Latter-day Saint Life

Why We Need to Be Careful About How We Use the Phrase "Choosing to Be Offended"


Apples to Apples is no fun and games; Apples to Apples is serious business. At least, that’s what it feels like when I play against my competitive family. Though my husband is equally competitive, he still lost Apples to Apples every time we played with my family.

Then one day he had an epiphany: “I realized I’ve been playing it wrong. I put down the card that I would pick. I don’t really consider what I think the other person I’m playing to would pick,” he told me. I jokingly replied, “Duh, everyone knows that.” But then I had my own “aha” moment about his realization.

Not everyone thinks about the other person when they “play their cards”—not everyone considers other’s feelings when they speak. Going back to the analogy of playing Apples to Apples, the game requires that players put anonymous red card descriptions that match an adjective on the green card and hope that the person picking a winning card will pick theirs. The best strategy I’ve found to win this game is to worry less about what you think of the adjective and more about what the other person thinks of the adjective. 

Intention vs. Impact

I was reminded of this analogy recently during a conversation I heard on an episode of the LDS Living podcast All In with Zandra Vranes. In Apples to Apples, it’s easy to get caught up in what we think is funny or relevant to the adjective and not consider that the other person’s perspective may be different, and Vranes points this out by emphasizing the importance of having our intentions match our impact. 

“What’s really hard is that people love to focus on intent: ‘I didn’t intend to say something mean. I didn’t intend to say something racist,’” Vranes says. “But as members of the Church, our goal is to look at our impact that we’re having, and so even if my intent is not to hurt your feelings, if the impact I had on you doesn’t match the intent I had, don’t I need to change the way I went about it?”

Listen to the full episode below!

Vranes was specifically referencing times she, as a black Latter-day Saint, listened to members say something hurtful or offensive to her only to explain when she confronted them, “Oh, you misunderstood my intentions.” Those individuals likely thought that by saying they didn’t “intend” to hurt her feelings that they were off the hook. But they forgot to take time to learn about the impact their words had on her and how they could approach things differently in the future to make sure that their impact could match their intent.

Is Being Offended a Choice?

It’s easy to dismiss someone who feels offended as being “too sensitive” or “misunderstanding.” People commonly say, “It’s your choice to be offended”—as if that absolves the offender’s actions and puts the blame directly on the hurt individual. The truth is, even with the best intentions, we need to be aware of the impact that we have on people.

Vranes explains, “So if I say, ‘I actually wanted you to feel loved’ and you say ‘Yeah, well that actually made me feel isolated,’ … I have to change my engagement so that my action actually matches the impact I’m having on you. We struggle to do that. We want people to just go off of the intent that we had.”

Like Vranes says, we need to take ownership of not only the intent of our words but also the way we share that intent. We can’t control how someone responds to our words and actions, but we can learn from those experiences so that we can do better next time. For example, if someone shares with you that something you said or did offended or hurt them, you might try responding with something like, “I’m sorry my intentions didn’t match the impact of my words. What could I have done differently?” We can try to understand that person’s perspective instead of judging them for being hurt or offended.

Advice from Apostles

In his talk “The Tongue of Angels,” Elder Holland said, “Like all gifts ‘which cometh from above,’ words are ‘sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit.’ It is with this realization of the power and sanctity of words that I wish to caution us, if caution is needed, regarding how we speak to each other and how we speak of ourselves.”

Elder Holland talks here about the sacred care we need to take in how we speak to each other, because our words our powerful. We need to ask ourselves, If I am coming from a place of love when I speak, is that love being felt and received on the other end? If you find it is not, ask yourself what is actually being felt. We make the baptismal covenant to “mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.” Our job isn’t to judge someone who is mourning or feeling hurt by ours or another’s words, our job is to be with those individuals in that sadness, allow them that space to feel what they are feeling, and learn how we can better communicate the love that we actually intend for them.

But didn’t Elder Bednar say that to be offended is a choice? Doesn’t that mean it’s that person’s fault if they are offended? It’s important to understand the context behind Elder Bednar’s 2006 general conference address, when he said, “To be offended is a choice we make,” and, “To believe that someone or something can make us feel offended, angry, hurt, or bitter diminishes our moral agency and transforms us into objects to be acted upon.” Elder Bednar is focusing on agency here, on taking ownership of how we respond to others. Likewise, the “offender” also needs to take ownership of his or her actions. Elder Bednar goes on to say, “As agents, however, you and I have the power to act and to choose how we will respond to an offensive or hurtful situation.” 

At the end of the day, communication among ward members, family members, and those we talk to every day thrives when both parties are taking ownership of their words and actions and when both people take into consideration each other’s intents and impacts. We won’t be perfect in how we communicate. Sometimes our words and actions will be misunderstood, and sometimes we will misunderstand another’s actions and intentions. But as Elder Bednar said, “Please remember that you and I are agents endowed with moral agency, and we can choose not to be offended.” When we are hurt, we can choose to be constructive about how we respond to people by clearly communicating how other people impacted us. When we do that, we allow them the grace that enables them to learn and grow. And when we are on the other side of that—when we are the ones being called out for how we communicated—I hope we can take the opportunity to broaden our perspective and be more intentional with our actions.

Lead image from Shutterstock

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