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.