I’m not actually going to give a top ten list. Instead, I’m going to explain why I’m getting a little tired of the “top ten things not to say to…” meme.
I don’t know whether the lists are supposed to be helpful. To me, they always come across as self-righteous vent-fests. And before someone says that I’ve never been “marginalized” or that no one has ever said anything stupid to me when I was hurting, guess again. These lists highlight the ways in which people have been stripped of their dignity but are trying to regain it in the wrong ways.
Humans, both in real life and on the Internet, are going to say stupid sh*t. That is a fact of life. And it’s true, if people just used common sense and kindness, they wouldn’t say half the things on those lists. I’ve certainly heard my share of insensitive comments. On the other hand, every list contains at least one item which is just plain bitchy. It’s a complaint that someone said something using the wrong phrasing. For instance, I’m sorry that it offends you if I say that I couldn’t do your job. People tell me all the time they couldn’t stay home with their kids. You know what? Maybe they couldn’t. I take it as a compliment, those people actually think I do something other than sit around on my butt eating bonbons and watching soap operas.
When the people around us say hurtful things, it doesn’t do anyone any good to bottle it all up and then unleash in a list of Ways the World Has Wronged Us. First, we have to consider the source. Was it a comment on a blog? That’s a great time to answer directly with a comment of our own. It may not be received well, but it’s still an opportunity to educate people. Was it something said by a friend? Better to talk about it than to leave it for a passive-aggressive Facebook rant or a snarky blog post. A real friend will take to heart what we say and try to be more thoughtful in the future. Goodness knows, I’ve said all sorts of dumb things. My friends are very forgiving, and I appreciate when they tell me directly what’s wrong.
The Top Ten lists are not universal. I remember many years ago, we were having a lot of difficulty getting pregnant. I joined an online infertility community. After interacting with the women there, and reading their versions of Top Ten Things People Shouldn’t Say, I found myself a lot angrier than I should have been. I started thinking that all the people around me were just insensitive jerks. After all, shouldn’t they understand that inviting me to baby showers was hurtful, since I couldn’t experience it too? I made the mistake of refusing to attend one friend’s baby shower. I only ever did that once, because it was (on my part) a hurtful, rude thing to do. I understand that for some women, it’s what they need to do. But it wasn’t true for me. When other women generalized their feelings to include all of us, it didn’t help me find wholeness. That was something I found by being honest with my friends about my situation.
We also need to be prepared to let go. Instead of thinking up nasty retorts when we feel offended, it might help to remember that friends don’t always understand what we’re going through. I find it hard to keep straight all 157 Top Ten lists of all the things I’m Never Supposed to Say to All Sorts of People. I’m probably going to slip up. I’m probably going to disagree sometimes. I read one list which said I’m not supposed to ask someone who is hurting if there is anything I can do. Instead, I’m supposed to phrase it differently, asking what I can do instead of if. I think that’s splitting hairs. If we’re getting down to picking apart how people say things, rather than what they say, it’s time to find a new hobby.
In the end, we could all work harder to respect others. If we do that, maybe we can render the lists obsolete.