What can you say?


One of the things that regularly induces toe-curling rage in my house is seeing yet another one of those, “10 Things NEVER to say to…” type articles.

I have a reflexive impulse to shout, “Shut up!” at the computer whenever I see one.

And they’re everywhere.

Eleven things never to say to a working mum. The 20 WORST things you can say to a pregnant woman. Five things you should never say to someone with depression. Thirty seven things you should never say to a Northerner. Fifty things you should absolutely, positively never say to someone with a pet/bald patch/job/bowl of tiramisu.

Seriously, when did we all become such delicate flowers? And who made anyone the boss of what comes out of everyone else’s mouth?

Let’s take the example of pregnancy.

This is something that’s experienced by most of the human race, directly or otherwise, at some point in their lives. But if you Google, “What not to say to a pregnant woman” there are 26 million results. Even at one tip per post, that’s 26 million things you can’t say to someone on the basis they’re growing a small human in their uterus.

Things you CAN’T SAY to a pregnant woman include:

“You look tired.”

God forbid I should offer to carry something or make a cup of tea because someone carrying a human being the size of a bowling ball inside their body looks like they’ve had a long day.

“When’s it due?”

Yes. Curse me. Curse me and my semi-interested small talk.

“When I was pregnant…”

Look at me, sharing my personal experience with another person. I am a monster.

“Have you picked a name?”

God, there I go again with my offensive small talk. I’d completely overlooked the fact that hormones make it impossible for a grown-ass woman to reply to this with a, “No,” or “Yes, but it’s a surprise!”

It’s not just pregnancy, of course. This is happening across the board. It’s an epidemic of over-sensitivity. Of course, nobody wants to say the wrong thing around the bereaved, or the seriously ill, or when it comes to matters of faith, or suchlike. But isn’t it better to have someone say the wrong thing with the right intentions, than for them to simply say nothing at all?

Because here’s the thing – if you insist on telling another human being what they can and can’t say to you, the chances are they won’t say anything. Or what they DO say is so bland that, frankly, they might as well have saved the oxygen.

Let’s face it, nobody’s actually THAT interested in your pregnancy, but a pregnant belly feels like the sort of thing you ought to acknowledge. And once you discount, “Wow, you had sex. Congrats.” then polite questions about bumps and names and birthdays are going to be the go-to small talk option for lots of people.

Communication is an imperfect art. Most of us are doing the best we can with the limited skills and knowledge we have. Sometimes we stumble. Sometimes we fall into a great big bloody pothole. Like the time I said, “Wow, hope he wasn’t eaten by a shark…” and it turned out… he was.

(Seriously, what are the odds?)

Moving on…  by and large, most people talking to you will have good intentions, and I tend to think if they sometimes say the wrong thing, it’s easy enough to gently point out how they might phrase a question more sensitively, or simply gloss over it, if it doesn’t matter. Let’s stop working quite so hard to be so easily offended, can’t we?

This whole, “You CAN’T say this to me” attitude is deeply unhelpful, largely unnecessary- and often flat-out rude.

So I’m making a new list. Things you can’t tell me I can’t say to you.

And it’s got 26 million things on it.




27 thoughts on “What can you say?”

  1. Damn right!!! I see this load of old garbage in the media all the time. If we took any notice of it we’d never have a conversation!
    Most of it is cheap, throwaway journalism (if you can call it that!) Or bloggers after being told putting a number or ‘how to’ as the title gets them more readers!

  2. Rather silly isnt it. As you wrote majority of people will have good intentions when making a comment. I doubt there are many people hat would intentionally offend…especially pregnant women. I lost count how many people asked me when i was due, boy or girl, name choice etc sometimes within the space of a few minutes but they were only being polite.

  3. I see where you’re coming from, Sally – there are so many of those types of posts. They can get a but same-y, and yes we should understand that most people have the best of intentions even when they put their foot firmly in their mouth.

    However, I wrote one of those sorts of posts in relation to bereaved parents last year. So many people just don’t know what to say, so I gave suggestions rather than just writing “never say…x, y or z”. Sometimes those sorts of posts can be useful, especially around a taboo subject to give a constructive insight and hopefully create more empathy and understanding xx

    1. I think bereavement is one of the few exceptions – because you can’t ask someone who died what’s the wrong thing to say, some guidance from the bereaved themselves is helpful, especially when it comes to the loss of a child, which is (I think) especially tragic and rare.

  4. your tiramisu comment just made me spirt my coffee out in the middle of Costa. Spot on – say what u want to me – I’ll tell you if I don’t like it! Oh, and the 37 things to never say to a northerner…..intrigued!

  5. Yes! This! Whether its a rambling post about a certain subject or voicing your concerns about something ( like I recently did) everyone has to take things the wrong way.
    You cannot win.
    No longer can you say how you feel or what you think without becoming some sort of hateful monster.

    When it could just be an observation!

    1. I think opinions are something different – a post that’s provocative, whether deliberately or incidentally – will provoke a reaction and one of the most common reactions to an opinion we don’t agree with is to say, “You shouldn’t say X”

      I suppose what I’m talking about here though is those list articles about widespread groups of people and entirely things which are apparently harmless small talk that you’re FORBIDDEN to say!

  6. I think that a lot can be gained from taking people’s comments in the spirit with which they were intended, which is usually kindly. I know that I’ve said every last thing on your list and nobody’s ever bitten my head off over it, so I’ve had a good run so far!

  7. Yes, yes and yes! You know what? The world has turned way (way!) too politically correct, and it seems you can’t say anything without being seen as nosy, abrupt or plain insensitive.

    What were the odds about the shark?

  8. So bloody true and well said. I don’t really read those articles hence I’m reading this. We may as well gaffa tape our gobs shut in the event we hurt someone’s feelings. Natural conversations should flow without worrying about what not to say. Although I think some are in jest. X

  9. So true. I often suffer from mouth engaging before brain. I’m not very politically correct and always say inappropriate things at the wrong time BUT I always try to make conversation, mean well and never mean any offence by anything.

  10. I love it,my moto think the best of people, unless they prove otherwise. I agree, better they say the wrong thing with good intentions than nothing at all and actually this is how some fab conversations start. Mich x

  11. I’ve read quite a few of these, really left me wondering what on earth I can say to someone who is pregnant. It seems to be ‘safe’ avoid the topic completely. Although that would probably be deemed as rude. One of my friends is pregnant and I’ve probably said many things on the ‘don’t say’ list as otherwise I wouldn’t have a clue what to talk about.

  12. Lol so true, I suspect if I read these lists I’d say at least half of them. Not on purpose, but have the knack of saying the wrong thing. We are only human and should be allowed to ask questions. X

  13. Love this post. Always love your posts of course ;~) but this really resonated. I’m definitely one of those who can say the wrong thing by mistake even when I’ve tried hard to say the right thing, and I do care and I do worry about it… lists aren’t helpful!Well, maybe in terms of Christmas presents, but not of what to say or not to say. Freedom of speech I say!!

    1. Ha! Thanks Steph. I’m very much the same and I do have a terrible habit of saying the wrong thing but I hope (I guess that’s all we can do) that people know I’m doing my best. Having been in situations where it’s easy for people to have said the wrong thing to me (bereavement, loss of pregnancy, that sort of thing) I know I appreciated that people tried, even if they didn’t express themselves perfectly.

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