The Gentle Art of Offending People

Last week, my editor assigned me an article on “the many types and uses of fabric.” I worried whether I’d be able to make the topic interesting. I had no idea my work would create a scandal.

The offending sentence: “Humans began wearing clothing made from spun fibers as long as 500,000 years ago, becoming the only animals to ever do so.”

This sparked a fury of emails, protesting my insinuation that humans are animals. We can’t run this! We’d lose advertisers! And biblically speaking, the earth isn’t nearly that old!

I’m not out to criticize anyone’s beliefs (though anyone who believes that humans aren’t animals obviously hasn’t been to my gym.)  Rather, I want to show how easy it is to offend people without even trying.

 WTF & Other Moral Quandaries

These days, I try hard NOT to offend people. I used to let it all hang out. Then I took a full-time job, and started rethinking the f-bombs sprinkling my Facebook status updates.

Is it OK to swear? What about insinuating a swear word, like WTF or FML? Was the word “hell” OK, or was that verboten, too? There are health benefits at stake, people!

But I have a deeper motive for analyzing my words: I want my work to have a broad impact. I don’t want to alienate readers with vulgar language, especially if that language doesn’t add meaning. And most times, it doesn’t. It just distracts from the message.

 When You Can’t Say It Any Other Way

But other times, curse words feel right. Take Chuck Wendig’s blog post, 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing (Right Fucking Now.) Right away, you know exactly what kind of post you’re going to read. You know you’re going to get a no-holds barred kick in the pants, and you’re going to love the author for it. There’s energy behind the word “fuck:” an attitude expressed in four letters.

Someone on Twitter once compared curse words to the velvet ropes outside a nightclub. They create clear distinctions about who you’re writing to, and who you’re not. Who you want in your circle and who you don’t. Kind of like the t-shirt worn by Rooney Mara in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:”

Over-the-top offensive yet ironic, just like Lisbeth Salander herself.

 Other Bloggers Speak Out

I asked other bloggers what they thought about swearing online.

James Chartrand of Men With Pens takes different approaches for different markets. On her blog, she limits herself to the occasional ‘hell’ or ‘damn.’

“For Twitter,” she says, “I’m more relaxed. I’ll curse here and there in moderation and with consideration to the strength levels of the words I use. But I consider Twitter my water cooler, my place to chill out and relax, and so I’m less on guard about swearing in general.”

Niall Doherty, who wrote a great post titled “Becoming Unoffendable,” says that while he doesn’t offend people intentionally, he tries to stay true to himself:

“I’m a big fan of letting your true personality shine through your business. So if you do swear a lot in your personal life, I say you should be comfortable swearing a lot while doing business. Otherwise you end up pretending to be someone you’re not just to get a sale. That wears on you.”

What do YOU think about swearing online – and offending people in general? Can it be helped; can it not be helped? Let me know in the comments section below.

10 Responses to The Gentle Art of Offending People

  • My own personal take on this is as follows: I have no problem with swearing or the innuendo of swearing – as long as it is done for a valid reason and with a purpose. I would not want to read a blog where every other word was a swear word just for the sake of swearing. Not that I find it offensive … it is just an indication of how poor a writer the person is in my point of view. Again, a properly placed swear word here or there is fine – just don’t over do it.
    John Pruskowski recently posted…10 Tree Stand Success Tips For Trophy Whitetail Deer Hunting

  • Kelly Kautz says:

    Great point, Debbie! It’s funny how popular and controversial so often go hand-in-hand :)

  • Denise says:

    I’m a swear-er in real life, and in emails to like-minded folks, but as a general rule I avoid it, say, on my blog (at least the vast majority of the time). I’m not offended by a linguistic use of curse words, and hear me out — there is such a thing. That Chuck Wendig post you linked to? That’s brilliant. It’s perfectly written, and its message is clear, and I’d argue that he NEEDED to have written it with the profanity; it matches his tone and his message. But I’m not a fan of f-bombs that take the place of words; that just shows a lack of imagination and vocabulary. Great post, Kelly!

    Denise
    Denise recently posted…The Best $80,000 I Ever Spent. (On Childcare)

  • Jonathan says:

    I really believe it depends on your audience. For my blog, my audience is primarily male and over 18 so I don’t believe I would lose out much if I swore online. I think where the problem comes in online is that you want to write with a particular person in mind but in actual fact, you’re not talking one on one and your searchers could be anyone. I like to think that younger readers who find me by accident could potentially be my customers later when they’re older so I wouldn’t want to put them off. One of my favourite bloggers has the filthiest mouth I’ve ever heard but his writing is so funny that it would be hard be offended and I don’t think he would care either way. As for myself. I believe that people you would never expect could wind up promoting your blog. I’d like to think that if my mom ever read my blog, (Surprisingly she’s not really into MMA training) she wouldn’t be offended. At the end of the day, I guess that the better you know your audience, the more boundaries you can push. I personally wouldn’t touch religion. That’s just asking for trouble although I personally think people are offended way too easily.
    Jonathan recently posted…In your MMA training, get the basics of striking right.

  • Mark says:

    There is a place for everything and if you’re audience fits it then I say go for it.

  • Sindhuja says:

    I am not interested in offending people from my personal view, if it goes for you then go on…

  • Julie says:

    Swearing has always offended some people. The same with politics and other subjects that polite company doesn’t talk about. Writers know they might offend people with their opinions on certain subject, or if they use certain words.

    However, what I find interesting about your post is that your statement that ‘humans are animals’ was offensive. What are we – plants? I guess a writer never knows what might offend her audience, and if she writes to not offend, that takes away from her voice.

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