Small talk and unintentional hurt

I was in a discussion yesterday where I caught myself just before saying “that phrase can be hurtful, so people shouldn’t ever say it.” I don’t believe that. It’s not practical, or even possible, because EVERY phrase can be hurtful. I’ve seen posts asking what questions people wished others would never ask and the comments list pretty much every question you could possibly think of. So how do we decide what’s OK to say?

Take, for example, “how many children do you have?” If someone has lost a child, the question can be painful. Do you answer with the number of living children you have? What if you want to include the child(ren) no longer with you, but really don’t want to talk about what happened? What if you’ve experienced pregnancy loss – do you include unborn children in the count?

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the majority of people are not bothered by being asked how many children they have (even if it’s hard to answer). Does that make it OK to ask? What about the fact some people are VERY bothered by it? Should we avoid the question out of respect for them? Or should those people just be told others aren’t TRYING to bring up sad things, so they should accept there’s no intentional hurt?

Another seemingly-innocuous question is “how was your holiday?” Plenty of people have a contentious relationship with their family or miss a loved one more intensely on special days, leading to a rough holiday. So should you not ask? Probably. What SHOULD you say? Can you comment on the weather or is that considered annoying?

And, OK, I’ll go there. What about “Cherish every moment,” which is what we were discussing yesterday? (See this lovely post by Diane and try to ignore my crabby comments.) As Swistle so perfectly put it (in the comments), what they actually mean is “OH, your babies’ sweet faces make me miss my own grown-up babies!” Or “Oh, I wish I could have bottled some of that time, so I could enjoy it in small doses now!”

The person they’re talking to, on the other hand, often hears it as either “I don’t find my life particularly cherishable, so there must be something wrong with it (or me)” or “I am TRYING and TRYING to cherish every moment, because I KNOW these days will be gone way too soon, but it not possible to cherish every moment and you acting like it is isn’t helping matters.” (This is how I feel.)

So is it the responsibility of the people who say these things to realize they’re, at best, not expressing what they really mean or being unintentionally hurtful and choose to say something else (or stay quiet)? Or is it the responsibility of the receivers of such questions or advice to give them a pass?

I’ve always fallen on the side that feels since it’s impossible to take every possible reaction into account, you should give people the benefit of the doubt and cut them a break when they say something unintentionally hurtful. There’s no point getting upset every time someone says something clueless, but means well. However. I think people take it too far. “But I didn’t mean anything by it!” is not a free pass to not think about what you’re saying, even if it seems innoculous. Especially if you say it frequently.

So, I’m genuinely curious. Do you have go-to small talk phrases or questions? What do you do when someone unintentionally hits a sore spot of yours? Does it happen often?

Comments

  1. I’ve been with my boyfriend for two and a half years and am ready to throat-punch the next person who asks me when we’re getting married. Instead I just say something noncommittal (pun not intended!) and try to change the subject.

    The nice thing about living in the DC area is that almost nobody is actually from here, making “Where are you from?” a pretty reliable small talk starter.