How to call out problematic family and friends

A couple arguing on the side of a road.
A couple arguing on the side of a road.

Social media has offered us a lot of leeway in terms of how we express ourselves. From the mundane to thoughtful threads and enthusiastic words of support – we’ve been given platforms to not just voice whatever is on our mind, but also to combat uglier issues that really need calling out on.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that learning to be more vocal online has broadened my outlook on the way we communicate with people online and offline.

It’s also opened my eyes to problematic behaviour (mine as well as other people) and has helped me to listen with more empathy to other people’s experiences.

Of course the problem with online culture is that it can become quite indiscriminate in its vitriol. Online shaming has become an inherent part of society that it’s something we often gleefully partake in without second thought.

There are definitely moments that more than warrant some backlash – particularly when it comes to trolls who attack, malign and go out of their way to smear another person’s character for no apparent reason beyond entitlement that is often steeped in sexism, racism and rampant misogyny.

There is a clear divide in terms of politics and belief systems, both of which are often used to trample on already marginalised and vulnerable groups.

READ MORE:  Have we become obsessed with a culture of online shaming?

But those aren’t instances I’m referring to right now. And perhaps that’s another topic best left for another day. I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we deal with problematic behaviour.

Being online, it often makes it so much easier to call out someone for their conduct because a) we don’t know them and b) we can get away with things we normally wouldn’t offline without being held accountable.

But it’s a lot harder when dealing with family and friends who engage in toxic behaviour that can range between being racist, sexist, homophobic, abusive, etc.  

What do you do when confronted with a relative or friend who says something you cannot ignore? What if they’ve always had a pattern of awful behaviour that you’re only beginning to notice now?  

And most importantly, if you do decide to confront them, are you prepared for your relationship to change or end?

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I asked a few people on social media what their experiences have been – the responses were quite varied:

Zakiyah says she doesn’t hesitate to say something even if it does cause strife:

I have no hesitation when it comes to calling out friends and family members on important issues. I've often brought up the topic of domestic workers and how they're treated in my family and it's resulted in heated arguments. Race and colourism are another two topics that resulted in this. They see me as petty and sensitive. At the end of the day, I'm totally fine with them disliking me. We should stand up for what is right, even if it means "offending" the next person. Unfortunately I've realised the harsh reality of the difficulty of changing people's mindsets, but that doesn't stop me from trying anyway.

Tallulah says that her experience went horribly but she couldn’t let it slide:

It was so bad. A friend said a super racist thing and I called him out. We had a huge fight and didn't talk for ages. People get super defensive when you use the r word, even when it's totally justified. It's a horrible situation because in this case it was a very close friend who I otherwise really liked and I didn't want to cut him out but it's so difficult to be friends with someone who thinks that way, so obviously I wanted to change the way he thought... but that's not something you can do for someone, they have to decide to change their thoughts themselves. It was just really disappointing.

Jamie* has a problematic person in her life that wreaked havoc on her marriage:

I have been married for 14 years and we were together six years before that. Two years ago my partner's problematic father needed a place to stay as his love/hate relationship with his wife (my partner’s mom) got so bad that my partner felt the need to rescue him. I immediately felt my alert buttons bleep but it is his dad after all so I can`t really say no. Well this emotionally unbalanced person has wrecked a 20 year relationship and I am now seeing a side of my husband I never knew come to the surface. I had these two men against me in my own home and no one to support me or my kids. So yes, problematic people can be so destructive and no matter how strong you think you are.... if intuition says keep them away from your personal space listen to that.

*Not her real name.

Keabetswe says she stopped interacting with a family member who constantly fat shamed her.

It took me years to become comfortable in my own skin. I was teased mercilessly but I always believed that I eventually got over it because I’ve learned to start loving myself for being a thick girl. However, an uncle on my father’s side of the family, has always used the opportunity to talk about my weight whenever we were at big family gatherings. He would say things in a “jokey” manner, but everyone knew that he was making fun of me and would say things like, “you need to lose weight or else you’ll start looking like a whale.” Years of that have built up until at my brother’s 30th birthday party, I finally exploded and told him to f*** off because it’s my body. Many of my family members – except my mother and sister - took his side because a “proper young woman shouldn’t swear like that.” I’ve avoided direct interaction with him since.

Nombulelo struggles with her own family, but says she will keep calling them out

My family is very problematic. Especially my mother. She refers to gay people in very rude ways. And she says things about coloured people that just aren’t cool. I’ve called her out on it before, but I still try to do it nicely. I’m not rude or anything, but I tell her that what she’s saying isn’t right and that it’s homophobic/racist etc. Sometimes she still doesn’t get it and says things that I would never want my friends to hear because it makes her sound like she’s a bad person and she’s not. She just needs to be called out and told that it’s not okay to speak about people like that. I’m always scared that saying something to her will make her angry, but so far she’s just brushed it off saying that “they can’t hear what I’m saying about them” and she doesn’t even think that is wrong. But I will keep telling her off and hopefully one day it will work.

READ MORE: 5 ways to get an apology right

People on Twitter were also quick to share their experiences:

Juanita has ended friendships because of intolerance and discrimination:

Melanie didn’t hesitate to let her in-laws know what she thought about racism:

Amber has cut family out of her life because of her values

Hannah hasn’t hesitated to challenge her parents – and says that they’re more careful about what they say now.

READ MORE: Not so Pretty In Pink: what it means to love problematic art

So how do you approach such a difficult situation? We’ve got a few  tips!

Consider your motivations behind calling out someone

In an article on, relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil says that one of the most important things you need to do is identify the behaviour of the person and consider carefully what it is that you want to address.

Have you come to dislike the person before their behaviour become problematic? And are you motivated by the need to see them do better or are you driven by the need to justify and validate your indignance towards that person’s behaviour?

Yes, problematic people don’t often give other people the benefit of the doubt, which no doubt adds to why their behaviour is so problematic in the first place, but if you want to be able to confront someone with the intent to provide some form of education in a way that’s insightful and meant to help, approaching that person needs to come from a place where you’ve examined your intent first.

WATCH: 10 differences between good friends and toxic friends

Unless the situation absolutely calls for it, avoid confronting in that moment.

There are some things, I believe, should be confronted within the moment. A racist remark, a homophobic slur, body-shaming – basically anything that is blatant in its form of verbal abuse.

In such cases, when other people are on the receiving end and you’re playing witness to it, remaining quiet could say just as much about you as it does about the offender. You have that opportunity to stand up on behalf of someone (should they not feel able to respond), so definitely use it then.

Signs of deliberate attempts to bait someone into an argument by creating a hostile environment is definitely amongst the moments where you put a stop to brewing tensions and calling that nonsense out then and there.

In instances where remarks are subtle and not everyone is aware of anything offensive being said, wait for a moment where you can confront the person – perhaps an hour or two later.

An example: think of something that’s meant as a joke but that could be construed as being offensive – while it’s important to address it, tackling it in that moment could be held off until the crowd thins out and you have a moment alone with the offender.

Unless someone has shown a pattern of repeated offences, assume good faith and don’t use public humiliation as a tit-for-tat tactic

A good rule of thumb for when you want to address someone’s behaviour and the method you’re going about it, is to examine the person’s behaviour.
Is that person a deliberate repeat offender? Is he/she the kind of person that takes absolute pleasure in their behaviour?

According to Bustle, in an article on Calling out vs calling in culture, a good rule of thumb when it comes to intervening and addressing someone’s behaviour, is examining whether or not you want to punish the person and see the person being humiliated for their actions.

While that ties in with motives, it also applies here because going that route could potentially mean that you may just have a bit of a tendency towards schadenfreude instead of wanting to help someone. Is going the public humiliation route going to help the person? And are you using the guise of tough love to act impulsively?

Clichéd as it may be, sometimes you can get more results with a little kindness, instead of public flogging.

Of course, it’s completely different if you’ve gone every single route and the person is still being hurtful and hateful – in those cases a dose of medicine given will be medicine received.

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