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Insensitive Gaffes
Mom with a View

Insensitive Gaffes

You can mean well and still cause a lot of hurt.


I received a desperate email the other day. “Please, please,” the author implored, “please write about people’s insensitivity to one another, particularly as expressed in thoughtless and hurtful comments.” She then went on to list her particular challenges and her unique pain at these remarks.

But we all have particular challenges and unique pain and we would all like to put a muzzle (or at least a filter) on the mouths of some of our acquaintances.

Now I’m sure no one is intentionally insensitive. They mean well. They are just engaged in that all-important activity known as “making conversation.” But maybe, just maybe, not all conversation needs to be made.

Maybe we can sit with some silences. Maybe a big smile and a hello can be enough. Or a nod and a sincere “how are you?” We think we have to fill all the empty air space. We’re afraid of awkward social moments. Yet, in that fear, we’ve created worse ones.

It boggles my mind that this needs to be said but, according to my letter writer, people still ask a overweight young married woman (in this case the weight gain was due to steroids treating a recently diagnosed medical condition) if she is pregnant. Not only is it tactless but isn’t this news private until the woman in question decides to relay it? My daughter actually avoids our local market because the cashier not only constantly asks her if she is expecting but doesn’t believe her “No-I’m-just-fat!” denial and keeps asking!

But that’s not the worst of it. Couples struggling with infertility may be asked why they are waiting before having children or why they are spacing their kids so far apart.

A single friend of mine once lamented that she was no longer comfortable going to the grocery store in her community. On her last trip there, someone yelled across a few aisles, “Are you dating anyone right now? Remind me what type of boy you are looking for.” (“One who doesn’t have a loud-mouthed mother like you!” she was tempted to respond)

Like I said, people mean well. But you can mean well and still cause a lot of hurt. Meaning well is not an excuse. And a lot of pain could be avoided if we would all follow the old adage and “think before we speak.”

Who am I speaking to? What are their interests? Their challenges? Will my words reflect sensitivity to their situation or, God forbid, a lack thereof?

Yes, it slows down conversation. It may even prevent some conversation from taking place. But those were probably conversations that were best avoided anyway.

The insensitive conversational gaffe is so common that we have an expression for it, to “put your foot in your mouth.” We’ve tread on a hurtful subject. We’ve touched a tender nerve. No one thinks it’s a positive behavior.

Everyone in life has their challenges. We may be so caught up in ourselves that we neglect to notice the pain of others, and so we are unable to take it into consideration before opening our mouths. But that is not acceptable.

We should be conscious of our friend’s pain. We should be aware of their challenges. We should be cognizant of their struggles. We should be sensitive to the delicate issues in their lives.

Yes, it’s harder. Yes, it may impede the smooth flow of conversation. Yes, we may have to endure silence. But keeping silent, not having anything to say, even being thought socially awkward (no worse censure could be imagined by our teenagers), is better than opening our mouths and causing a world of pain. When in doubt, we need to count slowly and bite our tongues. Silence is sometimes more powerful than speech.

November 30, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 23

(20) Gunther, March 2, 2014 7:53 PM

People are like booty traps and minefields

In my opinion, people are way too sensitive and blow up at anything and everything that you say no matter how tactful you tried to say it to them; however, at the same time, people don't hesitate to be rude and hateful in their comments to you and their bosses let them get away with it.

(19) Yehudit Spero, December 12, 2013 9:48 PM

Perfect Article and needed to be said

Perfect article. Oonat devarim is so hurtful and so common. This needs to be said over and over again and you said it perfectly! Kol Hakavod. Yehudit Spero

(18) chavi, December 8, 2013 10:05 PM

inappropriate place

How about "I don't discuss my private life in public."

(17) miriam w. cohen, December 7, 2013 11:19 PM

let it go

Oh, for goodness sakes, who doesn't say something once in a while that is not intentionally meant to hurt or embarrass., it just comes out. Sometimes the best thing is just to let it go.

(16) Anonymous, December 6, 2013 3:26 AM

And what to reply???

I was sorely disappointed in this article. I was expecting and hoping for some suggestions about how to respond to boorishness; alas, not even a clue. In my wilder days, I probably would have said "One who doesn’t have a loud-mouthed mother like you!”

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