How to respond when someone challenges your language

Written by Lucy Nichol - published 7th February 2023


Free speech, so-called ‘wokery’ and cancel culture are concepts that are talked of daily on social media. These topics inspire anger, tribal responses (often politically charged with left or right leaning comment attached to them) and a huge dollop of defensiveness.

But, just as there are issues with our continued use of outdated language, there are issues with how these concepts are used too. 

You’ve probably heard iterations of one or more of the following:

You can’t say anything anymore
It’s just lefty woke nonsense
Say the wrong thing and you’ll get cancelled

The problems with these concepts are that they are regularly misinterpreted and over-used. They create division and inspire fear.

It’s hard enough trying to deal with this kind of debate on social media, but what if you are confronted with it as part of your job? What if someone accuses you of being ‘too woke’ or, conversely, informs you that you have offended them by use of stigmatising language?

In education and social care settings, where mental health and inclusion are vital and likely to be topics of conversation, being aware of the language you use is incredibly important.

But let’s begin by looking at the use of the three concepts I’ve mentioned:

Free speech

This is a term that is often used as a defence whenever somebody challenges language or attempts to moderate hate speech, for example. We’ve seen it recently with Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. But free speech shouldn’t equate to hate speech or harmful content. In fact, I was recently interviewing campaigner Ian Russell, who tragically lost his daughter when she was aged just 14 to self-harm and depression, with the coroner stating that her death was influenced by exposure to harmful online content. Ian, who is speaking at the free Now and Beyond Festival for schools and colleges this February, raised the issue of libel and slander, and how that form of legislation is so readily accepted by society. We know we shouldn’t write libellous content about someone or we could face the full force of the law. So when it comes to potential harm to wellbeing – or even risk to life - why aren’t we accepting of our responsibilities there, too? Why is ‘free speech’ continually parroted as justification for sharing harmful/hateful content?

The point is, free speech is absolutely a good thing. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be considerate and safeguard vulnerable people – particularly children and young people – from harmful content. 


Woke is often used as an insult, which is something I find particularly strange. According to the dictionary, the true definition of ‘woke’ means being ‘aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice). It’s a good thing! Unfortunately, it has since been hijacked and used as an insult to mock people who speak out against hate and discrimination, for example. This piece in the I Paper talks about the history of the word and how it has come to be used today. 

So if someone calls you ‘woke’, well, you might want to take it as an accidental compliment!

Cancel culture

There’s lots of fear-mongering about so-called cancel culture, with many arguing that you simply ‘can’t say anything these days’ without being ‘cancelled’ - but what does it actually mean?

First of all, when you think about people being ‘cancelled’ it’s worth asking yourself how, exactly, have they been cancelled? Are they live on TV telling the world they’ve been cancelled? If so, they clearly haven’t been – they still have a voice and a platform and are being given the opportunity to use it. It’s also worth thinking about the kind of exchange that has taken place in order for the individual to claim they have been cancelled. Have they merely been challenged about the use of their language? Or about a viewpoint? Debating societies are an age-old phenomenon – so being challenged really isn’t a new, contemporary behaviour.

If you are challenged, don’t jump to the conclusion that you are being ‘cancelled’. Of course, somebody influential with particularly intolerant or hateful views might be less likely to be invited onto certain TV shows, but that just takes us back to concept number 1 – accountability relating to free speech and harmful content.

What does it mean for you?

When you look at these concepts in more detail, it’s clear that they are often exaggerated or used incorrectly. The takeaway point is this – it is incredibly difficult for anyone with good intentions to be ‘cancelled’. Whether you slip up by using outdated language, or have your views and beliefs challenged – that does not mean the end of your career or reputation as you know it.

Instead, view it as a brilliant opportunity to learn and to grow…

How to respond when somebody says you have used offensive language?

If you’ve said something that somebody has found offensive, particularly something that relates to a protected characteristic, it’s honestly not the end of your world. I get things wrong all the time – all humans do. And I know that, when it’s first pointed out to you that your words have offended someone, we can sometimes feel sick and defensive and become angry or reactive.

My advice, having been in this situation many times, is this: sit with that unease.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but it is honestly liberating. Sometimes I still react impulsively, so we’re never going to be perfect at dealing with criticism, never mind not courting it in the first place. 

Often, the big media rows erupt because such offence has been pointed out, and the offending person has reacted angrily and defensively. But they have continued to do so and refused to back down.

An alternative to this is easy. Apologise. Acknowledge where you went wrong. And make an effort to learn from it.

For example, a few years ago I was challenged for using the word ‘addict’ to describe people addicted to substances in an article I wrote for the Independent. I immediately became defensive. I was, after all, writing a comment piece about de-stigmatising addiction. Surely, even with that slip up, I was doing more good than bad? So why was somebody just pointing out the bad? 

But when I reflected on it, I realised that, even though I worked in the recovery sector and many people in recovery referred to themselves as addicts, that was their prerogative. Saying somebody else is an addict is defining them by their illness, and it isn’t my place to project that label onto anyone.

Reflect, digest, learn, move on – and be an ally.


Language is progressive, just as society is. For example, we talk about mental health problems more openly these days not because mental illness is a new thing, but because we have learnt to treat people with more dignity. That kind of progress can only be a good thing. 

So if you’re challenged about your language, before getting angry and defensive, I’ve found that it’s worth considering whether you really are so attached to a word or phrase that you’d rather battle it out. 

If we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll probably find that we’re more upset about being called out and losing face than we are about potentially dropping a word from our vocabulary. A word that, while it makes very little difference to us personally, can cause a world of pain to others.  

If we all make these kinds of subtle changes in our own lives, together we can have a significant and positive impact on creating a safer and more harmonious society.


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Lucy is a writer with a passion for mental health awareness whose words have been published in The Independent, Standard Issue, The I Paper, NME, Red Magazine, Metro, Den of Geek, Huff Post, Reader’s Digest and many more. Lucy has also worked on behalf of the charities Mind and Recovery Connections providing script advice for TV soaps and dramas regarding mental health (including addiction) portrayals.

She is the author of three published books all exploring mental health stigma (A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes (non fiction), The Twenty Seven Club and Parklife (both fiction) and her new book 'Snowflake' about stigma is out now and can be found here. 

Lucy also works as a PR consultant and copywriter for a range of organisation including several mental health charities.