Many people are confused about what term is appropriate to use when referring to different others. I provided examples of this in Part 1 of this series on bridging cultural differences. This topic is a hornet’s nest because a term that is appropriate in one context may be inappropriate in another.  Choosing the right word can be a daunting task for who wish to avoid offending others and are horrified at thought of being judged.

So what do you do if you use a term and someone is offended? 

This recently happened to Oprah Winfrey. For her 25th and last season on network television, Oprah arranged for behind the scenes taping of how each show was produced the entire season. The tapes are now part of a new series, appropriately called Season 25, on her recently launched network, OWN — or the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Episode 103 of Season 25 provided a behind the scenes look of an incident that happened during the taping of an interview with Terry McMillan, author of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and Jonathan Plummer, her ex-husband who had announced that he was gay after 6 years of marriage to McMillan.

During the taping, Oprah made this comment to Plummer:

“What’s interesting if I may say this and I mean this only in the best way and obviously I have a lot of gay friends and don’t mean any offense — you seem gayer than you were [during a previous interview].”

After the taping, Lisa Halliday, Oprah’s head of public relations called Oprah to tell her that she thought that the comment would offend gay people. The discussion afterward provided a vivid illustration of what can happen when someone with the best of intentions is accused of making an offensive comment.

Distinguishing Intent from Impact

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As might be expected, Oprah at first was incredulous that her motives would have been mistaken:

“Everybody knows I am very gay-friendly…. My intention was not to be inappropriate. My intention was to say you have obviously come out and come out in a very big way and now you are feeling your ability to be your authentic self.”

Halliday persisted, “I just say that it’s a very naïve statement, that’s all.”

Clearly still stunned, Oprah then asked her producer to find some gay staffers to solicit their opinion.

Three gay people came into her office, one after another. To each, Oprah asked a variation of the same question: “Was the comment offensive and should it be struck from the tape?” In explaining her rationale for asking them, she commented, “I have my own opinions about things, but when other people weigh in strongly, I’m willing to listen and do a gut check on it.”

What was striking about the ensuing discussion was that most of the staffers appeared to feel free to express their opinion even though Oprah was their boss. Although their nonverbal behavior toward her was deferential, two of the three gay staffers stood firm in their position that her comment indeed had been offensive. I was also struck with how light and friendly the conversation remained, even though it was obviously quite serious.  They laughed and joked throughout the discussion, a sign that they had had similar conversations before. One staff member even humorously demonstrated how he had done a double-take when he heard the comment.

When Oprah asked him to explain why her statement had been offensive, he responded:

“It implies that gay is an action and not who you are as a human being. You’re born black, you’re born gay. To allude that our action determines your sexuality is offensive. For someone who is battling his sexuality, I can see it would affect him and some of your viewers who are in his same position.”

As most people would do in her shoes, Oprah repeatedly defended herself by explaining that she had the best of intentions with her remark.  The staff responded by reassuring her that they knew this:

“I know that you didn’t mean anything offensive about it.”

“People know your heart and spirit and your intention is not to offend them.”

Once Oprah accepted that her statement had been offensive to some no matter her intentions, the next question was whether the comment should be deleted from the tape. After more back and forth, she thanked the staff and the discussion ended.

In explaining her final decision about whether to keep or omit that comment from the viewing, Oprah said:

“I ended up allowing myself to be censured on that comment because I am not gay and I don’t understand fully what it means to be in that position. So I think, well, gay people will know better than I. And the gay people in the building said ‘you’re wrong, so I was wrong.”

Viewer Reactions

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The clip has now been posted on her website. Viewer comments about her decision illustrate how challenging are such situations:

“I say we all need to lighten up a bit. It was funny. Stop being hyper sensitive.”

“I thought that word “gayer” when she said it, was funny. People shouldn’t be offended by it, just because of the way she said it. It was obvious she meant no harm there…..geeeeez!!!”

“The comment was offensive because it reduces being gay to one specific expression of “gayness” (an effeminate man) as if gayness could be reduced to its stereotypes.”

“That was a good call… because Great moments often catch us unaware—beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one. People may not remember exactly what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

What can we learn from this?

Here is what was so remarkable about the outcome:

  • Oprah was willing to test her assumption that her comment was unoffensive.
  • She wanted reassurance that the staff knew that her intentions had been honorable, and the staff willingly provided her with that reassurance.
  • Even so, she knew that good intentions are not sufficient to overcome a negative impact.
  • She also knew that she was not in a position to judge what might be offensive to a person in a social group to which she didn’t belong. She did not judge those who took offense as being “hypersensitive.”
  • She, the head of a billion dollar enterprise, had the courage and the integrity to say publicly, “I was wrong.”

If you want to know more about testing assumptions, see Reframing Change, Chapter 2.  For more about distinguishing intent from impact, see Chapter 5, “Bridging Differences,” pages 131-132.



  • What do you think of how Oprah handled the situation?
  • How do you think a person should respond if someone from a different ethnic group takes offense to her words?

Filed under: bridging differencesbuilding effective relationshipsconscious use of selfhealthy organizationstesting assumptionsworkplace dynamics

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