Ask a Former Stress Addict: Discussion Etiquette

Dear Fiona,

I find myself getting very upset during class discussions. I am also starting to worry that I might be guilty of doing the same things in discussions that are aggravating me or hurting my own feelings. How can I make sure that I am not offending or upsetting anyone, but still maintaining the productivity of diverse and controversial class discussion.           

– Distressed Discusser  


Dear Distressed Discusser,

Class discussions can bring up a lot of emotions — especially if they’re on tough topics, which they should be. Many humanities departments such as history, english, gender studies, and some sciences like anthropology rely almost entirely on discussion to drive the class and the focus for papers.

Since most Lawrentians live and breathe their classes, our life tends to just become a series of intense-as-hell class discussions, and that can be really draining. Also, people can be quite insensitive without even knowing or intending it.

This seems like a twofold problem to me: you are having a hard time not getting upset in discussions, but you are also afraid that you might be accidently making others upset. The first thing I would focus on is how to protect yourself against getting too emotionally hurt in class. Then, I would start worrying about making sure you’re not doing the same to others.

OK, so protecting yourself: try to remember that your arguments and opinions are not you as a person. If someone is disagreeing with you, know that they are attacking your opinion, not you. It is natural to feel defensive, but try to give others the benefit of the doubt. They are probably not being malicious; they’re just trying to do what everyone else is trying to do: participate in the discussion. Discussion would be really boring if everyone was agreeing with each other all the time.

If someone says something really awful — I mean truly upsetting and offensive — take a deep breath, write it down and then talk to your professor after class. Chances are that would not even be necessary. If it’s an extremely horrible thing that was said, the rest of the class and the professor will call them out. If that doesn’t happen and you seem to be the only one who was really affected by what was said, then it is time to talk to your professor individually about it. They can outline for you their class discussion guidelines and can do the same for the person who was offensive.

Okay, so that’s dealing with mean stuff being said to you. How not to accidentally say mean stuff in class is more complicated. For a start, do not speak without thinking. Some professors will say that they are totally okay with you “thinking out loud” in their class. That is all very fine and well, and it makes sense since sometimes it is hard to work through a problem without verbalizing it. However, you still need to be conscious of what you are saying and how it will affect others. This does not necessarily mean that you have to change your argument, but it does mean that you have to choose your words with care.

In particular, there are certain words that are very gendered or racially significant. They should not be used lightly and definitely not in anger. I cannot give you a full list of these words and just say, “These are no-no words and we do not use them in class.” Firstly, these upsetting words are different for every intersection of the human experience, and secondly, sometimes you can use some of these words to accurately explain something. What matters is how you use them. Be diplomatic.

For example, “hysterical” is one that immediately springs to mind for me. Do not describe someone who is upset — especially a woman — as “hysterical”. Do use “hysterical” to describe what doctors used to call women in order to invalidate female emotions. Get it?

If that seems too complicated, try just being receptive to the people around you and paying attention to their body language to find out what things are upsetting them.

Either way, discussion etiquette is important. Just try to be a nice person and think about how others might feel about what you are saying. Discussions are much more productive if everyone is happy, engaged and comfortable.