, or debating their functionality and level of comfort, rather than put them on and walk. Still, there’s a lot of value in thinking through how someone else may perceive something before we like, comment, and share.

So, next time you’re checking out a fun new comedian or thinking about sharing a news segment, try watching it with someone else in mind first. Sure, nothing in it hurt you, but how would it hurt someone of a different ethnicity, age, or religion?

Chances are, humanity will never fully agree on what is and isn’t offensive, but we can learn to communicate about what we find offensive in a way that promotes dialogue instead of division. Try to stay open to the way that other people perceive things. If you’re told that something is offensive, even though you don’t find it offensive, try asking questions to understand where they’re coming from instead of getting defensive. Next time you see or hear something that offends you, try taking a deep breath and remembering that that person is human, too, instead of writing them off.

We all might find that the shoes we’re walking in are more similar than we thought.

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