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.

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