There’s something that has been showing up everywhere that makes me a little crazy. It is showing up a lot on facebook. It’s the (name a number) things never to say to a (name a person). You know, like “10 things never to say to a new parent” or “6 things never to say to a childless person” or “5 things never to say to a grieving person.” I expect to find these kind of things on facebook, but now it is spreading to magazines, the June 2015 issue of Real Simple jumps on the bandwagon with an article titled “43 ways you’re not really helping”. I don’t entirely disagree, we don’t want to offend anyone, but this is getting to the point where it’s making us afraid to talk to each other. I am warned of the dangers of over-empathizing, of recommending yoga, of saying “let me know if there is anything I can do”, and even asking if someone has lost weight, for it will imply they needed to.
I’d like to see less of this “What not to say” and a little more of “How to answer” when such questions or statements come up. Sometimes, when we know someone in a bad situation, we are afraid to say anything, we may even wind up avoiding that person. Is that really a better way to handle it? Let us not worry so much what we ask, but hope that when an inappropriate question does get asked, we could answer honestly, but politely. We don’t need to yell “That’s none of your business!”, we can just say “That is something I’d rather not talk about.” and change the subject. There’s nothing wrong with “That question makes me a little sad, let’s talk about something else. Where did you get those earrings?” or “I’d rather not discuss that right now. How is your job going?”
Use the opportunity for a little education, if you can. Tell the inappropriate questioner “They are all my children, it makes no difference to me if I adopted them or gave birth to them, I hope it doesn’t to you, either. I am having a little trouble with Johnny’s potty training, have you any advice?” We all can say offensive things at different times, if we do our best to be gracious to someone who offends us, perhaps when we say something stupid we will be blessed with kindness, too.
One of the best lessons I learned was at my father’s funeral, over 25 years ago. One of our former neighbors stopped by to give his condolences. He was talking to my mother about his recent divorce, and he said to her “We’re in the same boat now” referring to the fact that they were both losing their spouses. I was livid, and came up to my mother later, all righteous, “How dare he! His wife left him ‘cuz he’s a jerk, dad died! There’s no comparison!” I got a pretty stern look from my mother and the response “Oh Leann! He doesn’t know what to say to me! He’s just trying to relate the best he can.” She was right, as usual. We are all trying to relate, the best we can, with the tools we have. Let’s cut each other some slack.