How to deal with a friend who makes offensive comments

We have to be vigilant about our integrity, even if it’s at the pub or a BBQ (Picture: Ella Byworth for

So you’ve got yourself an offensive friend: someone who thinks it’s OK to say something racist, sexist or just plain wrong.

This is a tough one to tackle, because it’s going to require either willful ignorance on your part or a bit of courage.

You can try to ignore what this person is saying for the sake of harmony and this will probably be your instinct, because we do all like to please people – and confrontation is hard.

My policy is that we can’t let friends get away with saying offensive things because that’s the most insidious way those sentiments become normalised and sneak into our everyday vernacular. We have to be vigilant about our integrity, even if it’s at the pub or a BBQ.

Remember that saying: the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

Be brave and set a higher standard of behaviour for the people you know.

What to do if your friend is being racist

If a friend or acquaintance of yours has said something undeniably racist, it’s really important that you don’t just let it go – more so if there is someone present who could be personally hurt by the comment.

Letting someone get away with a racist comment implies that it’s OK they said it. Racism is never acceptable and we have to keep the people we associate with accountable for their words.

Tell your friend that you think they’re being racist, say it offends you, say you wish they wouldn’t speak like that. How else will this person ever know to stop, unless someone they care about pulls them up on it?

If this is a stupid acquaintance, you can afford to be straightforward about finding their comment offensive. If this is someone you cherish, such as a close friend, maybe start by making sure they understand the implications of what they’ve said.

You may get caught in an argument if you speak up – racists don’t tend to take kindly to being called out – in which case, calmly stand your ground. If you feel like you’re in danger, remove yourself from the situation.

And if this sort of behaviour continues, have a pretty urgent think about whether you’d like to have a racist friend.

What to do if your friend is being sexist

The same rules apply here.

If someone you know has been openly sexist, call them out for it.

Perhaps they thought it was allowed because they felt it was funny. As their mate, you really need to make sure they know it’s not OK.

If it’s presented as a punch line, just point out that you don’t find it amusing. Don’t give them your laughter and if you can, explain why you’re not laughing.

A powerful eye roll is a nice start, but saying out loud that you do not appreciate this kind of language is better.

If it’s a straight-up insult, tell them that you don’t want to be spoken to like that. However, the power dynamic can be a bit tricky if you’re a woman trying to confront a man, so only speak up if you feel safe enough to do so.

It’s especially important that other men point out that sexism isn’t OK, because a lot of dudes rely on the complicity and support of their mates to get away with saying offensive things about women.

What to do if your friend is being homophobic, biphobic or transphobic

Same again: if you feel like it’s possible, please, please speak up.

Every time someone gets away with a remark that offends the LGBTQ+ community, it only strengthens that person’s resolve to keep saying things like that.

If this is a social situation and someone has said something nasty, even under the guise of a joke, don’t let it go uncorrected.

Simply find a way to tell this person, whether it’s one-to-one or in a group scenario, ‘I find what you just said deeply inappropriate’.

The best possible scenario is that you convert this homophobe into an ally.

Make them understand why it’s cruel and unacceptable to speak about LGBTQ+ people dismissively, mockingly or ignorantly. If they’re any good, this person will rethink their stance and learn to be better.

What to do if your friend is saying awful things all the time

If your friend is regularly being offensive – or, to be honest, just says something particularly heinous one time – I would recommend that you think about why you want to keep them in your life.

The best friends are the ones who share our values, so if you’re serious about integrity, kindness and tolerance, ask yourself whether this person belongs in your social circle.

If they routinely offend you or someone you care about, or simply say things you find abhorrent, then follow through on your intuition and stop spending time with them.

The more of yourself that you give to them, the more you’re endorsing and enabling their bigotry.

Consider the company you keep, what it says about you and what kind of ally you’d like to be.

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