Good intentions: irrelevant, unknowable nonsense

When people respond to offensive comments at work, they sometimes hear “I didn’t intend to offend! Stop being so sensitive!” or similar remarks.

This classic blame-shifting technique relies on the listener being willing to care about, or at least accept, the speaker’s good intentions.  For the most part,  though, they don’t matter as much as what comes out of the speaker’s mouth. If someone says something offensive, s/he isn’t entitled to wriggle out of criticism and correction by claiming good intentions.

Asserting good intentions serves the speaker well. S/he can claim to have meant well, and you can’t verify that s/he didn’t. It makes the listener seem too insensitive or unintelligent to understand the true meaning of the speaker’s remarks. It reinforces the speaker as authoritative – “I’m the one who can say whether you are right to be offended. I understand the reality of your position better than you do.” It asserts, in short, that the speaker’s unknowable thoughts matter more than the listener’s actual lived experience of the speaker’s words.

What crap.  When you’re already exasperated or worse, it’s often difficult to say “I don’t care what you meant. Your intentions are irrelevant, unknowable nonsense. Let’s focus on what you actually just did and said.” In my experience, the most effective way to do this is to ignore anything the speaker says about intentions and keep repeating “this is what you said: [offensive thing].” Once you get beyond their bluster, which, sadly, you might not be able to do, you can choose what’s next: “Apologize.” “What did you actually mean by that?” “Don’t ever use [that term] in this workplace again” [best for those with managerial authority over the speaker]. But hang on to the fact that your publicly experienced reality matters more than the speaker’s unknowable private brainspace.

Of course, this does not mean that when someone makes a unintentional error you cannot choose to accept their apology. You’ll generally know how sincere it is by how quickly it is offered and how mortified the speaker is. Interestingly, you generally really can tell when someone genuinely has good intentions.

Good luck!