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Challenging inappropriate behaviour

There may have been times when you have seen or heard things that didn’t seem right, or that made you feel uncomfortable.

You may have decided not to challenge it because it’s uncomfortable, you didn’t want to stand out, you hoped someone else would have said something, or you might have thought there was no point saying anything because it wouldn’t make a difference.

And then it happens again, because no-one has challenged it.

We want to encourage and support you to feel comfortable challenging inappropriate behaviour. But we know it’s not easy for everyone.

We also know that most examples of inappropriate behaviour are unintentional and people are often surprised and shocked that their words or actions have caused offence. Challenging, or calling out, inappropriate behaviour in these cases once is usually enough to prevent it from happening again.

How do I challenge inappropriate behaviour and comments?

If you feel able, you could speak up about the incident at the time, or you may feel more comfortable taking the person aside on their own or writing to them afterwards.

If you ever get called out for inappropriate behaviour yourself, recognise that it has probably been a difficult thing for the other person to do.

Remember:

  • Challenge / problematise the behaviour, not the person.
  • You need to demonstrate and model respectful behaviour yourself in order to receive it, and to make it the norm.
  • By challenging inappropriate behaviour you will not always convince someone straight away, but you may cause them to think about what you have said. If you persevere in naming inappropriate behaviour, people may start to anticipate your comments and choose to express themselves differently.

There are a number of ways to call-out inappropriate behaviour and comments:

For example: “We have a value of community and supporting each other and I’m not sure that fits in”.

“We do not have the right to ask that”.

For example: “I’m sure you didn’t mean to cause offence but when you said that, it made me feel…”

For example: “How do you think x would feel about that?”

For example: "That's an offensive/inappropriate remark"

This is a straightforward response. It is clearer and more direct than the cautious ‘Sounds a bit off to me’ or the sarcastic ‘Some people round here have never heard of respect’, or the angry ‘Don’t be so offensive!’

If you choose this option, be prepared to explain yourself: the other person may not see their behaviour as inappropriate. A clear and direct explanation may avoid you and/or the other person from being driven into aggressive or defensive positions.

For example: "What do you mean?"

"Can you explain to me what the joke is?"

"Why is that funny?"

A lot of inappropriate behaviour is in the form of jokes, innuendos, hints or suggestive gestures. Sometimes these are malicious but more often they arise from thoughtlessness or habit. Simply asking for an explanation may encourage someone to review their behaviour. 

These questions can be confronting. If the joke is stripped away, people are faced with the real implications of what they are saying. You need to be prepared for strong reactions if you use this method of responding.

For example: "Would you say that to someone who is X?"

Many people are unaware of ways in which their behaviour is offensive; they may generalise about people with particular characteristics without thinking about what they are doing or saying, and how hurtful or damaging it might be. Asking them if they would behave in the same way towards someone from a different group can show people their hidden prejudicial assumptions.