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Wondering how to draw the line between harmless and hurtful words and deeds? We’ve got a few suggestions

You’re a “mature” male, out clothes-shopping with your wife. While you’re trying on pants, one of the sales staff asks you to turn around, and then, her eyes locked on your backside, says to your partner, “Lucky you!” Everybody laughs. But minutes later, it hits you: if the gender roles were reversed, this would be deemed inappropriate, if not actual harassment. So what gives?

When it comes to interactions these days, there’s much confusion about boundaries—especially at the office. What can you say? What shouldn’t you say? And why is it OK for some people to say certain things, while others can’t? The situation is fluid, and unfortunately, there are no easy answers. But as postmodernists and ancient Egyptian royals might say, everything’s relative.

So how to determine whether your words or actions cross a line? First, you need to identify the players. In other words, who is saying what to whom? In the scenario above, the female clerk is the “sender” of a message, while the aging male, prematurely deep into his dotage (read: me), is the “receiver.” In this case, who we are is key: the relationship and context argue against a scenario that implies a truly toxic exchange—as a result, the message was received in the (humorous) spirit the sender intended. But flip the script—or factor in, say, an unequal workplace power dynamic—and you’ve got a very different situation.

Next determine intent, which sits on a spectrum. If the idea behind an exchange is to do harm, well, case closed. But if the “sender” doesn’t actually grasp that what they’ve said is potentially offensive, that’s where it gets sticky. Sometimes, we say or do things that hurt others not because we want to be hurtful, but because we don’t have a solid grasp of how our words may land. In other words, we’re truly unaware of the impact.

If you honestly have no idea that what you’ve said is offensive, and you’re amenable to understanding where things went awry, that could potentially open the door to a classic teachable moment. Not every mistake is unforgivable, and most people are kinder than their social media posts imply.

However, if you choose to cavalierly dismiss the weight of your words or deeds, you could be courting a big bag of hurt. A decade or two ago, slapping a Confederate flag decal on your work laptop might have been interpreted as nothing more than a vague nod to nonconformist rebellion. I mean, The Dukes of Hazzard, right?

But times and attitudes evolve. Today, the Stars and Bars is freighted with serious semiotic baggage, and no amount of “I’ve been living in a cave, listening to Skynryd” pleading will help your cause. Willful ignorance is not a defence, and neither is the fact that you choose to live in the past.

That’s the thing about impact: even if you’re convinced that what you’ve said is fine, it may not feel that way to someone else. But just because someone is offended by what you say doesn’t automatically mean all comments are off limits. Sometimes, the perceived hurt may be disproportionate to the “offence.” For example, telling a coworker that you like their hat is hardly tantamount to sexual harassment—or it shouldn’t be.

What about, say, satire and jokes? Does that mean that sensitivities surrounding culture, nationality, gender and religion have put everything pretty much off limits? No. But again, relative power dynamics and common sense come into play. Former Fairmont Hot Springs Resort CEO Vivek Sharma’s recent joke at a hospitality conference that the women in the audience should “go clean some rooms and do some dishes”—after he honoured them on International Women’s Day—was grossly ill-considered, at best.

Things are changing rapidly, and it can get confusing. But here’s a bit of advice designed to help you navigate these choppy social and cultural waters: for the time being, at least, just don’t be an asshole. As a diehard fan of South Park, I say this with some regret.