Why do people get defensive when lying

I don’t know about you, but I have an unfortunate tendency to put my foot in my mouth.

I believe I do it more than the average person, to be honest. It has something to do with how enthusiastic or passionate I become when I am trying to make a point about something. Most of the time I realise exactly what I have said or implied as soon as it tumbles out of my mouth, and the situation becomes intensely awkward and embarrassing for a couple of soul-destroying moments. However, as awful as it feels at the time, such slip-ups are usually harmless.

Sometimes, however, I find myself saying something more problematic. This happens either because I am reciting something that I have heard without thinking about what it means, or, more frequently, because I do not know that what I am saying is inappropriate. When this happens, one of two things occur. Either nobody says anything, and I remain unaware of my problematic behaviour, or I am told that what I have done is troubling, offensive, triggering, etc.  

In other words, I am called out.

Being called out can be an alarming experience. The first time it happened to me, I had been living under the assumption that calling out was not something that would happen to me. Calling out, I thought, was the sort of thing that only happened to people like Nigel Farage or Donald Trump; people who are blatantly prejudiced and do not care about how their actions might be harmful.

Without going into too much detail, my first experience of being called out was the result of my writing a post online wherein I compared sizeism/fat prejudice to other, more well-known forms of prejudice, and implied that sizeism was ‘worse’. Looking back, it is now obvious to me that my behaviour was problematic, but I did not realise it at the time. This is by no means an excuse, to be clear. It is merely an explanation.

The next morning my inbox contained about 60 notices of people calling me out. As I read the words of disbelief, anger, and sadness, I felt my heart rate increase and my palms turn sweaty with panic. What, I asked myself, have I done? These people are all so angry at me, even though I did not mean them any harm.

I spent some time trying to decide what I should do in response, whilst re-reading the angriest of the comments I received. Should I ignore them? Should I focus on their anger, and ask them to please talk to me in a ‘more civilised’ manner? Or should I do what my instincts were crying out for me to do, and say to them “Hey, I’m on your side here.” “I’m not the problem.” “I’m just trying to make a point.” “Why are you being so sensitive?” In other words, do I get defensive?

The answer to that final, most imperative question, is an emphatic ‘NO’. And the reason for that answer is simple, yet kind of mind-boggling at first, particularly if you are somebody who holds a lot of privilege: This isn’t about you.

If you are somebody who has been called out before and not known how to respond to it (other than to get defensive), I want you to take a minute, right now, to really think about what I am saying. This isn’t about you.

As a white, middle-class person from a similarly white, middle-class background, I was always told that I should stand up for myself. So when I am accused of doing something that I do not think I have done, I want to stand up, direct other people’s attention towards me, and make sure everybody listens until I have made my thoughts on the matter clear. And because of the privilege I possess, I am confident that I will usually receive the attention I demand.

More Radical Reads: 6 Signs Your Call-Out Isn’t Actually About Accountability

Being called out feels a lot like being unfairly accused. Both situations involve somebody telling you that you have done something wrong, and you not believing that to be the case. That is why we want to get defensive.

But getting called out is not the same as being unfairly accused.

Getting called out involves an instance of systematically problematic behaviour being highlighted and addressed. This behaviour is carried out, often unknowingly, by people in relative positions of privilege, and it is problematic because it harms or demeans marginalised groups. And while you are the person who exhibited the problematic behaviour in this instance, the issue that is being addressed when the call-out happens is the pervasiveness of the problematic behaviour and the trouble it causes. What is most definitely NOT being addressed is the goodness of your character, or the goodness of the privileged group of which you are a part.

More Radical Reads: A Note on Call-Out Culture

So, bearing all of this in mind, how should any of us respond to being called out? To be honest, it depends on the context of the conversation. Factors like the number of people in the conversation, the relationship between the person/people being called out and the person/people doing the calling out, and where/when the conversation is taking place, can all potentially alter the most appropriate course to take. Having said that, here are some ideas that can be useful:

  • Apologise: A humble, heartfelt apology can be a beautiful thing, and it is often appreciated. Even though the point of being called out is to address problematic behaviour in general, the fact still remains that you, specifically, did something that was wrong. You might not understand why what you did was wrong, but even so, apologising for your error shows that you respect the person who has called you out.
  • Invite them to explain: As I have said above, often the person being called out has no idea why their behaviour is problematic. While this does not mean that the person who has done the calling out has any obligation to explain why the behaviour is problematic, inviting them to explain the problem serves the dual purpose of demonstrating that you are taking their perspective seriously, and opening an opportunity for them to ensure that at least one more person will stop executing the problematic behaviour. It puts the ball in their court.
  • Let them be angry: Being on the receiving end of anger is not a pleasant experience, and it can be tempting to tell somebody who has called you out to stop being so angry. After all, you meant them no harm, right? But, regardless of your intentions, the fact remains that you have caused them harm, and they have every right to be angry with you about that. Respect their autonomy and let them be angry.
  • Step back: As tempting as it can be to be constantly offering opinions and interacting with everybody else in a conversation, sometimes the best, most respectful thing you can do is step backwards, take a (possibly hypothetical) seat, and let the conversation play out. Who knows? You might learn something.
  • Take responsibility: A couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, a couple of my male friends took to Facebook and said, as loudly and emphatically as they could, that they, as men, benefitted from institutionalised sexism. I was so used to hearing most of the men around me bleat “Not All Men!” whenever stories of sexual assault arose, I had lost all hope that any man I know would stand up and publicly acknowledge how sexism works. It was something I needed to see, without realising that I needed to see it. Taking responsibility for your actions, and the actions of others in your privileged group, can be an immensely gratifying thing, because it shows that somebody is listening and is willing to stand up for marginalised groups.
  • Do some research: If you have been called out and do not understand why, or if you do understand why and would like to learn more, go online and find out. Whatever the problematic behaviour in question is, there is a high chance that plenty of online resources exist explaining why that behaviour is problematic. The advantage of this approach is that you will be getting your knowledge from sources that already exist, rather than asking others to go through the communication labor of explaining the issue to you in intimate detail.

I know all too well how difficult it can be to resist the urge to get defensive when you are called out. But, if you believe in social justice, and you want to learn how to be a better ally, it is essential that you have the wisdom and humility to understand that calling out is important and necessary. Remember: this isn’t about you.


[Featured Image: A photo of a person whose back is to the camera. They have brown hair in a ponytail. They are wearing a black tank top and a white translucent short. Above their head are blurry yellow and blue lines of lights. Source: Thomas]

Filed Under: Mental Health, zPostsTagged With: accountability, called out, good intentions, responsibility

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