When You're Unintentionally Insensitive

Ryan Fan

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Today, I said something incredibly callous and insensitive. It wasn’t that I was trying, but I saw a photo of Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in the 1978 Superman movie. In Sean Kernan’s latest brilliant piece on Reeve’s personal story, there was a photo of Reeve after he was left quadriplegic after a horse competition. He was in a wheelchair, with a part of the wheelchair’s headrest holding his head in place. I made a passing comment that I thought that part of the wheelchair holding his head in place looked like headphones. I very soon realized they weren’t.

I felt horrible immediately. It was a pretty ignorant comment that demonstrated ignorance of Reeve’s plight and situation. I know unintentional insensitive comments happen, but what’s the best way to move on from it other than just pretending it didn’t happen?

I was reminded immediately of a similar unintentionally insensitive comment that my campus minister told a group of us one time. He was at a diner and the server had an accent that he thought sounded European and yet he couldn’t pinpoint where she was from. He asked and was interested in what kind of accent it was, and asked the server a couple times, to which she eventually responded:

“I have a speech impediment.”

I know my campus minister isn’t a bad person. In fact, he helped a lot of people with personal issues. He’s had to bring several students to the hospital when they contemplated or attempted suicide, and went above and beyond at events to make sure everyone had what they needed, taking an incredible amount of time to meet one on one with each student. I credit the fact that I got through my senior year of college to his support.

But his comment taken out of context, and my comment taken out of context could very easily be construed poorly on our characters. There were other lesser offenses where I was unintentionally insensitive, largely due to ignorance. I’ve asked acquaintances how it was going with their long-term boyfriend or girlfriend, only to awkwardly be told they were no longer together. I’ve asked people how their job was going or academics were going in college, only to be told they were no longer at that job or at that school.

For context, I’m Asian and my girlfriend is Black. One time, about three months ago, my girlfriend and I were watching a TV show and the race of an albino Black actor was bought up. I said “oh, she doesn’t look Black,” to which I was checked and told “Ryan, that’s kind of racist.” Several years before I was Christian, when I was 18, as an agnostic, I shared a (what I thought was a funny) Snapchat photo of me reading the Bible with the caption “Ryan reading his favorite fairy tale.” One of my friends did not take kindly to that photo.

Everyone has those moments, and they’re accidents, but they can be pretty bad accidents. Not everyone can be 100% sensitive all the time, and everyone will make an inappropriate comment at some point in their lives.

According to Anna Goldfarb of the New York Times, saying the wrong thing and making an inappropriate comment or an insensitive joke makes the wound internal. Patching up the issue becomes significantly more difficult. And it’s not healthy to just strive never to say anything wrong because it makes it worse for yourself when you do say something wrong. Don Cole, a licensed marriage and family therapist would say that there is:

“More guilt, anger, upset feelings when the miscommunications and the hurt feelings occur.”

Successful relationships, however, aren’t about not saying the wrong thing. They are rather about knowing how to repair hurt feelings when we’ve caused them. Throughout our lives, we’ll have unintentionally offended a lot of people, from friends, acquaintances, family, partners, and co-workers.

To make right with those moments, we have to do the following:

Take responsibility immediately, and be open and vulnerable about our mistakes. Don’t get defensive. Apologize. At the root of an unintentionally insensitive comment are carelessness and thoughtlessness. Perhaps that carelessness and thoughtlessness towards a person or just towards comments we make is a pattern, so it’s important to reflect upon that.

However, Goldfarb notes that it’s also important not to catastrophize the situation and go into a shame spiral. If the other person says it’s not a big deal, it’s best just to accept it and try to never do it again. She also urges not letting it fester and pretend it never happened.

“Not only will you spend more time worrying about the situation, but the longer you delay bringing up the gaffe, the more awkward it will be,” she says.

Above all, don’t make yourself the victim when you apologize. Don’t make it about you as much as it is about the other person. The apology should be genuine in the sense that it validates the pain of the other person more than it makes it about you.

After it’s over, reset and let it go. You can’t control how another person is going to take an unintentionally insensitive comment. It’s often best after addressing the comment to move on and learn from it.

“Try to embrace the opportunity to understand the other person’s lived experience and identify with their pain, even if you played a part in causing it. Not only will you be a more considerate friend and colleague, but by looking at the world through their eyes, you’ll be more likely to make the other person feel safe, heard and understood,” Goldfarb concludes.

And so I don’t want to make my comment about Reeve or my various other gaffes particularly demonstrative. I make mistakes, as we all do, but it’s important to just educate yourself when you make those mistakes not only so you don’t say the wrong thing again, but so you can learn and educate yourself on another person’s reality or life and see why a particular comment can hurt someone else so much.

In the example when I called the Bible a fairy tale, which I obviously don’t believe now, my friend told me that she thought we should all be respectful of other people’s religions, even if we didn’t agree with them. It hurt to see her faith dismissed like that and I understood, apologized, and we moved on from it and later became friends. We were both new freshmen in college, so it wasn’t exactly the best first impression, but we moved past it.

For most of these slip-ups, I realize how flawed I am. But mine have always been resolved through acknowledging I made a mistake, apologizing, talking about it, and then moving on and learning from it.

Originally published on August 15, 2020 on P.S. I Love You.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

Baltimore, MD
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