A few days ago my wife Diane and I stopped by a fast-food restaurant and I ordered a bottle of water and a small coffee. The young lady waiting on me took my money and came back a couple of minutes later and said in a loud voice, “Here’s your water and senior coffee.” Now I suppose she was just signaling to me that she was giving me the senior discount on the coffee, but I never-the-less got my back up when she said this. You can tell that this didn’t really bother me, because here I am writing about it a week later.

I can point to a number of other instances in my life when I’ve felt similarly offended. There was the time the magician at a high school assembly chose me to pick on in front of the whole school, or that mime at SeaWorld who mocked me, or the announcer at the Nickelodeon Studios attraction at Universal Studios who picked me out of a crowd to make fun of, or the woman (Clark’s mom) who was a fellow parent from our son’s Little League team who treated me like a moron, abs obviously incapable of operating the scoreboard. It’s a good thing that I don’t hold a grudge or keep track of such offenses.

According to psychologist David Sigmon from the University of Kansas, “Offense-taking is defined as the perceived deprivation of what is rightfully due to a person.” Isabella Poggi and Francesca D’Errico from Roma Tre University say, “… the feeling of offense has been viewed… as typically triggered by a blow to a person’s honor, hence to his/her public ‘face’…” Feeling offended is considered a “self-conscious emotion” along with shame, humiliation, guilt and pride. Like these emotions, it causes a blow to the person’s self-esteem and can be considered a narcissistic insult.

According to Poggi and D’Errico, feeling offended is a negative emotion caused by an act or omission of another person that clearly indicates or suggests some negative property, which then triggers feelings of “anger, disappointment, bitterness, [and] rancor toward the other.” It can furthermore lower the offended parties self-esteem and disrupt the relationship.

People generally show one of two reactions to feeling offended. First, they may display an angry and indignant reaction, viewing the insult as unwarranted and possibly terminate the relationship. Second, they may demonstrate a dejected reaction, feeling sad, guilty, humiliated and defeated. In the second response, they are too demoralized to take any action except to feel bad.

According to research from The State University of New York at Stony Brook, about 20 percent of the population is genetically predisposed to emotionally respond intensely to both negative and positive events. These are people who automatically make a bigger deal out of things than most of the population. This includes being more sensitive to the feelings of others, their own feelings, or having a more strongly held sense of justice than the rest of us.

In a 2007 study at New York University, researchers found a polar opposite segment of the population who seldom take offense and believe that the world is imminently fair and just. These people, however, also tend to have a diminished sense of moral outrage. According to Cheryl Wakslak, the study’s lead author, “In order to maintain their perceptions of the world as just, they often engage in cognitive adjustments that preserve a distorted image of reality, in which existing institutions are seen as more equitable and just than they are.” In other words, these people have “delusion of goodness” and can’t recognize a snake when they see it.

Reactions to offenses may also be determined by whether the offense is seen as intentional or accidental. In some circumstances, however, an unthinking offense may be even worse than one intended to be insulting. An offensive action or remark or act by someone who is angry and intending to be hurtful can more easily be written off as false and manipulative than one made sincerely without thinking. The nature of the offense and the area attacked also affects the response given. For example, individuals may be more or less sensitive regarding an attack aimed at their appearance, intelligence, honesty, or some other feature or characteristics, depending upon what they value most.

Offenses may include acts of omission as well as commission. People can get offended when they’re ignored or left out of something just as easily as they do when they are directly confronted with some criticism. I suppose that I have been most offended when people just totally disregard something I say and there is no way to gain their attention or trust.

Some folks believe that people today are too quick to take offense and that our society has focused too much on trying to be politically correct all the time. Last year The Oxford English Dictionary added the word “snowflake,” saying that the term is “now used as an insult to describe someone who is overly sensitive or feels entitled to special treatment or consideration.” Writer Chuck Palahniuk has been credited with the use of the word in this context because his 1996 novel “Fight Club” contains the quote, “You are not special, and you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” When people make the argument that people are overly sensitive today, generally they cite only the most outrageous examples of “snowflake” behavior. It’s rather doubtful this represents the true overall picture.

It is equally as likely that as a country we have become too insensitive to offensive behavior in many areas and as a result suffer from collective “Door Mat Syndrome.” In 1989 Tucson psychologist Lynne Namka published “The Door Mat Syndrome” to help so-called people-pleasers recognize when they have been offended and how to take a more assertive stance in life. People often give up their righteous moral outrage just to be liked or to fit in. George Bernhard Shaw once wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com enjoying his senior coffee.

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