Interrupt Degrading Language in Ten Steps

Recognizing degrading language in daily life is often easier than knowing how to respond in the moment. In honor of the Center’s tenth anniversary, the following are ten practical steps for interrupting degrading language in everyday life.

1. Ask people to “say what you mean and mean what you say.”

If someone uses a slur to describe something they dislike or find stupid, use this helpful phrase. For example, “I think what you meant to say is that you don’t like…..”

2. Create a culture of respect around you.

Addressing degrading language doesn’t have to be complicated. You can simply say to friends, “please don’t use that word around me.” This will help others think about the impact of their words and they will likely be more careful with others as well.

3. Explain why the language they are using is offensive.

Some people use language without understanding its meaning. Instead of immediately criticizing someone, try saying “I’m not sure that you meant anything by that word, but here is what I understand it to mean and why I avoid using it…”

4. Talk about the impact of language.

Some people respond better to stories or examples of how words impact others.  For example, “I know you don’t mean to be offensive to women, but I know lots of young girls who hear that word everyday and it affects their self esteem.”

5. Do not laugh at offensive jokes.

The easiest way to send a message that a joke is not funny is not to laugh. Even better is to politely interrupt the joke before the offensive punch line.

6. Seek back up.

Some people respond better to different messengers. If you are uncomfortable addressing someone or tried unsuccessfully, ask friends or family for support.

7. Ask a question.

If someone says something offensive, you can also ask him or her why they feel that way.  This gives a person a moment to think about what they just said and creates the opportunity for a conversation about how we form our bias and stereotypes.

8. Share a positive message

Inserting a positive message can help redirect a negative perspective about a particular group. For example, you could say, “I’m sorry that you’ve had those experiences; my friend represents the group you are describing and she has always been warm and kind.”

9. Replace their slur

If a person doesn’t understand why the slur they are using is inappropriate, replace it with a different word related to their identity.  For example, “Yeah, you are right; that was so middle-aged woman” or “that is so sophomore in high school.”

10. Leave the situation.

If these suggestions don’t work, you can always remove yourself from the situation. Tell the person, “I’m sorry you still feel this way. I would love to continue this conversation, but only if the language is respectful. Otherwise, I am going to head home.”