Words Matter: How to Address Offensive Language in Family Conversations

Every generation has its own way of talking about things. In the 1950s and ’60s, adults were panicking about rock ‘n’ roll and its social implications. They worried about their daughters crying at concerts, coming to terms with their own sexualities. They were scandalized by songs that encouraged experimenting with drugs and political dissent.

Today, rock ‘n’ roll is just another music genre.

Social landscapes change, and, over time, so do the ways we talk about them. But what happens when you’re having a conversation with someone whose language doesn’t reflect those changes, possibly to the point of being offensive?

Maybe you’ve been at Thanksgiving dinner when a family member used an outdated term to talk about a group of people. Or at work when a coworker leaned on stereotypes to make a point about a social issue.

Illustration of happy intergenerational family. Family Conversations pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
Both millennials and baby boomers have deeply held stereotypes about one another. The key is throwing away assumptions and talking person to person.

These moments are uncomfortable and cringey, but can they be helped? Is it worth saying anything when there’s an obvious generational gap?

In Hayim Herring’s opinion, not only is it worth it to say something, it’s crucial.

“People typically have cut down on conversation, and anything that’s mildly controversial they avoid like the plague,” said Herring, author of “Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X and Millennial Divide” and a boomer himself.

But these conversations can actually make the world a more connected, empathetic and understanding place, if they’re done right.

“It’s pretty easy to hate a stereotype, but when you have a conversation with somebody, and you each learn and grow through one another’s experiences, you might not be best friends, you might still have a few scars in your relationship, but you haven’t lost it,” he said. “And better than that, you are better prepared for the next time with someone else.”

Assume good intentions

America’s millennial generation is the most racially diverse in the country’s history, with nearly 44 percent minority-identified. Twenty percent of millennials identify as LGBTQ, according to a study by GLAAD, and that number only seems to be growing.

That means if you don’t fall into one of these buckets, you probably know someone who does. It also means it can be awfully hard to remain calm when someone in your life makes an offensive comment about a minority group.

But the first step, said Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of “We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter,” is to remember why they’re saying what they’re saying.

The way they talk is “part of their identity, that’s how they speak, that’s how their language is,” she said. “This is their culture and this is part of who they are.”

Because of that, it’ll probably be easy for them to take it personally if you correct them.

“You have to make sure this is not a personal attack, which means you have to give the other person the benefit of the doubt,” Headlee said. “They’re probably not trying to upset you or offend you.”

That’s not to say what they’re saying is okay.

“I give them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t realize the harm that they’re inflicting,” Herring said. “And because everything is amplified today, its not just harm, it goes even deeper.”

Of course, there are “those people who revel in bigotry,” Herring said.

They shouldn’t be treated with the same empathy.

“I don’t have a lot of time or patience for that,” he said.

If you feel empowered to start a conversation with someone about what they said, take a pause to count to yourself and breathe before you speak. Pausing to collect your thoughts can keep you from getting emotional right off the bat.

“Breathing really kind of gets me recentered, because I want to lead this conversation and not have someone else lead it for me,” Herring said. “At a minimum, I don’t want to feel worse for having had it.”

Ask questions

The easiest way to approach a conversation like this is by starting with a question. When you hear someone use outdated or offensive language, ask them to talk about why they use that word, Headlee and Herring said.

Ask them: “Can you tell me more about it? … I’m curious about why you say that — it has to be some experience in your life that made you think that, or is that something you heard growing up?” Herring said.

A lot of times, people “form their opinions without a large amount of information,” Headlee said. When you “question them about it” and “force them to explain their opinion… people struggle to do that.”

At that point, you can explain how that language is harmful, and share the words people now use to talk about the topic. Leading into the conversation like this prevents it from feeling like a lecture, Herring said.

“These are such emotionally charged issues because they get at our values,” he said. “What we care about, the kind of world we hope to create and make better.”

Today, he said, most people “get monologues” rather than discussions, including older people.

“They hear anger, they hear judgment and they actually may not understand, so they close down,” Herring said. “And I don’t think that that is going to make the world better, it’s not going to make a relationship better, it’s not going to make a workplace better … It’s going to make people fearful of having more of these needed conversations.

Make a connection

You’re probably not going to change someone’s mind about something in one conversation, Headlee said, especially something that’s emotionally charged.

“You have to accept the idea that (talking about this with an older family member or coworker) might be a fool’s errand,” she said. “You have zero control over whether or not someone else changes, and if your goal is to change them, then you probably won’t succeed.

“Human beings so rarely change their minds… and the more you try to change someone, the brain interprets that as an attack.”

But one way to help them understand is to connect the concepts you’re explaining to their own lived experiences.

For example, you could explain issues of racism or sexism by comparing them to experiences of ageism. They may not have experienced racism or sexism themselves, “but can they take their life experience and understand that’s what it can feel like?” Herring said.

Try “to find that bridging language or experience where they can relate to what it’s been like for them,” he said.

“If you can get that conversation going, you’ll hear things that older people have been carrying around that they haven’t been able to talk to anyone about.”

Both millennials and baby boomers have deeply held stereotypes about one another, Herring said. The key is throwing away assumptions and talking person to person.

“Keep in mind it’s one human talking to another human, not one label talking to another label,” Headlee said.

Set boundaries

If you’ve tried and failed to talk through your differences, it’s okay to refuse to talk about certain topics with certain people in your life. It’s even okay to say you can’t spend time with the person if they use hurtful language, Headlee said.

It’s healthy to have boundaries. You just have to be willing to back up your words with actions. If you said you’d leave if your grandparent said a certain word again, and they say it, you need to leave, she said.

Ultimately, getting good at these conversations takes work and progress can be slow.

“The downside to this is this takes time,” Headlee said. “There’s rarely an ‘aha’ moment in the middle of the conversation.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Reach her via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @katecmoritz.