Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Some Things are Better Left Unsaid, part 2

By the Pleasant Times Resident Etiquette Expert
Intimidating Questions and Remarks
Sometimes people say things that make you feel inferior. I have to say that it is difficult to write examples of intimidating remarks, because some can only be implied by the tone of voice. A phrase such as "haven't you ever been bowling before?" might look quite innocent on paper, but could by the tone of voice become something worse. In person, it is easy to tell whether these are nice remarks or not by the tone of voice used.

Intimidating remarks are especially the kind of thing that makes young people feel bad (Of course, the perplexed and hurt feelings that come from intimidating remarks are not limited to youth). They can be said in such a way as to imply that you have been missing out, cheated, or restrained unfairly in your short life. I received some of these kinds of remarks when I was but 17 or so, and unmarried, staying at home minding my own business, and trying to be as happy as I could be at the time.

In conversation, we are taught that it is polite to inquire about a person's well being, and about things in general. However, as a young lady I was frequently cross-examined with such questions as:
"Why are you still at home?"
"Don't you have a job?"
"Don't you have a boyfriend?"

One day I had confessed that I had little knowledge of skiing. My companion said "Haven't you been skiing before?" in a "what is the matter with you?" tone of voice. Personally, I believe that not everyone has to do everything before the age of 18; I wanted to save some things for later.

If you will notice in the above examples, there are some words and phrases that usually preface an intimidating remark or question: "haven't you," "don't' you," "why." Also, these remarks are spoken in the "you sure are a dummy" or a "sneering" tone of voice. They often make you wonder what the unspoken meanings are.
"Haven't you ever been bungee jumping?" (everyone goes bungee jumping!)
"Why is your dad so weird?" (you are going to end up just like that unless you can give a good explanation about your strange family)
"Don't you want to go and do this or that?" (when they know that you do not do this or that, have not done this or that or your family does not approve of this or that.)
"Why do you always wear a dress?" (you are especially odd because you don't look like the rest of us)

Some intimidating remarks sound like innocent questions, but in the olden days we were taught not to ask such things:
"How much do you weigh?" (you are too fat/skinny)
"How much money does your father make?" (you are too poor/rich/ought to ask for more spending money)
"So do you have any plans for your life?" (this one can be said in a sincerely kind way, but depending on the person and their worldview, it can also mean "are you going to stay home and be an old maid leaching off of your parents?")

Other intimidating remarks are prefaced by the "you should" phrase, and may be said in a way that sounds polite, but makes you feel as if you are not in style enough or rich enough or popular enough:
"You should get a new house."
"You should cut your hair in a different style"
"You should lose weight"
"You should go to college"
These remarks leave you explaining things in greater detail than you want to. Perhaps you cannot afford a new house, and don't want to plunge in to your financial problems. Or perhaps you know you need to lose weight, but are having a difficulty.

Then there are the very obvious and downright rude intimidating remarks:
"You are too skinny"
"You are too pale"
"You are missing out on the world"
"Your parents are too strict." (you need more freedom)
"You should quit having children"
"I just don't agree with you"(because your opinions are inferior)
"That is stupid"
"That is ridiculous"
"You're insane"
"You need to be locked up"
"Somebody needs to put you on medication"
"You need to see a therapist"

Now, here is what you can do when you encounter the unhappy experience of a rude remark:

  • You can ignore it and talk about something else.

  • You can give a short, polite, and definite answer, and quickly change the subject. "Yes, it would be nice to have a new house/lose weight/get a makeover. How is your garden doing this year?"

  • You can turn around and give the person a shocked stare, and say nothing because you are so dumbfounded.

  • You can smile and say, in your most sophisticated British accent, "Why, James, you ought to know better than to ask questions like that!" or "Why, James, we don't say that in Polite Society!" or "James! I am shocked at you for saying/asking such a thing as that! I shall not answer such a rude inquiry."

  • You may just have to say politely, "I have to go now."

  • Or, if all else fails, you may have to resort to the old standby, "Because the birds fly south for the winter."
Our Resident Expert was previously a writer for the short-lived local newspaper, in which her column once appeared next to Ann Landers.
Editor's Note: The examples put forth here are all made up, and are not actual quotes.
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