Has anyone ever offended you? Said something so ignorant or obnoxious that you just wanted to scream at them? Or maybe you didn't even want to scream. Maybe you just wanted to bring it to their attention. But it seemed like there were only two ways to react—be really confrontational so they’d take you seriously or stay silent because nothing you can do will change another person.
Telling someone when they’ve offended you is challenging. It brings up a lot of fears of confrontation, questions about whether you'll be taken seriously, and old patterns of how you think we should express our anger or frustration.
Recently, I had an experience with this—but I wasn’t the person who was offended. I was the offender. I’m in the business of giving advice and I can have strong opinions that I take public positions on all the time. Sometimes people get very angry with me. But this time was different. Here’s the email I received describing what I’d done.
I'm enjoying your book Queen Bees right now; finding it relevant as both a mom and a Wellness Program Coordinator and facilitator who sees a great deal of adult bullying in the workplace. This isn't why I'm writing though.
I agree with you that language is both important and powerful. In your book you repeatedly use the term "bottom of the totem pole" to describe low rank. I want to offer another option for saying, more accurately, what you mean: lowest rung on a ladder, low rank, low social standing. These are all options that are not culturally offensive.
I am Coast Salish from the Saanich and Snuneymuxw Nations on Vancouver Island in British Columbia Canada. This is to say I'm an Indigenous person.
Totem poles are the original history books of North West Coast Peoples. They do not illustrate rank or social standing. Each figure on a pole is a depiction or narration of a time, place, event or other piece of history to be kept track of. The base of the pole, the foundational figure, is never a representative of low status.
I wanted to offer this feed back in hopes you would be open to broadening your use of language when you're working with families and youth. Your information is so important and valuable, it's a shame to lose the good teachings by using offensive and dated language.
I hope this email finds you well.
Jada-Gabrielle’s email was effective for several reasons. She immediately told me why she was writing and connected with me about a shared belief in the power of words. She didn’t dance around what she was trying to say—even though telling someone they’ve said something ignorantly racist is often very difficult and I assume caused her pain.
But what was also good: What she didn’t do. Jada didn’t insult me or make judgments about my character, intelligence or integrity. As a facilitator, imagine what an invaluable resource and wellness coordinator she is in her community.
So I want to apologize to Jada-Gabrielle and all the people I offended by using the totem pole as a way to describe low social status. I’ve really learned from Jada-Gabrielle and will do everything I can to change that language in Queen Bees and Wannabes as fast as possible. I want to thank her for allowing me to share her letter and for the thoughtful way she enabled me to right a wrong.
Have you ever had someone tell you that you offended them? How did it go over? Post a comment below and let me know.
Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the new best seller Masterminds and Wingmen as well as Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to rosalindwiseman.com. Do you have a parenting question? Email email@example.com.