In recent times the offence has assumed an unprecedented role in our social life. It is enough to go through the various social networks, especially Twitter, to see the level of tension that exists. Moreover, this situation has become part of our daily life in such a way that it has been supported by the Justice system with the incorporation of new crimes that come to protect the offended.
We have all let our partner know once that he was offending us. The process that we follow in classifying the behavior of the other as offensive is always the same and was promptly described by the German psychologist Wolfgang Zander in 1976:
- The offended person identifies a possible injury and tries to interpret it.
- Assesses the intensity of the offense.
- Reacts in some way to the offense.
Behind the offence, unlike the insult, there is not always an intentionality, it can be, for example, an excess of assertiveness.
However, although the process seems to be universal and inherent to the social condition of the human being, not all of us react to the same amount of offenses or with the same intensity. In other words, there is a personal element that filters the behavior of the other and converts it into an offense or not.
Behind the offence, unlike the insult, there is not always an intentionality, it can be, for example, an excess of assertiveness. It is normal for a «you’re offending me» to be followed by a «I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to». In the other case, the insult, there is that desire to hurt.
There is a very simple method to know where there is insult and where there is only awkwardness that offends: «Can you repeat that?» The insulter will always repeat his offence because he seeks to do harm. The offender may have had the bad luck to run into someone sensitive or to have shown little social intelligence, but not necessarily an intention to hurt emotions.
Men and women are not equally offended. Researchers at the University of Rome Poggi and D’Errico concluded in 2018 that the former, men, motivate our discomfort with anger and pride. We link affront with sullied honour. Women, on the other hand, according to these authors, react from the inside, showing more sadness than anger, especially when they are touched by the family. They are much more sensitive to provocations about the tribe than men.
It is remarkable that these same authors found true that aphorism: «No one wants to offend but who can». Indeed, Dov Cohen of the University of Illinois and his team found that when faced with the opinions of those individuals in whom we recognize an outstanding role, bosses, parents, older relatives, for example, show more sensitivity than with the same appreciation coming from an «equal».
The offense attacks the waterline of personal beliefs. It has to do with the self-concept of the injured person, with his ideas, with his feelings towards himself. An offensive comment calls into doubt one’s own convictions. The stronger those beliefs are, the harder it will be for the offense to take place. In contrast, more insecure individuals, with less integrity, will be threatened and will make it known.
Social networks have baptized these thin-skinned people with the euphemism «snowflake». This virtual group is highly sensitive to the comments of others. A large majority of the opinions they read pass all of Wolfang Zander’s filters and enter the stage of reacting, of making their discomfort explicit.
The offended party has an elevated arousal level. He is an individual on guard, awaiting the arrival of the insult, or at least what he considers as such.
It cannot be concluded that society, in general, is now less permissive of offenses since many of these unwanted situations occur for three new reasons :
- There is a greater number of social interactions and, therefore, more probability of finding an offensive message.
- There is greater public exposure, so that the offense transcends the personal and becomes global.
- The anonymity offered by social networks encourages the offender to respond, which he or she is unlikely to do in real life.
The offended party has an elevated arousal level. He is an individual on guard, awaiting the arrival of the insult, or at least what he considers as such. That is why in some cases the response is the product of the so-called confirmation bias, you know, that useful tool that proves us right and reaffirms our beliefs.
Taking offence is the price we pay today for diversity, for sharing an expressive space with individuals of all stripes. These are scenarios where there is room for the whole possible ideological spectrum that walks in front of our eyes. Social networks show us parts of a world that we knew was there, but not how it manifests itself. The Catholic will recognize the atheist, the homophobe the lesbian, the republican the monarchist. Social networks are an oxymoron of opposing pairs and there, surprisingly, you will be closer than ever to someone who doesn’t think like you.
In my book «Actitud Digital» I dedicate a chapter to the management of emotions in the digital era that I enlarge with a section that I have called «respond or react».
This is the fundamental element that distinguishes the «easily offended» from the rest of the users: the way in which each one makes his contrariness clear. «If you can’t discuss what separates you, you won’t be able to know what connects you,» I add.
The offended person chooses to react, takes a position that is a product of his limbic system, of his amygdala. This attack the opinion of the other from the reptilian brain, the one that prepares us to survive. On the other hand, the one who chooses to respond and not to react first makes an analysis of the message and yes, he confronts its author, but he does it with the arguments that the prefrontal cortex provides, the one that has taken the human being to the current level of evolution.
Any external opinion that questions our essential integrity will be opportunely swallowed up by the leukocytes that are our beliefs.
Reacting and not responding, moreover, entails a triple bill:
- It triggers the sympathetic nervous system: accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, sweating, etc. It prepares you for battle.
- Deterioration of personal relationships. It creates a climate of hostility between two people that will mark the rest of your relationship. Everything that comes in the future of the other will be rejected: confirmation bias again.
- Takes you away from the goal of asserting your opinion. What remains is a brawl where arguments no longer matter.
Choosing to respond rather than react has much to do with the level of tolerance and the recognition of another’s individuality. In some schools, discussions have been introduced to train children in the use of dialectics as a tool to show opposition.
In order to continue to raise the level of civility, it is imperative to educate from childhood onwards to offer a constructive response to the offense, the one that builds bridges, not the one that burns them.
To be offended is a consequence of our progressive process of socialization and, above all, of the development of conscience, of the inner story that after passing the filter of prejudices, desires and frustrations constitutes our morality, the reference manual of what we are or believe to be. Any external opinion that questions our essential integrity will be opportunely swallowed up by the leukocytes that are our beliefs. It is up to each of us to choose the mode and intensity of our response.