Social skill: Noticing boundary-violating language



There are certain broad social rules about being nice to people. You’re supposed to mind your own business. You’re not supposed to say offensive things without a compelling reason. 

Sometimes, people try to break the rules while evading the consequences of breaking the rules. And there are standard phrases they often use to do this (NB: people who do this don’t always use these phrases, and people who use these phrases aren’t always doing anything bad. But they’re still common enough red flags to be worth noticing).

For instance:

  • No offense but
  • I’m sorry but
  • I hope you won’t mind if I ask you…
  • I couldn’t help but overhear…
  • I couldn’t help noticing…

More often than not, when someone says one of those things, they are about to say something boundary-violating and expect to be treated as though they have said a secret password that made it ok.

People who do this frequently get really good at convincing the targets of it that their boundaries are unreasonable and that they are rude for not cooperating. It’s harder for them to do this if you notice them doing it.

It also helps to pay attention to yourself starting to do this, and stop yourself. Because whatever comes next in that sentence may not be okay.

Sort of, although —

Language is complicated.

And people have to use the words they have; people don’t always mean anything bad by these phrases, and they don’t always have a ready replacement that still allows them to communicate.

I think posts like the one I wrote are kind of dangerous, because they can end up being read as rules. And I don’t mean this as a rule. All I meant is that these words sometimes mean bad things and that it’s worth looking out for that possibility.

I don’t mean any of these things:

  • People who use those phrases are bad, and should feel bad, and should shut up until they can use more appropriate language
  • People who say these things are always saying something bad, and should be ignored

What I meant was this:

  • These phrases sometimes indicate something boundary violating, and it’s worth noticing so you don’t accidentally comply against your will

I am personally careful not to say these things, and I think it’s *good* to be careful not to say those things, but I don’t think it’s a litmus test for whether someone is worth listening to, either. This danger is what I was talking about in my post on distinguishing between personal piety and basic morality.