The art of offending well

Nathaniel Mitchell

By Nathaniel Mitchell.

Nathaniel is aGriffith University PhD candidate andconversation analysis researcher. He is researchinghow people show they are offended and how they hold people accountable when they are offended.

In my research, I’ve identified many of the nuances that come into play when people are dealing with impoliteness.

In our culture, knowing when and how it is appropriate to be offensive can be more valuable than knowing when to be ‘polite’. The use of email and social media comments has opened up avenues of expression that might be different from face-to-face communication. In my data, close friends email a lot, but they tend to say very little. Instead, they tease, mock and insult each other in order to show friendship. But it is clear that receiving teases, mockery and insults is more important than giving it.

In order to insult each other, these emailers have found new ways around their workplace filters. They do this through wordplay, emoticons, and purposeful misspellings in order to perform different types of “jocular mockery (insulting but not meaning offence)”.

This data raised the question, how do they know when each other are just playing a game, and how do they know when it’s serious? The answer, they’re never serious. If someone gets offended, then it’s their problem. Yet, society at large simply cannot work this way. So how can they accomplish this perpetual non-seriousness?

Interestingly, recent research has found that Australians tend to make fun of people within the first 10 seconds of meeting them. Yet is it clearly not just an Australian thing. Scottish, Irish, New Zealanders, and some English do it too (as far as the research suggests).

So this means strangers in Australia might be teasing each other before they have even introduced themselves.

What I’m finding is that even though most people learn manners and the concept of politeness from their society (parents, teachers, leaders and peers), politeness may, in actuality, be a hindrance in our social interactions. It seems MORE important to know how to be impolite. You need to know when others are doing it, what it might look like, and most importantly how to respond, even when it looks like they are actually being rude. This extends from emailing, to face to face communication and onto social media platforms as well.

In fact, there is social currency in being rude when you do it right. Provided you do it right, being ‘rude’ can display wit and high-level communications skills.

Understanding how impoliteness works, how people deal with being offended, and how people treat mockery is a key finding in the search for “being Australian”. Perhaps teaching students that mockery is not always insulting might be more socially advantageous than teaching them to only be polite.