What To Do When Someone Says Something Offensive

If you're not particularly confrontational but you're sick of your friends using words like "gay" and "retarded," this post is for you. // yesandyes.org

A few years ago, my insanely smart, insurmountably sassy friend Cathy inadvertently created The World’s Best Response to

a) catcallers
b) people who drop the n-word or r-word
c) anyone who just generally says ignorant, offensive stuff on the regular

Cathy was walking to the bus after work, deep in thought. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw a man trying to get her attention.

Putting on her best Polite, Accommodating Voice she inquired:
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”

The man stammered/blushed/mumbled/stumbled away and that’s when Cathy realized he’d actually been catcalling her and she’d inadvertently politely confronted him. And when she actually responded to him, he nearly turned inside out with shame and cowardice.

From then on, Cathy used this method with almost every man who catcalled her. And apparently it has a 90% success rate of inducing shame!

And really, I think you can use this whenever anyone says something offensive that you both know they shouldn’t be saying.

When your friend says she feels like a ‘retard’ because she dropped the ball on a work project.
When a co-worker uses a racial slur.
When someone describes a movie they didn’t like as ‘gay.’

Some direct eye contact and a polite “I’m sorry. What did you say?” goes a long way. Usually, people know they shouldn’t be using those words, but they might be testing the waters to see if they can say them around you. Or they might have forgotten themselves.

Asking people to repeat words they probably know are hurtful forces them to recognize their word choices. Share on X

If that doesn’t work, I like to say something like “Yeah, that move suuuuure was homosexual. Lots of homosexual sex in that film!”   Or you could even say “I think what you mean is the movie was poorly plotted and acted.  Right?”

Of course, this won’t work every time.  Sadly, there are down-to-the-bone racists that exist in the world and men who would see a polite inquiry as an opportunity to yell crass things in your sweet face.

But most people?  They’re good and just need a reminder that there is a human on the receiving end of those unpleasant words.

How do you deal with catcallers?  Or when people say offensive things?
Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

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  1. Anonymous

    I am always so grateful when people call me out on this kinda thing. I have terrible habits, but they are exactly that – habits, not conscious effort to be offensive. The ignorant will stay that way if no one corrects them!

    • Anonymous

      You just rocked my socks with your openness. Thanks for making my day 🙂

  2. Anonymous

    " I, and a lot of other people can't support what you just said. Do you totally mean/believe that?" gives the other person a chance to pause and reconsider what he/she said; and that it can open a (respectful, I hope) exchange of views.

  3. Zoe

    I work in a patient related environment and sometimes the patients say things in a rude/nasty way and I've found this trick works so well, even over the telephone. It really does make the other person evaluate a) what they have actually said and b) they way in which they said it.

    Excellent advice as always!

    Zoe xoxo

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Sorry you have to deal with this but so glad you've found a way to deal with it! 🙂

  4. Laura

    This is such great advice! I work with an individual who tends to say things that cross the line almost on a daily basis and I never know how to respond. Definitely plan to try this one in the future!

  5. thestoryofrei

    Yup! The decent human beings will usually cease and desist on the bad behaviour, and you're right that many of them don't even realize what they're doing. I find another one that works when someone is on a hate rant is to ask them what they WOULD like to see happen instead of what they disagree with. Usually they can't manage to and after asking them a couple more times to try they just stop.

  6. Jane

    i love love this. so spot on and it really does work!

  7. Lydia

    I totally go with "Hmm, weird, I didn't know that book (movie/class/whatever they might be referring to) had a sexual orientation…." at times.
    Gives them an opportunity to save face without being totally confrontational. And even if they don't seize that opportunity to correct themselves, they at least know you're not okay with it.

  8. Samantha Kimble

    I think it depends on the situation on what to say. My father-in-law is highly inappropriate all the time and doesn't even realize it (too many years of drug abuse) many times we have to explain to him why what he said was wrong. Usually he responds well to that, but I will try using the "I'm sorry what did you say" in the future to others.

  9. Jessica Hobin

    I'm not so nice – if people cat-call me (doesn't happen much here, but when I lived in Toronto, it was very common) I would look at them, raise my eyebrows, and say "are you done?". Nobody really knew how to respond and they usually mumbled something like "yeah, sorry" and walked away.

  10. Creole Wisdom

    Love "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

    I don't love inducing shame. I think that just covers up what really needs to be discussed: male privledge, racism, inappropriate use of language, lack of boundaries…

    When men cat call me I say: "you're being inappropriate" and that usually shuts them up fast.
    When people make racist remarks: "that's an offensive comment" again, very direct and usually works like a charm.
    When people make blanket statements or are just offensive: "why do you feel that way?"
    When people say something is 'gay' I say: "please choose another adjective"

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! This is so smart: "I don't love inducing shame. I think that just covers up what really needs to be discussed: male privilege, racism, inappropriate use of language, lack of boundaries…"

    • Anonymous

      Please use another adjective – I love that! I tell people to stop being lazy with their vocabulary and tell me WHY their boss is a bitch… without using gendered insults. Turns out that micromanaging, unclear expectations, and poor communication isn’t specific to gender.

      • Sarah Von Bargen


  11. Anonymous

    Rather than prefacing with the over-used "I'm sorry" (women, especially, ought to quit apologizing outside of actually offending or hurting someone), might be better to preface with an "Excuse me", or "Pardon me."

    • Natasha

      Only pardon me or excuse me actually mean something like "please forgive me for this" so it's not really better than saying I'm sorry. Maybe we should lose the beginning and go with, " What did you just say?" or "Say again?"

  12. thegirlinthemirror.org

    I've found that if someone says something racist/sexist/generally thoughtless under the guise of humor, you can just look innocent and wide-eyed and ask them to explain the joke because you "don't get it."

    Rarely do people want to explicitly lay out the prejudices behind their joke…mostly they just want to get attention, and forcing them to spell it out can often induce some thinking on their part.

    Also, I find a well-placed, "wow," uttered while making direct eye contact and followed by silence, can work wonders.

  13. Girliest Nerd

    Completely agree, although with this one "When your friend says she feels like a 'retard' because she dropped the ball on a work project" I think you have to use selectively because if someone already feels awful about something it may not be the best time to point out their usage of an inappropriate term. I'd bring it up later and just say, it makes me uncomfortable when you say that word. If they're just saying it casually in the moment though, definitely call them out for it!

  14. Stacia, the Homey Owl

    What a great way to respond. I can imagine that it would work in most instances, like you said. I think I'm going to tuck this phrase away to pull out as needed, though hopefully not too often!

  15. Anonymous

    One that I never know how to deal with is the Lord's Name being taken in vain. I get that it's a personal choice not to say that and not everyone agrees, but it really discourages me when people I know repetitively say "Oh my God" or things like that in front of me – I just politely smile and move on. The worst is when folks who know that we are Christians say it in front of my 3 yr old. In the same way that I wouldn't disrespect a homosexual friend, or look at men as meat rather than an intelligent human being, or put down someone who might appear different, I'd appreciate the same consideration. My spirituality is just as important to me as all of the aforementioned are to others. All this to say, I have no idea how to respond to the often misused Name of God!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Oh, that's a really good question. I'm Agnostic and I say "Oh my God" allll the time – though I never say "Jesus!" because I feel like that's a bit disrespectful.

      I think your best bet would be to tell your friends – privately, calmly, sweetly – that you're trying to discourage your 3-year-old from saying that so you'd appreciate it if they didn't say that around them. Then you could add that you, yourself, try not to say it as well.

      Do the people in your life know that you're a devout Christian? I only ask because I know many, many people who would describe themselves as Christians but who also say 'Oh my God' very regularly – which might be why your friends are saying it around you. They might not know that you're sensitive to it 🙂

    • galfriday612.com

      I'm not particularly religious, but I do make a conscious effort to use "My Goodness!" or "My Word!" instead of "OMG" as an expression. I agree that it can be very offensive, and you never know who you might be upsetting by using it.

    • Anonymous

      I think people see me as devout, and I do hope that I'm following through my beliefs by my actions for others to see a genuine heart. You've definitely given me something to think about! Great advice, thanks Sarah!

      And, that's thoughtful and appreciated, thanks galfriday!

  16. Sam

    This is a great way to respond! I am often caught off guard by people who say jusy generally dumb stuff, I think you should do another post about how to deal with it when people say dumb things.

  17. Sara Rose

    I'm so old school and southern in ways. I've said things like, "Well, bless your heart. It must be hard to think right sometimes." to "Do people really think or say things like that? Well. I'm out of the loop."

    • vanessa

      I love that. While I definitely am going to try Sarah's advice, a good ole "bless your heart" definitely gets the point across without being too defensive or aggressive.

      • Nobody’

        “Well, bless your heart, comes across as Passive aggressive though

  18. Kitty Cat Stevens

    i like having this option in my bank! i usually look people straight in the face and say "You wanna try that again?" but i like this idea, too. interesting to me that someone pointed out the "oh my god" thing. i say it all the time and literally never knew it was considered offensive.

  19. Carleen

    Thank you for posting this! I'm also loving all the other responses in the comments! I'm often always too shocked at what has come out of someone's mouth to even conjure up an immediate response. Super helpful!

  20. Alicia | Jaybird: Home in Motion

    Awesome post–I love the suggestions you've included as well as everything coming up in the comments. Catcalling and litter are really the only two things I dislike about living in Chicago. When someone catcalls me or makes a rude comment from their car, I immediately freeze and can't really think straight–having a prepared stock response like "You're being inappropriate" or "Beg your pardon?" (followed by one of the that's-not-cool remarks) is super helpful for reacting in the moment.

  21. msmoore00

    Omg! This is exactly what I needed today. I just went thru an experience of being cat-called and did not know how to respond. This would have been perfect! This will be my go to phrase from now on! Brilliant!

  22. msmoore00

    Omg! This is exactly what I needed today. I just went thru an experience of being cat-called and did not know how to respond. This would have been perfect! This will be my go to phrase from now on! Brilliant!

  23. Meh

    You know theoretically this could backfire as well. You could come across a brilliant nut case that turns the tables or a drunk hobo that drops his pants just saying. Anything is possible.

  24. francine

    Read your article and I did exactly what you did to a customer I was waiting on at the casino I work part time in. He said something so unbelievable to me I don’t want to even repeat but when I looked right at him and said excuse me I think I misunderstood you, he replied with the same disgusting comment. I repeated myself to him 2 more times only for him to come back at me with the same reply and than question if I had a personality or sense of humor. Sometime disgusting and offensive is just that and they don’t care. Not only was this a horrible experience but my employer allowed the guy to continue to give me a hard time.

    • Nobody’

      This would be my family exactly. They would explain their totally inappropriate joke in grave detail and think it was the most hilarious thing.

    • Goat

      As someone who has worked in the service industry and seen/heard a lot of disgusting things, I can relate to your story. I think the suggestions in this article only work in a traditional workplace environment – like an office – where conversations can be reported, speech is regulated, and almost anything can cost a person their job.

      In industries where alcohol is served, or drugs are secretly used, or cash is involved, customers know they can get away with nearly anything. That is why I left the service industry, but I digress. Trying to shame someone who is drunk or high will not work.

      This shaming may not work with all catcalling either, I suspect. Some men do it for the power they believe they have over women, and attempting to shame them will not work.

      “I’m sorry, what did you say” and the like may work with jealous, passive-aggressive women. My husband’s circle of friends sadly contains one of these. I’ll try it whenever she opens her wrinkled mouth again.

  25. storycrafter

    Only slightly different from the one above, “Is that what you meant to say?”

    • Anonymous

      Somewhat along those lines, a “what do you mean by that?” can be a good one too. It’s good not just for inappropriate language, but also for someone hinting at something gossipy, catty, or a dig disguised as an innocent statement.

  26. Maggie

    I need help! My friend kept calling my sisters friends children brats and they could hear! I said I forgave her but I don’t.

  27. Jaysen

    What should I do if someone says something “as a joke” or says ” I wasn’t talking to you” and they direct the shame at you for “eavesdropping”?

    • Julie

      Then they’re probably looking to get into it and it’s never good when you engage in a battle. Depending on the context, it might be best to move on or change the subject. It also might take some time for what you said to really set in for them, especially if they were testing your boundaries.

  28. Jen

    I love that this approach gets people to re-think what they’ve said, but I have a small ish with using it because it feels insincere. If I heard them, then I’d feel weird asking them what they said…kind of beating around the bush and even slightly passive aggressive. A few years ago, I said the “r” word, without even thinking about it. A friend of mine, in a gentle way, told me she was surprised to hear me say that word. She said that it’s hurtful to so many people, and its casual use is a sad reflection of our passivity with unconscious speech. She directly addressed me, and I appreciate it to this day. Although I understand that could have been taken as confrontational. I guess I don’t see anything wrong with directly confronting an issue like that, esp when you’re super passionate about it.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Oh, for sure! I think this is best used with strangers and/or people you don’t know but want to call out – waiters, cat callers, etc.

  29. Anonymous

    let me tell you a little story about a boy named anthony.

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