By Shelby Bowen

We’ll start with a scenario: you’re at a party. You came with a good friend, but you don’t really know anyone else that’s there. In the middle of a completely light-hearted conversation, you refer to a stupid situation that you experienced at work as “retarded” and someone from the group stops laughing. Later in the night, you find out that this is because they have a sibling that has a developmental disability. You know that you didn’t mean anything by it, but she very obviously took it that way—so what do you do?

Apologize. Even though you didn’t mean it like that. Yes, even though you didn’t know, and yes, even though you had no way of knowing.

You apologize without excuses because, whether you meant for it to be or not, what you said was taken offensively. This can happen with anything, be it a touchy joke or even just your tone of voice. Working in the service industry for as long as I have, I see this happen all the time. The words you say to a customer (or really, to anyone) sometimes aren’t even half as important as the way you say them.

The most important thing you can do if you ever find yourself in this kind of situation is to listen. Let the person you’re talking to explain why they were hurt or put off by what you said, and don’t respond by trying to explain why they shouldn’t have taken it that way. It’s not your place to decide how and what people should be offended by. That’s the trick of free speech—it’s a double-edged sword. You can say whatever you want, but you also have to be willing to accept the consequences that come with it. Once you do that, you’ll start to figure out that just because you can say whatever you want, it doesn’t mean that you should.

It’s all about being open to learn from the people around you. They all have different backgrounds and come from different walks of life. We can’t write someone off as sensitive just because we don’t know where they’re coming from. Some of the best lessons you’ll ever learn will come from people that you disagree with.