Recently, I was taking in a rare sunny day on my lunch break, when I ran into an acquaintance. The first thing she said to me wasn’t “Hi” or “How are you?” but “Wow, you look so tired!” I don’t even remember my immediate response because I was too focused on my depleting self-esteem levels. I wanted to say, “Gee, thanks. Actually, I was feeling pretty rested and refreshed until you said that,” but I changed the subject instead.
I’d love to say this was an isolated incident, but accidentally insulting comments like “Rough night?” or “You seem so frazzled!” are surprisingly commonplace in social situations. Most of the time, the people who say them are well-intentioned, but that doesn’t take the sting out of an unintentional slight. So what are the most common offenders when it comes to the worst things you can say to people?
1. “You look tired/stressed/angry.”
Nobody wants to hear that her face is marked by under-eye circles or a perpetual frown. Based on my informal research (read: asking friends), people tend to say these things when we’re feeling quite the opposite, which then makes us insecure and guarantees we’ll spend the rest of the day looking tired or upset.
2. “When’s the baby due?”
The fact that this egregious error still occurs baffles me—don’t people know by now that one should never, ever ask a woman about an impending baby unless she’s specifically told you that she’s expecting? And even then, I might wait to see an ultrasound picture until I commented on it to be extra sure.
3. “No offense, but …”
Basically, this person is saying, “I’m about to say something highly offensive.” Ordering someone not to be offended doesn’t make it acceptable. If the remark’s so bad it needs to come with a warning, it’s probably best left unsaid.
4. “Boy, you must’ve been hungry.”
Nothing makes people self-conscious faster than somebody commenting about the voracity or speed of their eating. Ultimately, this is a pointless thing to say anyway—the only responses are “Yes” or “I guess,” which does nothing for conversation and just ends up making others feel bad about the potentially impolite nature of their dining style.
5. “You’re so skinny!”
Some people might think this is a nice thing to say, especially if the person’s trying to lose weight, but the adjective “skinny” is not necessarily a complimentary one, especially since it’s usually said with a hint of accusation and leaves the recipient of the odd comment unsure of how to answer.
6. “Wow, you’re huge!”
This is usually something said to pregnant woman, most of whom don’t want to be reminded about their growing bellies and unfamiliarly large bodies. “Wow, you’re glowing!” is a much more welcome observation.
7. “When are you getting married/having kids?”
Frankly, if you have to ask this, it’s probably none of your business—otherwise, the couple would tell you themselves. Bringing up this issue (usually a pretty loaded one among couples) only invites awkwardness and hidden resentment.
8. “You’d be so much prettier if you smiled more.”
This has got to be one of my biggest pet peeves. I can’t count the number of times complete strangers have approached me and told me to smile more, and it’s happened to plenty of my female friends, too. Saying someone would look better by changing his/her appearance (especially by doing something phony and ridiculous like constantly faking a grin) is akin to saying that how he/she looks isn’t good enough.
Now that we know what we shouldn’t say, what happens when we let one of these no-no comments slip—and what do we say when they come our way? According to Lizzie Post, author and spokesperson at the Emily Post Institute (which just launched Etiquette Daily, a Q&A blog about common etiquette issues), the best response is a positive one. “The best thing to do is be polite … Just act like you didn’t notice it had the potential to be insulting,” she advises. “Their intention wasn’t to insult you. It’s a roll-with-the-punches kind of thing.” This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t vocalize their discomfort or hurt feelings, but there’s a time and a place for that. For instance, if it’s a close friend who constantly makes these types of comments, it might be best to bring it up later when both parties are calm. “You are always allowed to stand up for yourself, but right in the moment isn’t the best time,” Lizzie says.
If you’re the one who made the mistaken comment, a simple “I’m sorry” will suffice. Whatever you do, don’t focus too much on your contriteness. “Talk about something else. You want to get off that subject ASAP,” Lizzie explains. “The worst thing is when someone over-apologizes. Then you’re reliving it again and again.” Express regret sincerely and then move on to another subject rather than making a big deal out of the situation.
With such universally negative reactions to these types of comments, why do they remain such fixtures in our interactions with people? Lizzie has one hypothesis.“I think that for the normal, well-intentioned person, it’s simply noticing a slight difference and trying to connect with someone else,” she says. So why waste energy and emotions over an unintentionally offensive statement? Understand the person is just trying to find something to say, and while he or she may have chosen the absolute worst thing to say, there’s no reason to let that get us down. That is, unless the person asks about a baby’s due date that doesn’t exist—that kind of stupidity just can’t be ignored.