Respond when Your Friend Says Something Offensive

What do you do when a friend has said something so shocking or offensive you aren’t quite sure how to respond? While offensive comments should not be ignored you must use finesse and assess the overall situation to determine what to say and when to say something.


Considering the Situation

  1. Evaluate your circumstances. Depending on the situation, it may or may not be a good idea to speak up. Instead of immediately pointing the finger to call your friend a racist, sexist or any other name appropriate to the comment, take several factors into consideration.
    • Who is present? Are you around children, bosses, or polite company? Pull the friend aside and remind him/her about the situation and the surroundings. Remind your friend that the comment could have a serious negative impact and that damage control may be necessary.
    • How well do you know the person who made the comment? It's often best to...
      • Pull aside a close or semi-close friend to explain.
      • Talk privately with your friend if it was a friend-of-your-friend who made the comment.
      • Casually point out the comment if the person is an acquaintance.
  2. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes people slip up and say things that don't reflect their true feelings. Start with the assumption that their words were a well-meaning mistake. Your friend may have...
    • Misread the situation. For example, your friend might have forgotten that it's okay to drop "f" bombs among other friends, but not in front of your mom.
    • Been too nervous or stressed out to think clearly. Sometimes people speak without thinking when they are uncomfortable.
    • Worded things poorly. For example, perhaps they were trying to mock racism but accidentally sounded like they supported it.
    • Been clueless. Maybe your friend had no idea that "r*tard" was a slur, and will be horrified once they find out.
  3. Take into consideration the person’s limitations. Limitations don't excuse hurting others, but they can explain why they didn't know better.
    • Immature individuals or children may comment on an issue without having proper education or knowledge, which may end up sounding offensive.
    • Alcohol and other substances can impair judgment, leading people to say things that they would never say when clear-minded.
    • Disabled people may find it challenging to keep up with social norms and/or understanding abstract topics. They might need you to explain.
    • People raised within certain environments may not actually realize a comment may be offensive. For example, a boy or man raised without a guidance regarding misogyny may think that talking down to women is normal and acceptable.
  4. Decide whether to call out or call in, if anything. This can depend on the situation, such as how well you know the other person, how others respond to the hurtful remark, your comfort level, and what the desired result is. Whether you challenge them in public or take them aside in public is ultimately up to you.[1]
    • Calling out someone can describe a harmful dynamic as it happens; for example, publicly challenging a mansplainer in a room full of men who like to talk over women can address the problems in the environment.
    • The private nature of calling in can help them listen without worrying about protecting their reputation.
    • Public criticism may frighten people with anxiety disorders, abuse survivors, autistic people, and naturally sensitive people. When in doubt, call in.[2]
    • Never decide to call someone out simply to make yourself look better. Your goal is to educate the person, not publicly humiliate them. Act in good faith.[3][4][5]

Handling Minor Comments

It can be easy to handle offensive comments if they are minor, if the person seems uncertain about whether they are acceptable, or if you want to give a quick dismissal.

  1. Give a nonverbal no. Silently shake your head while mouthing the word no. Watch for them to notice and get the message.
  2. Roll your eyes over a comment made by someone you don't particularly care for or don't trust. If you consider the person to be rude or mean-spirited, communicate your disappointment by scoffing, rolling your eyes, or muttering "ugh." This makes your unhappiness clear while keeping their remark beneath you, making them less likely to escalate.

Speaking Up

  1. Only speak up if you feel comfortable doing so. You are not responsible for making the world a perfect place, nor should you risk your safety if you're worried that the other person might turn aggressive. If you don't feel that you can handle speaking up, don't blame yourself.
    • If the conversation turns bad and you don't want to continue, stop. Say "I need some air" or "I don't want to talk about this anymore" and leave. Your mental health comes first.
  2. Take a moment to calm yourself. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that your goal is to teach (not to attack). Keeping your cool will help you think clearly to address the hurtful remark.
    • You can let loose your anger in private later, by screaming into a pillow, punching the couch, playing sports, et cetera.
    • It's best to address the remark soon. (Don't wait for days or weeks.) If you take too long, your friend might not even remember what they said, and your bad feelings may fester and drive a divide between the two of you.
  3. Separate yourself and your friend from the group if you choose to call in. Invite them to go somewhere with you. If at first they don't mention why, say you'd like to talk to them in private for a minute.
    • "I'm going to the restroom. Jessa, would you come too?"
    • "Adriel, let's go to the snack stand for a minute."
  4. Lead with a compliment. By pre-emptively complimenting the person, you make it clear that you still think highly of them, and that you aren't attacking them as a person. This way, they are more likely to listen to you. If you can't think of a compliment, make one up.
    • For example, "I'm surprised to hear a compassionate, thoughtful person like you say something like that."
    • "I'm startled to hear that coming from a fair-minded person like you."
  5. Criticize the remark, not the person. If you criticize the person, they may feel attacked and stop listening to what you say. Make it clear that you like the person; it's their current behavior that you disagree with.
  6. Investigate faulty reasoning. Instead of blowing up when your friend says Muslims are naturally violent, take a deep breath and ask why they think that. Asking questions can engage their critical thinking skills and help them re-evaluate their remark. Your friend may even lead themselves to the conclusion that they were wrong. Useful questions include:
    • Why?
    • How do you know?
    • Why would you say/do that?
    • Do you agree with that?
    • How do you think ______ feel about that?
  7. Reassure your friend that you still like and respect them. Emphasize that the fact that they messed up is less important than how they respond to it. No one enjoys being told that they did something bad, so it's good to reinforce their self-esteem afterwards and remind them that this mistake does not define them.
    • If they directly hurt someone, offer to help them Apologise for Offending Your Friend and/or make up for it.


  • If your friend shrugs off your concerns or becomes aggressive, it may be time to re-evaluate the friendship.
  • Just because your friend said something that you didn't like doesn't mean that you shouldn't automatically end your friendship there. You have to communicate with each other, if not, there will be a lot of confusion, and if you don't speak up, you and your friend could end up fighting.


  • If someone becomes aggressive towards you, disengage and go somewhere where other people are present.
  • Take any comment surrounding violence to a certain group or individual seriously and have a discussion surround the remark. Remind the friend that violence or talking about hurting someone based on their religion, sexual orientation, race, etc. is a felony.

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Sources and Citations