I’ve read lots of lists lately about “things not to say to _____.” Some are totally tongue-in-cheek, like my post on “7 Things Never to Say to a Woman in Labor,” which is just fun (in my opinion). I love to read silly things that people sometimes say and laugh about them, share stories, and so on. It’s all in good humor and everything’s fine now.
Some are serious though. As in “don’t ever say/do this, because it will offend people in X situation.'” And sure, there are some things that just shouldn’t be said. But in the vast majority of cases, people say these things because they mean well and they don’t know what else to say. Their intentions are usually good. It’s just that these things are perceived by people in certain situations as unhelpful, insensitive, and potentially rude.
The truth, though? People are oversensitive.
People have asked me, “So are you going to have anymore children?” (before I was pregnant.) Okay, that’s a little personal and the people asking weren’t exactly my friends. I don’t think I’d ask anyone that question. But it didn’t offend me. They were just curious, trying to make conversation. We had a brief exchange that went something like, “Yeah, we love kids, we hope to have several more,” “Oh, that’s cool.” Was it that big a deal? Even if they asked me when I was 6 months into trying for a baby (which they were unaware of)? No, not really.
The thing is, if everyone had to watch everything they said (to strangers/acquaintances) all the time, they could never say anything. They don’t know what someone’s struggling with at that time, if anything. They don’t know if they’re infertile, or just had a miscarriage, or found out they were pregnant unexpectedly (again). Or maybe a family member’s dealing with a serious illness, a child just got an autism diagnosis, or….. Who knows, right?
In situations like this, you can’t expect people to know your business. You probably don’t want them to know! Smile, take the sting, and say nothing. Then move on with your life. You can’t — shouldn’t — expect the world to bend to your situation and to walk on eggshells around you. Strangers make well-meaning small talk and who knows what they might say. It’s not worth getting upset about, truly.
Try recently, when my son locked himself in my car (in our driveaway) — that’s a long story. Anyway, I called AAA to get him out. The technician shows up, sweetly unlocks the car, plays with both kids and gives them bottles of water, and goes along his way. He ignores that I’m standing outside in the humidity, 8 months pregnant and emotionally overwrought by the situation, and doesn’t ask how I am or offer me water or anything. I could be offended…but I chose to believe that he just loved the kids (he said he used to teach preschool) and didn’t think about it. What does it matter anyway? He was nice, he meant well.
Strangers don’t want to hear you complain. When cashiers ask, “How are you today?” They don’t care. I always smile and say, “Fine,” regardless of how I am doing because I don’t know this person and getting into my personal life isn’t something I’m interested in doing. On the other hand I’m shocked at what people I’ve just met will say sometimes. A neighbor went to my grandmother’s house one day to mention that she was having a garage sale soon — a neighbor my grandmother had never met — and invited herself into the house, sat down on the couch, began to sob and pour out her life story. To a total stranger. That’s obviously pretty extreme. But really? It’s uncomfortable enough for someone you know and love to hear your struggles (because they feel helpless), and it’s way more uncomfortable when it’s a stranger! It’s why people often say “Oh, I’m sorry” and quickly change the subject. It’s safer, and smarter, than going down that road with someone they don’t know.
Yes, it’s a little different when we’re talking about close friends or family members, who are likely privy to your struggles. But they probably don’t know what to say either. Most haven’t faced the situation you have, and just want to make you feel better. If they’re telling you stories or giving you suggestions, it’s because they care. It’s like unwanted parenting advice: they just want to help. Smile, nod, and move on if it isn’t helpful. If they ask, “Have you tried…” (a new medical treatment, a new discipline method, whatever) it’s not because they think you are an idiot. It’s because they don’t know if you heard about it or not or possibly forgot in your stressed-out situation, and wanted to help remind you. Just smile and say, “Yes, thank you though,” if you have already tried it.
Everyone goes through struggles. They are all different. No one can really understand what another is going through even if they have been through it because they are not you, and they are not in your shoes. Everyone’s life and overall experience is different, and so is their course of action. No one fully ‘gets it.’ But that doesn’t mean any struggle — whether it’s the inability to have any children, or the overwhelming feeling of parenting too many too soon — is less valid.
And perhaps you may not even know what someone else is struggling with. It may even be the same thing, but they haven’t shared! I had several friends get (unexpectedly) pregnant a year ago, when they had minor medical issues that would make pregnancy difficult for them. Sometimes one would be complaining about her problems while we were out as a group…and I knew that another was struggling too, and just not saying anything yet. It didn’t make the struggle any less real. It only meant, in that situation, that the one doing the complaining got all the attention and sympathy and the one who was silent got nothing (I would advocate sharing with people close to you for this reason…you do need support!).
Friends, who’ve recently had another baby fairly close to their last one (under 18 months) say, “Whoa, this is hard.” I say I get it. I sort of do — I was there once too! But maybe they have other, older children too (which I didn’t) or have marriage or job stress too (I didn’t). Or maybe their babies all sleep easily through the night (mine didn’t). The situations, though similar, are still different!
The overall point is, accept that (most) people mean well. Don’t look for things to be offended by. Don’t go home and bawl because you’re into your 18th month of trying for another baby, and your friend is complaining about her morning sickness or how her baby won’t sleep at night. Struggles are struggles, regardless, and if you look at it that way instead of “This is so offensive to say given the situation” you will all be happier and more likely to preserve your friendship.
Just my two cents.
What do you think? Do we need to watch what we say all the time, or are people too sensitive?
Top image by Alaskan Dude