On Saying the Wrong Thing (and Maybe the Right Thing, Too)

Oct 10, 2014

We have become so worried about saying the wrong thing that sometimes we don't say anything at all. And that's the bigger tragedy. Say something and we open the door of friendship.

As someone who is perpetually terrified of saying the wrong thing, you'd think I'd be grateful for lists such as, "10 Things Not to Say to [pregnant women, new moms, infertile couples, grieving friends, breastfeeding moms, single acquaintances, etc. etc. etc.]. But no. Rather, they increase my anxiety: if there are that many things I can't say to that many different people, then what can I say and to whom?

Has the old adage of "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all" been condensed to "Don't Say Anything"?

I'm seeing these types of lists and advice posts more and more frequently, and every time I do, I cringe just a little. I have to wonder: In eliminating all the questions, advice, and comments that might be taken the wrong way, are we silencing the very words which might bind us together and deepen our connections with one another?

An obvious response to this would be, Just make sure you're saying kind words. However, the thing about these lists is that, taken one at a time, most of the off-limit comments are not truly mean.

It may be true that if you ask a new mom how her new baby is sleeping at night, she might take offense. Perhaps she only got a combined total of thirty minutes of sleep the night before, and she's sure your question is really your way of rubbing in the fact that your baby slept through the night at two weeks old. So if you follow the advice to never bring up a baby's sleeping habits around a new mom, you won't run the risk of offending her. But then again, if you avoid the topic, you will most certainly miss the opportunity to let her cry her exhausted tears on your sympathetic shoulder. And if I had to choose, I'd say the latter is the greater tragedy.

Mike has an abundance of aunts (seriously, who wouldn't want an abundance of aunts?!), all of them kind and experienced and wonderfully wise. One time one of them said (and I'm paraphrasing) that we have to be willing to talk about the weaknesses that make us feel vulnerable because that's how we connect with one another. And that's true. But in my opinion, it is equally important to ask the questions or offer the words that make us feel vulnerable. It's hard, but sometimes we have to risk saying the wrong thing in order to ever say the right thing.

Of course I've received my fair share of comments that seemed tactless, thoughtless, or even rude. For the sake of illustration,  I'll give one small example, one that (happily for you) isn't steeped in too much emotional drama:

Aaron started first grade this year. He's going to a different elementary school than the one we're zoned for. During the past several months, I've had friends, neighbors, and family members ask me where Aaron is going to school, and when I tell them, they're always very curious about our decision. Consequently, I always feel like I have to add a dozen justifications for why he is going to that school instead of the one in our neighborhood.

Maybe I should write a post: 10 Things Not to Say to a Mom Who Has Just Spent an Entire Year Trying to Decide What To Do For Her Six-Year-Old Son's Education. Because sometimes, I admit, I've felt a little defensive.

But if I wrote that post, and if you read it, and if you applied everything you read and avoided the subject of education completely, I would truly be missing out--on the chance to hear another perspective, to hash out my doubts and insecurities, and to discover commonalities. And I wouldn't miss out on that for the world.

Okay, one more example. Yesterday I looked out on the backyard to find that Maxwell had turned on the hose. Again. All summer long, he's been turning it on, getting himself all wet, and leaving it running until I discover it many hours later. I've told him again and again that he can't turn it on without asking me. So I informed him that he'd have to go inside. And he proceeded to run away. Of course. He ran into the front yard, and our neighbor, who was watching, laughed and said, "He'll be grown up before you know it."

I'm pretty sure that comment is on all of the 10 Things Not to Say to a Mom of a Four-Year-Old lists, especially if you've never had a to deal with a four-year-old of your own. But oh, I'm so glad Kristy obviously hadn't read or applied that advice. If she'd made some safe comment about the beautiful weather or just pretended not to see me, I know I wouldn't have had any reason to smile in that moment. And sometimes, a little smile to diffuse the tension can go a long way.

Of course there are some things you should never say to new moms or old dads or anyone else, but I would hope you wouldn't need a list to know what those things are. And the truth is, the kinds of people who like to make mean-spirited comments are going to make them regardless of a list being out there that says that they shouldn't.

In the end, we're just imperfect people making imperfect connections. So please, ask me about my baby's sleep patterns or my children's education. Remind me that small ones grow up too fast and that life is too short. I'll do the same, and together we'll strengthen those life-saving, life-giving, and live-enriching ties.


  1. I think people mean well but sometimes things just don't come out right. I don't mind the reminder that they will grow quickly but I do mind when a parent has thoroughly thought something out and then family grills them.

    Great post!

  2. I think there are valid things on those kinds of lists that are said with good intentions but really, truly hurt - most people who are kind and caring will probably stop to think about those things and learn from it. But other items on these lists feel more like a way to fill up a top ten list.

    I think a lot of it comes down to being kind, and NOT being quick to share an opinion on something you haven't experienced (we went through long-term infertility and having a preemie so... yeah). If you don't have a first-hand encounter with it, simply let your loved one know you're willing to be a sounding board or a comforting hug, and just listen. (you in general, not YOU) ;)

  3. I think the reason we as moms or parents feel like others comments are such a blow is because we put so much pressure on ourselves. We are going through our own mini crisises every day and to us it's our whole world so when a well meaning but sometimes ignorant comment comes our way it puts our hackles up more than it would normally do.

    1. That's very true. With my experience with Aaron's school, I invested so much time and thought and emotion into it, but most people didn't know that, so they asked an innocent question, and I took it the wrong way because I was so emotionally tied to it. But when I took a step back and looked at it, I realized that I really was grateful for their curiosity because it helped me feel like my life was interesting enough to ask about! :-)

  4. This is such a great and thoughtful post Amy and I think it's a constant balancing act. Someone tweeted some things that adults should never ask about and I had to take issue with some of it. I had a miscarriage before my first baby and I have NEVER EVER felt more alone in my entire life. I didn't feel like I could talk about it and others didn't feel like they could talk to me about it. It was terrible. Even though it hurts when people ask about babies and when you're going to get pregnant (when you're trying your hardest to get pregnant--in secret), I think that it's OK to ask how someone is if you know they are struggling. Saying nothing at all is somehow worse than saying the wrong thing--sometimes. I think what we have to keep in mind is WHY are we asking what we're asking? Is it to show someone that we care or is it to satisfy our own nosiness.

    And in the end, I'm so willing to talk about miscarriage now...just so someone else doesn't have to feel as lonely as I did. I think if we talk about these things then we can connect and really help someone else out.

    1. Trish--this is so insightful and I totally agree with you! Maybe what we need is not another list of things NOT to say but just a personal question to explore our own motives--because I definitely believe there's a range of reasons people ask about and bring up certain topics. I think when we ask with kindness and sincerity, those pure and thoughtful intentions show through.

      I've heard similar sentiments to the ones you mentioned from other people who have gone through tragedies and heartaches--how they felt so alone because everyone was too uncomfortable to say anything. That's partly why I wrote this post--because during those hard and difficult times we really do need each other but sometimes it's hard to ask for it (and sometimes, on the other end, it's hard to give it). Thanks for sharing your personal experience. I'm so sorry about your miscarriage and so glad you have your two sweet little girls!!!

  5. "Willing to talk about the weaknesses" how incredibly true. When I think about the moments I've connected with friends, family, co-workers, etc. it's usually when we are willing to open up about our struggles. What a wonderful reminder.

  6. This is so perfect, Amy. And it makes me want to sit down and write:)


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