Things Better Left Unsaid

As human beings, we make it a habit to stick our noses in other people’s business. We’re naturally curious, which has led us to a point where we often feel entitled not just to know every detail of someone else’s life, but to comment on it, as well. Here are a few things you should really just keep to yourself:

  • Telling total strangers to “Smile!” This drives me up a wall. You know what? Maybe I have a naturally unhappy looking face that looks like I’m frowning when I’m really just neutral. Maybe my grandmother just died. Maybe I just slammed my finger in the car door. Whatever the reason, people are fully entitled to make whatever facial expressions they want without total goddamned strangers commanding them to smile. This is especially infuriating coming from a man directed at a woman, because the man will invariably think it’s a friendly conversation starter. It’s not. It’s rude, it’s invasive, and telling me to smile makes me want to do it even less.
  • “What are you/where are you from/what’s your background?” Nine times out of ten, this is a fishing expedition to find out someone’s race or ancestry. Before you ask this question, ask yourself a few things. Why is it necessary for me to know this information? Is it likely to offend the person I’m asking? Am I really so fascinated by people who look different from me that I need to essentially demand a family tree and DNA report?
  • When are you going to have kids?” I guarantee that every married woman, and probably 90% of all women of childbearing age, regardless of marital status, have been asked this question more than once. Frankly, it’s never appropriate. If the person being asked doesn’t ever plan on having children, the question puts her immediately on the defensive. Not to mention, even if kids are part of the plan, you don’t know if someone is struggling with infertility, or waiting until they’re more financially stable, or really what the situation is at all. Plus there’s the added bonus that, at its core, this is a question about one’s sex life. And it’s really none of your business. If you matter to the person at all, they’ll tell you if and when the kid is on its way.
  • “You’d be so pretty if you’d …” However you were planning to finish that sentence, just don’t. People generally feel two ways about how they look: they’re either unhappy with (or insecure about) their appearance, or they’re perfectly happy the way they are. Either way, telling them your brilliant idea about how they could be even more attractive (to you) is just insulting and unnecessary.
  • “Have I told you about [my religion]?” Look, you seem nice enough. We had a good conversation about that movie that just came out. So far, you seem like a perfectly normal person. And then you start in about your religious beliefs. Usually with no prompting, and always to tell me all the ways in which your beliefs are right, and everyone else’s are wrong. If I wanted to know about this stuff, I’d ask. And I never ask. So let me tell you about the Flying Spaghetti Monster…
  • “Do you know how many calories are in that?” Nope. And I don’t care. If I cared, I probably wouldn’t be eating it. The need some people have to act as the Food Police is obnoxious, presumptuous, and an inclination best kept to one’s self. It’s incredibly annoying, and just stinks of “I wish I were eating that, but I’m so obsessed with the nutritional value of every little thing that I have to make everyone around me as miserable about food as I am.”

How about you, Persephoneers? What kinds of things have other people said to you that really should have stayed in their heads?

(A version of this post originally appeared on Nice Girls Don’t Swear.)

18 replies on “Things Better Left Unsaid”

I also second the comments about weight or size. I once walked in to a temp agency, and within 30 seconds, the woman behind the desk said, in a resentful tone, “What I want to know is how you stay so skinny!” Now, I like my body, and I happen to have a good relationship with food most of the time, but there’s no way she could know one way or the other. It’s just plain rude to comment on ANYone’s body the first time you meet. I’m hyper-aware of how others may not be as happy with their own bodies, so I’m careful not to start any conversations about that subject, even with good friends.

And the comments about age, too, yes. Because I’m small and thin (I guess), people often think I’m younger than I am, though my face and hair ought to show that I’m 31. Oddly enough, it’s the men who almost always treat me in an age-appropriate way, while more women treat me as if I were low 20’s. I find myself dropping hints a lot – the master’s degree or that my best friend here is 49. Kinda feel like I shouldn’t have to, though.

I briefly converted (?) to vegetarianism a few years ago, and after a few weeks a friend asked me how it was going, then said he knew it was a good choice because he could tell I’d already lost weight. Like that was my only reason for doing that. Ta.

“What are you/where are you from/what’s your background?”

As a Latina who grew up in a predominantly Latino, Black, and Middle Eastern community I didn’t realize that this question could be inappropriate until I started spending significant amount of time on the internet. Growing up, “where are you from” was just a way to find out where our parents came from, because most of us had parents that were from other countries. (Of course, the absolute shock when I answer the question annoys the hell out of me, but that’s a different issue.)When I went out of state for college it took me a while to figure out that “Where are you from?” meant where did I grow up, not what my ethnic background was.

I can see that if I grew up with white people asking me that question that I would see it differently, but, while I intellectually understand why it’s offensive, it just doesn’t bother me when it’s directed at me.

Unwanted advice on parenting, which usually comes in: restaurants, WalMart, or grocery stores. Why do people think that, if I am out in public with my children I am free game for their little tidbits on how I could or should be doing it better?!?! Once, at a Home Owners Association Meeting, one of my neighbors loudly complained that our community playground hadn’t been built yet so the moms in the neighborhood had no where to take kids to play. Because of this, after the meeting a little old lady came up to me and reemed me out for not patronizing the parks our town had provided for us, because my kids need to get out and play. See, I had my kids with me, so I was an open target.

Another time I took my children grocery shopping. My son is a very VERY high maintenance toddler, so he was having a tantrum as usual. A woman with a school age child came up to me and advised me, with an oh so sympathetic tone, to just let him go and don’t give in to the tantrum. “Soon,” she said, “He’ll get over this phase and you won’t have to be embarrassed to be to take him out in public.” Then my older daughters walked up. So I told her that yes, he was my third child and I was fully aware of how to handle tantrums. But I wanted to say “Dude, you don’t know who I am or where I came from, so what makes you think that you know better than me, that I need your advice, or that I am or should be embarrassed about my toddler’s normal toddler-like behavior, which I am NOT! So step off.”

I never assume that any advice I might have to offer, even to my friends, is either wanted or would be appreciated unless there is some indication to that effect. Who am I to assume that I know better than you?

“Can I touch your hair?”

I get this from random strangers, and sometimes people I’ve just met at a party or other gathering.

Do I look like a zoo animal to you? Do you ask friends with straight hair this question? And now you’re gonna get all offended if I say no, aren’t you. All hurt like you were just trying to pay me a compliment by jamming your filthy hands into my mop of curly hair. Hands off, bitch!

I had half of my thyroid removed when I was 21, and at first I was extremely self-conscious and upset about the scar. I went shopping with my mom the afternoon after the surgeon removed my stitches, and the woman at the checkout asked me what was wrong with my neck. I forget what I said to her, but I was polite, and I promptly burst into tears in the parking lot.

And then there was the nurse who drew my blood shortly before my surgery – she looked at my ID, made a surprised face, and said, “I thought you were 14!” Thanks. Looking younger than I am may be something I grow to appreciate, but right now I don’t really like hearing that I look like a junior high kid and you could have easily thought that and kept it to yourself.

Comments about my weight/size also make me really uncomfortable. I’ve always been petite, and I’ve also dealt with an eating disorder and was significantly thinner for a while, and I’ve gotten judgy comments, compliments, and awkward combinations of both (“Your stomach must be the side of a yogurt cup, for you to look like that!”) for a good amount of my life, and I think they make me feel equally weird. I’m very happy to receive compliments about other things, both appearance-related and not, and I know that people can’t anticipate that complimenting me about it will make me really uncomfortable and that a good amount of that is due to my own baggage, but it still does.

“What are you/where are you from/what’s your background?”

I cannot even tell you how many times someone has asked me this question. I hear it at least once a week. I heard it constantly from white people in my (vast majority white) hometown. And I hear it just as much in my current city (which has an extremely varied racial makeup), but mostly from people of color. I don’t find this nearly as intrusive as I do when I hear it from white folks. Essentially, people of color are asking, “Are you like me? Do we have common ground?” I am guessing that because I am dark skinned and Asian, this makes me racially ambiguous to most people.

On a related note, I’ve noticed a gradual change from the constant question, “What are you?” to the slightly less blunt but no less-often asked, “What is your background?” Is this a sign that people are becoming more sensitive about how they word questions to people of color (however wrong they are in their assumption that they can just ask), or just a sign that adults, in general, are more sensitive about how they ask things? Because, admittedly, I was asked, “What are you?”– verbatim– a lot more when I was younger.

I second the comment on weight loss. I struggled with depression last year, and lost enough weight that it was often the first thing people who hadn’t seen me in months commented on. They seemed well-meaning enough, but all the comments made me feel like I had been some gross monster before I got “skinny” (which is what I’d always feared anyway). Comments about other people’s bodies are almost alwayts uncalled for.

I have a large – for want of a better word – pink ‘birthmark’ covering about 50% of my body, including both legs and one arm, and people often used to come up to me and ask: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ This is not as bad as when I’ve been asked, at public swimming pools, if the questioner is going to get sick swimming in the same water as me, but it was more common.

However, as I’ve gotten older people are less direct and I almost miss the questioning now. It gave me the opportunity to explain and/or make up some ridiculous explanation for my own amusement (“I ate crayons as a child. Never eat crayons.”) Now (some) people just walk past openly gawping at my legs with an expression of disgust or concern, both of which generally make me want to punch them in the face.

“What are you gonna do once the kids go to college? You can’t just stay home.”
None your business how I spend my time nor is it my responsibility to explain the how and whys of what I do or do not do.

Love the Gladys Kravitz graphic. Gladys #1 was the worse one.

“How did that happen? What happened to you?” Or some variation of that. It’s not happened for a while but has often been asked of my husband. He has incredibly scarred arms. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how the majority of them got there. So do you need to ask? Really?

“What are you/where are you from/what’s your background?”

I’m on the fence here.

The “Are you from (insert country of choice here)?” far outstrips the “Where are you from?” question, in terms of how much it bothers me. I have be driven (once i’ve found a little privacy) to tears, before now, because of people asking if i’m from XYZ place; i know my accent doesn’t place me locally (or even in my own country), don’t rub it in. If they’d asked where, i’d happily have told them.

I’m a ginger. Men (=/= boys) of a certain age find it soooo amusing to
a) ask me if all the things told about gingers are true (wild in bed, great kissers, amazing dancers – we even have a song)
b) if I mind that I don’t have a soul.

I can bear with b). If you want to put an Internet meme (or Southpark, wherever it came from) in your real life, your bad. But basically asking me if I’m a free spirited slutty person because of my hair color? Sod off.

Yes, this cuts deeply.

“Are you losing weight?” This is something a lot of folks say as a compliment but it’s nothing if not backhanded. My body is fine, regardless of my weight, and unsolicited comments just sound jerky. Why do people assume weight loss is good thing anyway? It could be due to illness. Better yet, just don’t comment on a body other than your own without an invite (ie discussion about exercising, diets, WEIGHT LOSS). It’s creepy and rude.

“How often do you work out?” If the person is really fit, you’re implying that they work out all the time and don’t have a life. If the person is a little softer around the edges, you’re implying that they need to work out more to shed a few pounds. It happened to me the other day, I definitely fall into the later category, and it made me feel crappy all week. Actually, I think anything involving someone’s eating/work out habits should be off limits.

“You’re so pretty for a scientist!”

Seriously, “you’re so (fill in the blank) for a (fill in the blank)” is just bullshit.

Also, a nosy security guard at a festival once told me “you’d be having more fun if you were with people!” First of all – who is to say that my friends weren’t already inside (yes, that is where they were), waiting for me? Second of all – fuck right off. There is no way saying that to someone is OK. Third – I was having fun until your asshole took over your mouth.

I remember during my last serious relationship, being asked “so do you think you guys will get married?’ Or any variant of that, several times by different acquaintances. So intrusive, and not your business! Now that I’m single again, I’m being asked the singleton version of the same question: “So, how is your dating life?” Those two questions just come off as so rude to me, because if we were close enough, I would bring up the subject myself if I wanted to talk about it. It’s kind of the companion piece to the babies question.

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