When sharing intercultural insights, I’m often asked this question: “How do I know I’m not saying offending words when talking to someone of different race or culture?”  

This question is even more important when it’s from a young person who is still growing and learning about the world. One student asked, “Can I say ‘Black’ in front of my friends who are Black?”

We all worry that we do not have the right words when talking to people we perceive as different. So, my answer is often one that opens to more questions to ask yourself when for instance talking to people of different racial backgrounds.

The next time you encounter a situation where you have an opportunity to talk to people of different race or culture, consider the following:

  1. Know Your Heart: What Is the Intention Behind My Words/Comments?

Whether said intentionally or not, we know words can hurt. That’s why it is very important to be clear about your intentions.

  1. What Do I Do If My Intentions Are Misunderstood or Taken Out of Context?

Now, sometimes, words can be misunderstood even when said with the best of intentions. People cannot read your mind when you say something, and while it can be easy for you to assume the best, the person you say it to may hear something completely different. So, the next question becomes:

  1. How Do You Communicate Your Best Intentions?

If something you say is misunderstood or misconstrued by the recipient, do the following:

  • Inquire: Ask for information to make sure you understand how what you said was received.
  • Be Brave: Apologize for what you said that was hurtful and reinstate your intentions.
  • Be Flexible: Use the opportunity to learn why others found what you said hurtful or stereotypical.

To learn more, hear Author Seconde Nimenya’s TED Talk on Race, Culture and other Identities in our Global Society. Watch it on: Seconde’s TED Talk