On the case of saying the phrase, “no offence” followed by a statement that may or may not cause offence.
Should you use the phrase? Should you avoid the phrase? Is the phrase misleading? For what purpose might one misuse the phrase? What kind of social responsibility does using the phrase imply? What kind of social context does the use of the phrase set? Is the phrase net good or net harm?
The issue is complicated.
One crux of the complexity is that offence is in the receiving party. It’s an experience of “feeling offended”. You can’t forcefully cause someone offence on purpose. However you can damn well try. You can say things that might beyond a reasonable doubt cause a reasonable person to take offence. In contrast you also can’t perfectly avoid causing offence but again you sure can try, and you can take a reasonable expectation that a reasonable person won’t be offended by a certain phrase. (See also: The reasonable person test)
For example – A situation in which “A would not expect to cause offence”
A: “Good day”
B – Taking offence: “What do you mean by that?”
In this example, depending on the tone used, A can probably be reasonably confident that a reasonable person won’t take offence from a statement like, “good day”. However we don’t know the full context. B could look like death warmed up and implying “good day” might be taken as a sarcastic and rude implication that A would be willing to disregard the context and rudely “pretend” that it’s a good day despite the context. Hold onto the complexity here. Offence is in the receiving party.
Social Grey Area
As with many social experiences there is a “grey area” Open to dispute as to where lines should be drawn. Some would say that it’s necessary for a free flowing society for there to be have an open and grey area. People need the capacity to ask each other the time. People need some grey area in which to explore and be social without reasonably being restricted. A society with too many restrictions would not be one worth living in. Having clarity about the existence of the grey area, it becomes clear that one cannot perfectly cause or avoid offence, there exists only subjective personal experience that cleaves the white and black from the grey. Legally we use the reasonable person test, and to judge which side of offence is taken.
The man on the Clapham omnibus is a hypothetical ordinary and reasonable person, used by the courts in English law where it is necessary to decide whether a party has acted as a reasonable person would – for example, in a civil action for negligence. The man on the Clapham omnibus is a reasonably educated, intelligent but nondescript person, against whom the defendant’s conduct can be measured. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_man_on_the_Clapham_omnibus)
This issue only gets more complicated from here.
Saying “no offence” gives off a signal to the receiver. You have some kind of understanding that what you are about to say can be easily or at least slightly taken as offensive. And you are going to say it anyway. It doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to “not offend people”. You may think that if they take offence it’s their problem. But then why say, “no offence” in the first place?
As for responsibility for resultant offence, You don’t necessarily take on the responsibility to ensure a person is not offended. As mentioned above, it may be impossible to prevent offence. The limit may be a reasonable person and a reasonable statement. Beyond which if you expect a person to be not offended, you best keep yo big fat mouth shut rather than say anything at all.
I propose that saying “no offence” creates a responsibility. By saying “no offence” you think have some responsibility to not offend. Or at the very least a responsibility to warn people of the upcoming offence. By saying “no offence”, you set the social context that, “offence should not be made”. And a further social context that one has a responsibility to warn before causing offence. Or warn of the potential of upcoming offence. While the warning creates an implied understanding that you expect the potential of offence. This doesn’t automatically make you responsible if you cause a resulting offence. It does imply a duty or responsibility that you invested in, by saying, “no offence” – to not be causing offence.
If you do believe that a responsibility is created. And it would appear from the use of the statement, “no offence” that you would wish to take on a responsibility to not cause offence. Or at the very least a warning that offence is forthcoming. I would propose a responsibility to “not cause offence”, comes with a responsibility to, “repair the resultant damage”, if you do cause offence. In which case, if one truly intends to not cause offence, not be the causer of offence, not be responsible for causing offence or responsible for repairing the damage, one might not want to say any warning of “no offence” or in fact say anything at all.
In the context of a person having said, “no offence” and offence still being caused. Does a person have a responsibility to repair? Following on from above. Creation of responsibility to not cause offence, having now caused offence. I propose that you stand responsible for the words that you created and what may come from them.
If there is in fact a duty and responsibility for social humans to not cause each other offence, and you set the context of the current interaction by saying “no offence”. You take on the responsibility and duty for offence, you have a duty to respond to the offence caused.
In summary – you should stand up and apologise for the offence, if offence is cause, from statements that follow the use of “no offence”. Even more so than if the statement was not used.
Ensure your apology includes the acknowledgement of the pain caused and the intention to not cause harm in the future. (see the book: “On Apology” by Aaron Lazare)
Does saying “no offence”, create a responsibility? Does it create more responsibility than not saying so? Does it explicitly identify a responsibility that already existed? Does the responsibility if implied by the statement, in intention as a warning, also carry over to the potential resultant offence, if created? It does not appear clear. It would take someone greater than I to be able to declare one way or another.
One thing is clear. If you want to be a good and honest, perhaps, “reasonable person” – would a reasonable person intend offence? Would a reasonable person create a warning? I don’t know.
Perhaps the reasonable person, in living in the social grey area world in which we live in, trying to do the right thing, need only be mindful of the risks. Perhaps acting in good intention, in attempting to cause no offence, in trying to not create offensive statements, in taking ownership of offence if it is caused, by acknowledging offence and honestly attempting to repair the harm caused. Perhaps that is all a reasonable person needs to do.
Meta: I don’t take myself too seriously. You probably don’t need to take me too seriously either.
Edit: I should have probably mentioned the prescriptive/descriptive split. It’s not very useful to prescribe language use. We can only really look at how people use it and draw inferences from there. Language use changes over time and the use of language is always up to popular culture. It’s interesting to look at these things but sometimes hard to be conclusive.