When You Write Something Mildly Offensive

You’ve done it before, right? An attempt at humor. Maybe something just didn’t come out right. Then you get back a hurricane of angry responses. How could you? What’s wrong with you?

At first we’re taken aback by the disproportionate response. Why such an angry response? It doesn’t make sense.

It’s actually quite predictable and fits right in line with typical human behavior. We jump to conclusions too often. There’s a term psychologists use to describe this quirk but it sounds too “science-esque.” I prefer the following definition:

We confuse the outcome of someone’s behavior with their intent

Here’s why I bring it up:

Last week, a big company in the online marketing world sent out an email. This email received huge blowback and prompted a tail between the legs apology from the CEO. The writer of the email tried to make a joke (almost always a bad idea) and in the process, insulted a huge segment of their audience.

Some commenters, who I know personally, cried that these were evil people and they will never buy from them again. Others derided their lack of empathy and unsubscribed from their list. All these people automatically assumed the outcome of this joke was the intent.

A select few recognized it for it was, a bad joke that slipped through the editing process.

When we’re dealing with the written word we run a greater risk of offending our audience. Editing checks, a second pair of eyes help but stuff slips through the cracks.

Sometimes it can be helpful to be offensive as it can strengthen the resolve of your core followers (story for another day).

When you’re unintentionally offensive is when we need to address it. Here is what never works:

“You people are overreacting”

“Can’t anyone take a joke anymore?”

“Did I mess with your pretty little feelings?”

There’s a time and place for these type of comments but if you’re looking to diffuse the situation, here’s what works best:

  1. Admit your screw up. Do it in a straightforward manner. Don’t try and deflect the blame by saying it was blown out of proportion
  2. Write that you can see why they would conclude it was your intent
  3. List out the actual cause or intent of offensive writing. If possible add more detail to increase the plausibility. For example, instead of writing “I tried to make a joke and it didn’t come out the right way”… you can write… “I tried to make a joke and it didn’t come out the right way. My blood was boiling from an argument I had just had with a colleague and my emotions got the better of me.” Of course, the extra detail should be true
  4. Agree that the effect and impact of the action is real even though the intent was different
  5. Explain how it will be prevented in the future (if applicable)

Not everyone will accept it but many will. With a little luck you’ll avoid the tipping point of customer anger.