Followup to: Don't Get Offended

Draws heavily on: Stoicism, Keep Your Identity Small, Living Luminously

Previously, we discussed why not getting offended might be an effective strategy to adopt in order to increase one's practical epistemic rationality. That's all well and good, but just as knowing about biases isn't the same as protecting ourselves from them, the simple desire to avoid being offended is (usually) insufficient to actually avoid it-- practice, too, is required.

So what should you actually practice if you find yourself becoming offended and want to stop? This post aims to address that. In doing so, it also features an expanded discussion of one question that seemed to be a sticking point for several posters in the previous discussion-- if you aren't getting offended, how will you discourage offensive and inappropriate behaviors?


First, you need to really truly recognize that experiencing the feeling of being offended is an undesirable process. You must see why experiencing offense runs counter to knowing the truth

A good litmus test is to check whether experiencing the feeling of being offended seems obviously bad to you-- not the existence of the feeling itself or any behaviors tied to it, but the fact that you are experiencing it. It is important to understand that this refers only to the mental experience of being offended-- this post focuses entirely on the A (Affect) component of Alicorn's ABC model

While it might sound silly to have the preliminary step be simply thinking that being offended is bad, if you don't think that there's not much point in practicing the remaining steps. In fact, if you don't think that, practicing the remaining steps may be harmful.

Part One: Detection

In order to stop being offended-- or really alter nearly anything about your mental state-- the first step is to increase your awareness of when you are becoming offended and what that process looks like in as early a stage as possible. As in the case of ugh fields, being mindful of your reactions and "watching for the flinch" is an important early step.

As soon as you feel yourself becoming offended, you should notice this. It is then critical to truly inspect your reactions and determine why you are becoming offended. This doesn't mean thinking things like "I was offended because she insulted my friend," which has insufficient detail. Try for something more like "I was offended because she made a severe criticism of another person in the group and I feel that she did not have the relevant social capital to justify making her statement." If you don't have a detailed conception of exactly what it is that is offending you, moving forward will be difficult.

At times you will not be able to do this thanks to the heat of the moment. That's okay and in point of fact it is expected-- truly understanding one's own motivations and responses can be difficult even in unemotional situations. If necessary, wait for calmer times to evaluate such issues or ask others for clarifications or predictions. While the inputs of others might not always be useful, close friends (or unusually perceptive unclose friends) can in many cases pinpoint causes to your behavior that you might be blind to.

If emotionally possible, testing these models is certainly helpful, though I recognize that this can be challenging at times and do not recommend it to the unprepared. In particular, having your friends try to offend you to test your reactions is often a poor idea, as the emotional responses involved can be unpleasant for multiple parties.

Part Two: Dissolution

Once you have the ability to detect when and why you are becoming offended, there are multiple steps that one can take. The two techniques that have been most successful for me in the moment are what I like to call Dissolution and Defense.[1]

The first of those two methods, Dissolution, is what I tend to use under normal circumstances. This method attempts to dissolve feelings of offense by simply understanding them really well and then applying the Principle of Gendlin. For instance, if someone has said an insulting remark to me, I might think to myself "If this criticism is false, then it can easily be defeated by the truth. If this criticism is true, well, you know what P.C. Hodgell says about that... perhaps this criticism was not made in the most optimal manner, but I have no need to be offended, for the criticism will succeed or fail on the basis of the truth, not on the basis of whether it is appropriate."

For me, Gendlin is a true friend and can resolve most of these issues fairly trivially. However, this does not work the same for all individuals. Other techniques, such as perspective shifting, may be more reliable for others. The important strand that I have found throughout many people who can avoid being offended is the concept that being offended is a matter of one's own reaction, not the external world. I irreverently refer to this as the Principle of Hamlet-- there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. It is a key tenet of Stoic thought.

Note that there are a few other things to consider. For instance, one should beware sticky brains when executing this technique. Personally, my brain isn't very sticky, but if yours is you may have to plan around that. There are many considerations similar to this one regarding personal mental styles, and the topic of "Things You Should Know About Your Brain" probably merits a post of its own, but I don't really have space to go into it here.[2] Suffice it to say that nothing presented here is set in stone and you should make whatever modifications are appropriate in order to fit this into your own mental style.

With practice, I have found that the sentiment expressed in this comment can apply to reactions as well as to personal traits-- reactions that I don't like having tend to go away soon after I understand them, since I can then apply these methods to their dissolution.

Part Three: Defense

However, I've found that there are some times in which I am unable to successfully dissolve my feelings of offense. It may be that I am extremely hungry or tired or otherwise impaired and thus have less than normal ability to control my reactions, or that I am simply too shocked to react normally. In this situation, I resort to the secondary method, Defense. This is not glamorous and not cool but it does work. The key to defense is isolating yourself from stimuli that produce undesirable results.

There are multiple forms of this-- the most basic one is simply leaving the area. Other simple methods include drowning something out (simple technique: the classic "I'M NOT LISTENING LA LA LA LA LA," except inside your head), suddenly becoming very (authentically) interested in something else, pretending you have to take a call, etc. One extremely important note is that these methods should be a last resort. Otherwise, it has the potential of becoming an excuse. I seriously considered not putting them in the post at all because of the risk of it making people not take the first method seriously enough. Ultimately, I decided that it would be better for most people to know than to not know-- but seriously, be careful with this.

If you do find yourself having to resort to these methods more often than you would like, there is another option-- active defense. I generally prefer action to reaction, so I tend to prefer active defenses to reactive ones. Active defenses involve self-modification so that certain stimuli no longer produce undesirable results or produce less undesirable results.

For instance, if I know that I am going to encounter someone who may make offensive remarks regarding another of my friends, I may steel myself for this prior to the encounter, saying to myself "While it may be that some of my friends dislike each other and want to express this to me, I should not fall into the trap of becoming offended and getting into an argument over whether or not one's criticism of the other is valid. All my friends don't have to be friends with one another, and trying to enforce this will only add to the trouble. Instead I will make a mild remark and move on."

This is an especially effective method when it comes to preventing surprised or shocked offended reactions, though of course one must always beware unknown unknowns. Marcus Aurelius engaged in an extremely general form of this, advocating that one begin each day by preparing oneself to meet with all sorts of offenses while avoiding anger or irritation. In some respects, the overall practice of Stoicism could be considered an advanced form of active defense-- though not just against becoming offended, but against all wild or uncontrolled reactions.

Part Four: Discouragement

This step is where you evaluate whether taking action to prevent further offensive behavior is merited or useful. As stated earlier, I believe that even in cases when it is instrumentally useful to show offense, one can still perform actions indicating offense without actually experiencing the internal state of being offended. The question then becomes when it is appropriate to do so.

In previous discussion, Oligopsony pointed out that taking offense at inappropriate behaviors can be considered a public good. I disagree to an extent, because I think that in many situations claiming to be offended or acting offended can in fact escalate a situation that would otherwise pass with a small amount of awkwardness and concern. However, simply allowing (truly) inappropriate behavior to continue without objection tacitly indicates that that behavior is acceptable and thus carries negative consequences of its own.

Overall, I find that generally speaking it is often wise to complain about offensive behaviors if you think it is likely that those behaviors will offend others. You should be wary about generalizing from one example, though. I find the sound of silverware contacting teeth to be both off-putting and offensive, but this is not something that I bother to point out with people that I don't expect to interact with often, since I am moderately confident that it is a pet peeve that most people don't care about and aren't offended by. On the other hand, I do bother to point out that fact to people that I expect to interact with frequently if I notice them doing it, since in this case it is worth my time to potentially avert a future instance.

A friend of mine who is currently commissioned as a military officer says that one key principle of effective leadership is "praise in public, punish in private--" in other words, save criticisms for private encounters so that you don't have to worry about potential status implications of making the criticism around others. In my experience, this is also an effective way to deal with offensive behavior while minimizing social awkwardness and the potential for escalation.

In some situations, though, it is simply necessary to stand up when no one else is willing and confront offensive behavior directly. I have done so several times and will say that while it is usually uncomfortable for all those concerned, the result can be worth it. That being said, I urge you to use extreme caution when evaluating whether or not it is necessary to do so. My impression is that many situations that people deem worthy of confrontation could be resolved more effectively through less direct means.


As a final thought, I've seen a lot of people, thinking they've eradicated some bad habit, fall back into it, as they now consider themselves "safe." When installing epistemic habits, this risk is especially worrisome, since you may not notice that you have lapsed, in which case you can become the highly annoying sort of person who is weak in domains that they specifically consider themselves strong in and thus find themselves resistant to correction.

I must emphasize that I would much rather deal with someone who is offended and knows it than someone who is offended and thinks that he cannot possibly be so. So if you do wish to become a person who does not get offended, do it right. After all, it is dangerous to be half a rationalist

[1] This isn't to say that those techniques will necessarily be the most useful for you-- merely that I have found them successful and consider myself sufficiently qualified to explain them. It might be that alternative strategies could be more useful for you-- if so, feel free to post them in the comments, as they could potentially make this post that much more useful for future readers.

[2] If anyone wants to take the helm and write this post, they have my blessing-- my queue is overflowing right now. Please do send me a link if you do end up doing this, though.

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11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:09 PM

Very good essay, katydee!

I think giving people tools to lower the likelihood of being offended is a worthwhile project. We live in an era in which there seem to be more ways of becoming offended than there were a few decades ago. People have always tended to be offended by personal attacks, but another layer has been added in recent times. That layer is based on identity. Identities can be based on race, religion (or lack thereof), ethnicity, political leaning, sex, sexual orientation, disability, etc. etc.

To an extent, we all perceive ourselves as having several identities, and we are more aware of that these days than previously. It's not that we didn't always belong to multiple overlapping groups, from which identities could be derived, it's that there was a time when we were much less likely to derive them.

With the rise of identity politics, people are encouraged to think of their identities not on a personal basis, but on the basis of membership in one or more "identity groups." Once people buy into this, and begin investing more and more in a group-based identity rather than a personal identity, the way is open for more avenues of perceived offence. Not only is a person prone to the personal level of perceived offence, but is now, not just allowed, but encouraged to take offence on behalf of any group to which she or he is affiliated. And even people not affiliated with the group in question are encouraged to become offended on behalf of the group, and without waiting to see whether members of the group see it that way.

I'm not denying the social utility of all manifestations of the processes suggested above, but am suggesting that the net effect has been to produce a society of people, many of whom have become hypersensitive in this domain, and this hypersensitivity at some level can have a number of deleterious effects on all concerned.

I'm not denying the social utility of all manifestations of the processes suggested above, but am suggesting that the net effect has been to produce a society of people, many of whom have become hypersensitive in this domain, and this hypersensitivity at some level can have a number of deleterious effects on all concerned.

So, presumably, if the unspecified deleterious effects of this supposedly increased hypersensitivity due to those suggested processes create less negative social utility than the manifestations of those suggested processes create positive social utility, we should endorse those suggested processes (while encouraging additional refinements that mitigate those deleterious effects).

OTOH, if they create more negative social utility, we should reject them.

Do you have an opinion as to which of these is the case?

TheOtherDave, Thanks for your questions.

Just a quick comment. It's tricky to comment on some of these matters without allowing the comment to evolve into a full-blown essay.

I suspect the latter. I didn't detail what I think are the deleterious effects, leaving that for possible later discussion. However, among potentially negative effects are the following:

  1. Those psychological effects which presumably motivated the essay of the OP, i.e., it's presumably not beneficial most of the time for people to be in a state of being offended.

  2. A crying-wolf effect resulting from too many false positives. When there are too many false positives, then there's a tendency for people to pay less attention to what should count as serious instances of the offence in question.

  3. This is a controversial point, and I don't expect all careful thinkers to agree with me. I'm not convinced that it's better for people to think of themselves in terms of group identity as opposed to thinking of themselves on a personal basis. One of the reasons this is controversial is that it quickly leads into a discussion of group versus individual rights , a point on which there's quite a bit of disagreement. I tend to be suspicious of claims of group rights, especially when they conflict with individual rights.

  4. Perceived victimhood. Another controversial point. I don't think it's always good to encourage people to think of themselves primarily as victims, and I think this is the case even for obviously real victims, and some real victims are of this opinion.

  5. Hypersensitivity can have a chilling effect on discussion of important social and political issues which could benefit, IMO, from more rather than less discussion.

These points are more to try to illustrate what motivates my position than to offer a complete justification thereof.

More general comment: It can be notoriously difficult to try to decide what the net social utility of any policy is, not just because reasonable people with disagree about the effects themselves, but also, and very importantly, they will disagree about how those outcomes should be weighted, even when they agree about the outcomes themselves.

When I wrote the first version of this post, I hadn't read "Keep Your Identity Small," linked in the OP. The notions expressed there overlap quite a bit with my own, though I didn't specifically mention how investment in an identity may cloud reasoning by bringing in overly emotional considerations, making discussion difficult.

OK; thanks for clarifying your position.

In order to stop being offended-- or really alter nearly anything about your mental state-- the first step is to increase your awareness of when you are becoming offended and what that process looks like in as early a stage as possible. As in the case of ugh fields, being mindful of your reactions and "watching for the flinch" is an important early step.

Something else to be on the watch for is that getting seriously indignant about an offense feels really good. There is something intensely satisfying about telling someone off and feeling justified about it, even if circumstances dictate that we can only do it inside our own head. We are psychologically rewarded for not stepping back and thinking about whether we are really feeling rational, and declining that reward is often difficult.

The topic of "Things You Should Know About Your Brain" probably merits a post of its own...[footnote] If anyone wants to take the helm and write this post, they have my blessing

I would love to see a post on this subject, too. I've always found the epistemic-rationality content here more compelling than the instrumental-rationality content. Working out truths about how your own brain works -- developing a correct map of your self -- is a cripplingly difficult but immensely valuable thing.

I might take on the subject if no one better-qualified does. I've been chasing that rainbow for a while.

As a final thought, I've seen a lot of people, thinking they've eradicated some bad habit, fall back into it, as they now consider themselves "safe."

Maybe a good way of preventing this would be making a flash card for the habit in a spaced repetition system. That way, once you start forgetting about it, it will remind you of it again. Has anyone tried something like this?

Sometimes playing "the offended party" in a social situation has its advantages - especially when dealing with less rational people. Some people find it easier to empathize with you if you show signs of being offended, when all you are is unhappy with a certain state of affairs. I believe this has a net positive effect in certain situations - but must be used with caution because if you are actually offended it might reinforce that behaviour in you.

I'm also not sure if hiding your emotions like that is OK. (as in, morally solid and a good long-term strategy for socializing)

Also (as you stated in part 5), its worse to be offended and not know it. I haven't found a way to stay away from that aside from actually letting myself be offended for a few seconds or minutes before trying to deal with it every so often. Do you have a more effective method?

Agreed. I worry that not getting offended because it doesn't seem epistemically useful may come at the expense of not using a social tool which is instrumentally useful for dealing with people. (Getting offended on the internet is probably still a terrible idea - there are good reasons why people's instincts about what they should be offended at could be miscalibrated for online communication - but I think IRL it can still be valuable.)

I agree with this assessment. My evaluation is that it is an open question whether or not not getting offended sacrifices one's ability to effectively use the social tool of acting offended in person. My impression is that it does not but I am far from confident in this and in particular think that the answer is unlikely to be the same for all individuals.

must be used with caution because if you are actually offended it might reinforce that behaviour in you.

As well as modelling it for others.

Do you have a more effective method?

How do you recognize that what you are is offended? I find that learning to recognize the physical and contextual correlates of an emotional reaction as they arise, before they start influencing my behavior, is often useful.

This seems to skip some steps, as is common for a DIY-type advice.

I doubt that being offended is the easiest undesirable emotion to master control of. I would start with something simple. And not necessarily negative. As a practice of taking control of emotions, so help me Spock, I would take a positive one, they ought to be easier to evoke and less painful to control. For example, curiosity is mild enough and could be useful to be able to either suppress (no, it's a bad idea to "just take a pick" at my partner's unattended cell phone) or enhance (this boring class would be much easier to pass if I cared about the material). Happiness is another simple emotion, even babies display it.

The next step could be trying to control a simple negative emotion (fear, maybe?). Again, by control I mean both suppression and enhancement.

Now, thinking about prerequisites, one first ought to learn analyzing emotions in terms of complexity (is there a decent hierarchy of emotions? or just lists?) What simpler emotions do we feel before we get offended? Presumably recognizing a certain emotion in others is in many cases easier than in oneself? How much work has been done in this area of research and what is the current state and cutting edge?

So, it seems like a literature review is in order... Anyone? Anyone? Buel... err... gwern?