Something that has become a pet peeve recently is not knowing “the right thing to say”. One risks being called out for being ignorant about everything in life.

In today’s diverse population, it’s not unusual for people to ask, “Where are you from?” or “What nationality are you?”. Some take great offense to that and will snap back sarcastically with, “Canada”. As a Canadian-born Asian of Chinese descent, I understand what people want to know when they ask that question. So why make the person feel ignorant or guilty by trying to be a smart-ass? People who ask that question simply want to understand more about your culture; isn’t that what we keep asking for: greater appreciation for diversity? So why do we shut the door on it when someone wants to start the conversation?

Then there’s the example of parents who have a child with autism or some kind of disability. I find I hear a lot of these people venting about how annoyed or upset they get with what people say to them, as if others are just so completely insensitive to what they’re going through. I’m just trying to express some admiration when I say, “It’s so great that you are giving your child all the best opportunities to succeed.” Instead, you may react to that with, “Why wouldn’t I? My child has every right to the same opportunities as yours does!” Or I may be trying to express some empathy if I say, “I’m sure you have some challenging days; I hope you find some time for yourself sometimes.” But you may react to that with, “What are you saying? That my child is a great burden on me? I don’t love him any less than you love yours! I’m sure your kid can be a huge brat, too!”. Sigh. You really can’t try to be nice to anyone anymore.

So let me turn the tables on you. I really don’t know what you’re going through if I haven’t been through it myself, so, what do you want me to say? I get that you might be angry about your circumstances, or that you might feel like you’ve been dealt a really lousy hand in life, or that you feel like nobody can possibly know what you’re going through . But why am I being punished for it? It’s not like I said, “Your kid’s a horror show; you have to rein him in.”

Instead of ranting on your blogs about the stupid things I say to you, why don’t we make this a productive conversation? Why don’t you suggest something I could say that would make you feel better? Would you rather I just not make any effort to speak to you? I have other people I can talk to, too.

That’s why I appreciated this blog post in the NY Times, written by Margaret Gilmour, who has a child with a learning disability; often, other parents presume her child is autistic. How refreshing that Gilmour acknowledged that in the past, when there was an attempt by another parent to start a conversation about her child, she shut down. She found the questions or comments a bit strange or too direct, and she never knew how to react, so inevitably, there would be no further conversation. But she came to the realization that this is not the best way to have normal relationships with other parents. She came at it with a new perspective: an appreciation for how awkward or uncomfortable it can be for someone to start a conversation with her about her son. And she gave some tips for conversation starters – thank you!

All I’m saying is, “Stop rolling your eyes and telling me what not to say. Tell me what I can say to better support you.”

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