I would like to know why there is intense focus on not offending people? Sure, people should not go about intentionally offending people, but someone will be offended by something somewhere, someday, even if we don't intend it.

I have seen this occur in everything from questions ranging from professors asking how to discipline their students, to people asking about addressing potential cases of sexism. Everyone seems to put being non-offensive to anyone, above figuring out how the original issue can be solved.

Example answer

  • 1
    Isn't offending people a moral issue? The question is also tagged etiquette, suggesting that the OP is directly interested in how people will perceive the proposed actions. You may disagree with the answer, but I don't see how it doesn't address the question.
    – ff524
    Jan 23 '17 at 5:49
  • Etiquette: conventional requirements as to social behavior; proprieties of conduct as established in any class or community or for any occasion / Morality: conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct. / I would say that while Etiquette is formed by the society or profession you participate in, isn't Morality a function of the culture/sub-culture/country in which you live. I am asking about this whole focus on not offending people here in Academia, not this particular question per se. Jan 23 '17 at 5:56
  • 3
    Then... I don't know what you're asking about. You seem to be complaining that the answer is "not addressing the question", but I don't see any evidence for that. Certainly offending others can be both a moral and etiquette issue. Perhaps if this isn't about an answer not answering the question, you could edit your post to clarify what you are trying to ask about.
    – ff524
    Jan 23 '17 at 5:58
  • @ff524 I hope this is more on target. Jan 23 '17 at 6:02
  • Now, without any example, I have no idea what kind of an issue this refers to or what kind of answer/discussion this question seeks.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Jan 23 '17 at 9:39
  • @Wrzlprmft Readded original example. Jan 23 '17 at 11:23
  • @NZKshatriya: Still, what input or answers do you seek? The only question I see is in your first sentence, and that question is something we can at best answer with wild guesses.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Jan 23 '17 at 11:46
  • So then, what exactly is the discussion tag even for? What is Meta for for that matter if not to post questions about what is going on in a stack? Jan 23 '17 at 11:51
  • Changed question to more accurately reflect what I meant. Jan 23 '17 at 11:52
  • If the below answer is what you want, then this should probably be migrated to the main Academia site... this is not relevant to Meta.
    – eykanal Mod
    Jan 23 '17 at 19:47
  • 2
    @eykanal I don't think it belongs on main site - it's mainly about why people write certain kinds of answers. Similar to Does an unbalanced focus on “appropriateness” and “offensiveness” suggest educating has become a lesser priority?, which was about why people ask certain kinds of questions.
    – ff524
    Jan 23 '17 at 20:47
  • I'm not seeing this "intense focus" you're talking about. The example you gave is a single low-point-total answer with 8 downvotes to it. It certainly shouldn't be a taboo subject that is never brought up, should it?
    – Jeff
    Jan 26 '17 at 10:04
  • @Jeff sigh...there are other examples, most notably on things that talk about sexism or inferred sexism, but those lead to nothing but, well, chaos so I didn't use those. I shall remove the word intense. Jan 26 '17 at 13:12
  • 2
    The top voted answer on the thread you mention is quite clearly not focused on not offending people. It seems like you're inferring a general trend from a few anecdotal examples.
    – Cape Code
    Jan 31 '17 at 5:02

I think this might be an interesting discussion, but the example you gave seems far separated from the type of "not offending anyone" that your post implies (referring to discipline and sexism).

Part of the original question for the answer you linked was:

Is there any moral (or even legal) problem in criticizing other people's figures on my website? Should I expect any sort of retaliation if I decide to do that?

In that context, avoiding offending someone is clearly a way to:

  1. Avoid legal issues - if there is a gray area, posting praise of a figure is probably less likely to solicit negative attention from the authors that could lead to threats or actual legal action
  2. The issue of retaliation is most easily avoided by not offending anyone; this way, you aren't depending on the people you criticize taking the moral high ground.

Therefore, it solves the original question to be non-offensive, rather than putting up a barrier to solving the problem as you suggest.

  • I have seen other examples, I will go around and look for them.. But really, being offended is not grounds for legal action, at least not in the USA (last time I checked) You CAN technically sue anyone for anything here, but it does not mean you will win. I wouldn't be surprised if there is someone out there who would sue for being praised. Also, as I said, no matter what you do, you will likely offend someone somehow. I offend people all the time, even though I don't mean to. Jan 25 '17 at 19:42
  • @NZKshatriya I'm not saying it's grounds, I'm saying it's motivation, and lawsuits don't need to be valid or won to have an impact. You're right, actually a copyright holder should be equally litigious whether praised or criticized, but in practice I don't think that is at all common. I really doubt someone would fail to review your next publication objectively if you praised their previous work; they might have more trouble being objective if they felt embarrassed by you.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Jan 25 '17 at 19:49
  • getting off topic, but I think OP wanted to focus on what he felt was how to appropriately visualize data, not critique publications per se. Jan 25 '17 at 20:08
  • @NZKshatriya Yes - I think touchier academics could be offended by a stranger telling them their figures were poor. OP was concerned about that. The most upvoted response on that page, a comment by David Zwicker, suggested the OP design the figures to critique (presumably motivated but what is found in real literature) - this answer completely solves the problem, plus is not potentially offensive to anyone. I would say that's the best outcome possible, and certainly isn't less valid because it takes the step of avoiding offending someone.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Jan 25 '17 at 20:35
  • not trying to argue validity, argh......I need to work on how to specify what I am asking....which should not be an issue as I prefer concrete to abstract. Jan 25 '17 at 20:47
  • 1
    @NZKshatriya I hope you can do so and I look forward to coming back and participating in the discussion... Personally I looked at a few recent posts that I recalled where I felt like there was a lot of emphasis on not offending people (for example this one) and I wasn't able to find an example where the "not-offending" superseded solving the actual question - in fact, often the question asked is precisely "how do I do ____ without offending someone?"
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Jan 25 '17 at 20:51
  • 1
    @NZKshatriya Maybe the answer to your question of "why" there is a focus on these types of answers (as well as questions) is that these are the types of questions that it can be most useful to run by other, less biased observers who might be in the shoes of the person/people the asker is trying not to offend.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Jan 25 '17 at 20:54
  • I guess I just get offended a whole lot less easily than average, so I tend to focus more on just solving the issue efficiently and quickly. Likely my lack of taking offense to things in this stage of my life is due to bullying through middle/high school, from things ranging from weight to Aspergers, to not being popular (looking back at all that, it's rather silly what people pick on others about) . So I developed a thick skin, and ignore things more. But I do see how others may not do the same, either due to cultural upbringing or life experience. Jan 25 '17 at 21:11
  • @NZKshatriya Yeah, I think part of the issue is that especially in academia, people are part of a community they cannot extract themselves from, even by changing jobs, and you depend on everyone around you for one thing or another. It is impossible to identify who is thin- and thick-skinned, it can be self-defeating to offend someone, and it doesn't necessarily matter who was "right" in the first place - just the perceived slight can be harmful.
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Jan 25 '17 at 21:34

Many a time have I wished to just call a student or colleague stupid. In my opinion, there are three factual reasons (ergo disregarding morality, politeness, religious beliefs, etc.) why one might wish to avoid it, regardless of how strongly they believe it to be the case:

  1. The practical reason is to avoid lawsuits.

  2. The historical reason is that it is a natural extension of the mid 80's and onward culture/mentality that everyone is "special", and that there are many kinds of intelligence, not just academic intelligence. Interestingly, people have come to interpret this as "everyone is special, hence everyone is intelligent". It is raw human bias, because people never want to admit what the perceive as their own shortcomings (like we don't like being called fat, or short, or bald), and distort other theories and facts to satisfy themselves. In defense of this position, note how different the culture was before the 90s, where negative reinforcement was the norm. While I disagree with the reason, society is experiencing a shift towards positive reinforcement, and that is a good thing.

  3. The social reason is that language has power. Saying things out loud, makes them true, to an extent. For instance, in English, German, and many other languages assume a male gender for many professions, such as policeman, fireman, cameraman. As trivial as it may seem, things like this have been shown to cause subconscious bias in the entirety of society in the long-term. By changing how we use the language, we modify how the population who use it perceive things after 1-2 generations.


I'm in the same boat as those commenting that I don't fully understand the question, but I'll hazard an answer all the same.

Many, many people have thin skin (i.e., get insulted easily). I'll venture to say that most people have thin skin. To that extent, when resolving a disagreement, the "lets be frank" approach is very likely to cause someone to be insulted. As practiced negotiators know, insulting your negotiation partner is a pretty poor strategy.

To that extent, when working through a disagreement, unless you are confident the opposing party will NOT be insulted—a rare situation—its always a good idea to be cordial and polite, to ensure that you can focus the discussion on solving the disagreement.

  • I agree that a lot of people do get insulted easily, but where I am coming from is not from the stance of a disagreement. As I stated in a comment on @Fomite 's answer, I have seen answers that seem to follow this logic flow: If stated goal can be achieved without offending one or more people, then suggest that the goal be pursued and how. If stated goal cannot be achieved without offending one or more people, suggest the goal not be pursued. Jan 24 '17 at 1:40

I would like to know why there is intense focus on not offending people? Sure, people should not go about intentionally offending people, but someone will be offended by something somewhere, someday, even if we don't intend it.

There are two major reasons, in my mind:

  1. Inoffensive approaches are often more productive than a theoretically more direct approach. "Don't offend someone" is not a side-goal, it is an aspect of the main approach. Offending someone is often extremely counter-productive, and will crater the proposed solution no matter how good it is.
  2. While "someone, somewhere, someday" might be offended by anything, trying to minimize this probability is still a worthwhile thing to do, especially when you have a specific concern (in contrast to your hypothetical someone). Something, somewhere, someday will kill me. I still wear my seatbelt.
  • Whilst inoffensive, scratch that, neutral approaches are often more productive, what I have seen a lot of are answers that seem to take the following approach: If stated goal can be achieved without offending one or more people, then suggest that the goal be pursued and how. If stated goal cannot be achieved without offending one or more people, suggest the goal not be pursued. While I agree that we should strive offend the least amount of people, does suggesting people not work on something/do something simply because an individual or group may take offense really help anyone? Jan 24 '17 at 1:37
  • 1
    (1/2) If taking an action would likely cause hurt and/or social upheaval in an everyday neurotypical workplace, as weighed against the benefit that we envision it would have, then it's not worth it. This isn't a sign of a hyper-sensitive society. It's just taking into account the fact that humans are not robots and we don't want to upset someone unless there's a hugely compelling reason and/or absolutely no way around it. Not as if we don't have a major interest in preserving underlying harmoniousness. Other things depend strongly on that. No need to sacrifice it for something minor.
    – trikeprof
    Jan 26 '17 at 3:34
  • 1
    (2/2) I'd like to encourage you not to see the rest of the world as fragile or 'easily offended'. I too was picked on badly as a kid and also developed a thick skin. I err on the side of kindness as an adult: I don't want to risk treating anyone the way I was treated as a kid! If you're quite blunt or gratuitous about issuing criticism, others are likely to see you as a bully. That will create more, not fewer, problems. Refrain from getting impatient, or self-congratulatory about your skin thickness. Most other people deserve respect by default - and unsolicited frankness isn't respectful.
    – trikeprof
    Jan 26 '17 at 3:35
  • Plug, I'm actually trying to create a stack exchange to work on this type of communication. I've seen your comments and thought it might strike you. area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/106355/…
    – user18072
    Jan 31 '17 at 8:13
  • Not offending anyone is practically impossible nowadays.
    – user8762
    Jan 31 '17 at 23:57
  • @RobertHarvey But avoiding obvious pitfall is still worthwhile. Reducing the probability someone is offended is still a useful exercise.
    – Fomite
    Feb 1 '17 at 0:00

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .