Friday, June 28, 2013

What not to say

Human beings are a social species who usually learn best from observation and mimicry. As they watch others interact, most children and young adults begin to pick up certain social cues, discovering that human beings are sensitive and easily irked about specific subjects; they realize that when it comes to such subjects, even if they're curious, it's best to be circumspect and thoughtful of another person's feelings.

And then there are those poor souls who just can't take the hint. They blurt out embarrassing questions, make obnoxious comments, and otherwise induce cringing and bristling with their thoughtlessness wherever they go. Nothing seems to get through to their brains short of being hit with a clue-by-four. I guess some of these people become paparazzi, making a precarious living by routinely pelting strangers with the kinds of questions most of us would never presume to ask. But most of these unfortunates go through life vaguely wondering why so many people seem to shun them.

If you're one of these people, you probably don't know it, so even if you don't think this list applies to you, read it anyway. You might learn something.

Questions you should not ask

Do not blurt out any of the following questions, no matter how much you think you want the answer:
  • "Why aren't you married yet?"
  • "Why don't you have any kids? / Don't you want any kids?"
  • "You have so many children -- don't you believe in birth control?"
  • "What are you going to do now that your husband's in jail?"
  • "Why'd you lose your job?"
  • "Why did your wife leave you for another woman?"
  • "Is your kid retarded or something?"
  • "Is that your real hair?"
  • "So, how's your sex life?"
  • "Did you really get a case of chlamydia in college?"
  • "Don't you know you need to lose some weight?"
You may think you can discuss such potentially painful topics with tact and sensitivity, but you are wrong. The kinds of people who think it is OK to ask such questions, generally speaking, have no tact or sensitivity, so it's best if you keep quiet. If the object of your curiosity wants you to know the answers to such potentially sensitive questions, he or she will bring them up voluntarily. Otherwise, it's really none of your business.

These aren't the only blunt, rude questions in existence; an exhaustive list of such questions would take up too much time and space here to be practical. So, what's the rule of thumb for this situation? It requires a little bit of thought, and it forces you to try to think like another person -- which is sometimes a difficult exercise for the clueless. You must ask yourself: is this question I want to ask likely to make this other person uncomfortable or put him/her on the spot? If you even think the answer might be yes, don't ask the question. Done.

Comments you should not make

Our society is chockablock with people who think it's perfectly acceptable to make rude, unsolicited comments about other people's appearance, from construction workers who wolf-whistle at passing women to catty gossip columnists who can't wait to rip into someone's Oscar night ensemble. But this social tendency is based on a grave and widespread misunderstanding of bodily ownership. You do not need to make unsolicited negative comments about another person's appearance, even if you are a close friend or family member of that person.

For instance, at the time of this writing my brother Timothy has long, curly hippie hair. He grew his hair out deliberately, and he likes it that way. Everyone in his family has at one time or another voiced an opinion (mostly negative) about his hair's current appearance, but it's his hair and he has the right to wear it as he likes. Yes, people have pointed out the potential employment and social consequences that go along with the decision to sport an unorthodox look, but Timothy is willing to live with those consequences, and he's smart enough to find ways to overcome them.

If this rule applies to one's chosen appearance, it goes double for aspects of one's appearance over which one has very little control. So, morbidly obese people of average intelligence already know they are overweight, and they do not need you or anyone else to point out the obvious to them, since they must deal with the physical and social consequences of their excess weight every day. Likewise, not every skinny girl has anorexia, balding men do not need Rogaine, teenagers probably dislike their acne even more than you do, and naturally large-breasted women did not deliberately inflate their chests just to arouse your lust and/or envy. There's no need for you to jump in and shame these people because their looks somehow do not jibe with your own standards for personal appearance. Now, if a friend actively solicits your opinion -- if, for instance, he asks you whether he looks all right -- you may certainly say what you think. But in all other circumstances, you are meant to remember that people look different from one another, and that their bodies are not your property or your responsibility. Deal with it.

Promises you cannot keep

Some people have a particular problem with making promises they can't keep, or as the old idiom puts it, "your mouth's writing checks that your body can't cash." This problem manifests in many forms: when you make a promise to be somewhere and forget to show up -- all the time; when you pose overwrought threats you don't intend to make good on (some parents pull this little stunt -- "If you don't turn off that game now, I am grounding you for the rest of your life!"); or when you dangle an imaginary carrot in front of someone without actually having the means or the desire to provide it (i.e. "Clean up your room and we'll go to Disneyland tomorrow!" when you live in Ohio and don't make enough money to catch a flight to Pittsburgh, let alone Orange County).

Making a promise you can't keep, especially if you do it often, is colloquially called LYING. People don't really like or trust you if you lie to them all the time. They learn to ignore your empty threats as well as your meaningless promises. The only way to regain the trust of people who are tired of your lies is to practice making and keeping your promises to them. This takes time, it's hard, and it requires you to stop and think before you allow another meaningless lie to tumble out of your mouth. But as people see you working to change your behavior, they will slowly, cautiously, begin to trust you again with small issues.

If, like me, you have difficulty remembering the promises you make, carry a notebook and pen and write them down. Hold yourself accountable to your own words. And if you find yourself making a promise you can't keep, apologize and restate: "Count me in... wait, this Friday? Oh, I'm sorry, I can't be there. I already have an obligation." It makes a difference when people can see from your actions that you value their time and keep the promises you make. They might actually begin to treat you like -- oh, I don't know -- an adult.

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