Jackson Doughart
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The problem with "no offense"

The Cadre, 01 November 2011

Most university students have likely heard complaints about the way in which our generation speaks. According to some people, we say “like” more often than we should, we talk in the same way that we send text messages, we call people of authority by their first name, we’ve redefined the words “sick” and “dope”, we drop our G's without compunction, we incorporate ebonics into regular speech and we have little appreciation for proper elocution.

Some of these observations are probably valid, but the contemporary expression that truly grinds my cogs is “no offense.” One usually hears this from a friend when he or she says something that is expected to be upsetting. It has become a standard turn of phrase, both because of its use in popular culture and because of its versatility.

“No offense” can be adapted to a variety of situations. Its most benign use accompanies remarks that are not offensive at all, such as: “Your shirt and tie don’t match, no offense,” or “That joke you told me really wasn’t that funny, no offense,” or “No offense, but I completely disagree with your idea.” In these cases, the use of the expression is annoying and superfluous. Do they really think you will be offended by such trivial things?

The two other uses are far more important. The first is when something needs to be said, but may come across as judgmental or hurtful: “The way you delivered that presentation was really boring, no offense,” or “No offense, but I really don't want to sleep with you again.” The second instance is when the coming comment is completely rude and altogether uncalled for, without any value for the person on the receiving end: “That was a great article, for a woman; no offense,” or “You’re totally invited to my party, just don’t bring your friends; no offense.”

In my opinion, the uttering of this little interjection reveals astounding cowardice on the part of the speaker. Contrary to how it may appear, the purpose of saying this is never to ease the blow for the person receiving the remark. Instead, it is designed to make the speaker feel better about whatever damnable commentary he or she is delivering.

People also say this in order to preempt any negative reaction to the original remark. “What’s wrong with my friends?” I may ask, in perfectly good taste. Instead of a real answer, I’ll hear, “Listen dude, I told you not to get offended. Stop being so sensitive.” Of course, it has nothing to do with sensitivity. We are all adults by now, so I think that if something frank needs to be said, it should be delivered clearly and honestly, without instructions of how the comments are to be taken. “No offense” really means “I’m about to hurt you, but don’t get mad.”

Prefacing one’s remarks in this way is also unbelievably patronizing. Since when does the person speaking get to determine if his or her remarks are offensive? I’ll decide this after I hear what you have to say, thanks. And besides, if your friends are actually going to take to heart what you are saying, do you really think that they will be cleansed of these feelings just because you instruct them to do so?

If you really value your friends, don’t belittle them by employing this recycled go-to phrase. It will undoubtedly leave them feeling as though they are being spoken at instead of spoken with. In my experience, most people say “no offense” before things that are voiced for the sole purpose of making a joke at someone’s expense.

Some things are genuinely offensive and should not be said at all, but the controversial-yet-true things need to be handled much more skillfully than simply by adding this disclaimer. Without any doubt, one sign of a thoughtful and valuable person is a power of facing harsh truths and then an ability to express these truths to those whom they affect.

So if you need to be brutally honest with a friend, show some respect and just say what you have to say, and if you really feel the need to warn him or her in advance, please find a more eloquent way of doing so than the cliché of “no offense.” It’s unoriginal, childish and cowardly, and it will never make your friend feel better.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com