Coming across a guide of "18 Common Phrases to Avoid In Conversation," I was struck by the rightness of the article's aim: Some things should indeed never be said. But the alternate conversational choices offered by the magazine seemed a bit passive aggressive to me —for example, "Is everything OK?" as a substitute for "You look tired." Naturally, I felt it was my duty to come up with some satisfactory alternatives.
Don’t say: “I could never wear that.”
Why: It can be misunderstood as a criticism. (“I could never wear that because it’s so ugly.”)
Instead: Suppose you meet up with a girlfriend at a party and her outfit is just a tad more revealing than what you might choose for yourself. You could say, “Hey, let’s play a game where we point out every single person in the room who looks like a common streetwalker.” When you’ve gone through everyone, shrug and say, “Well, that’s almost everyone!” Let her struggle for as long as she's willing to find anyone else present who might vaguely resemble a common streetwalker until it is very clear that absolutely no one does. With zero impoliteness on your end, she will be forced to either identify you as the person in question (as if) or to point a (long overdue and deserving) finger at herself.
However, if you want to say “I could never wear that” because the “outfit” in question would make you look like a giant lesbian, and the person you’re talking to does not mind looking like a giant lesbian, either because she is one or she just doesn't mind, you can just bite your lip and say, kind of offhand, “Hey, what did you think about that documentary about the women who actually wore bras under their giant plaid shirts? Wasn’t that really good? Didn’t you think those women were really brave?
Don’t say: “You look tired.”
Why: It implies she doesn’t look good.
Instead: Say, “Gee, you look like you were getting ass-reamed all night by a family of giant squid.” She is more likely to be flattered that you might regard her as a person every single squid in an entire family could agree on finding sexually attractive than to think she looks like a person who needs some sleep, a shower or, in lieu of these, some Touche Éclat. You know, from Yves St. Laurent, with the neato little push dispenser, which, after, getting banged by sea animals all night, or whatever, miraculously makes you look ready to go again. (Touche Éclat, $40.)
Don’t say: “Are you pregnant?”
Why: You ask, she’s not, and you feel totally embarrassed for essentially pointing out that she’s overweight.
Instead say: “Have you ever thought about what really happens after a man’s erect penis or a dripping turkey baster propels a roiling load of jizz into a woman’s vagina and her cervix laps it up like a Bernese Mountain Dog?” And if she pats her belly and says with smug self-regard, “No, because I don’t have to,” then you know she’s pregnant. And if she doesn’t say that, well, she’s just some fat lady who thinks you’re an asshole—and she can just get in line.
Don’t say: “Do you plan on breast-feeding?”
Why: The issue can be controversial, and she may not want to discuss her decision publicly.
Instead say: Don’t say anything. Simply have handy in your purse a folder full of very graphic photos of children suffering from painful ear infections, allergies, strep and e coli infections, diabetes, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, childhood cancers, meningitis, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), Crohn's Disease, ulcerative colitis, insulin dependent diabetes and any other disease listed on the La Leche website as being the almost sure fate for children of parents who dare to feed their children formula instead of breast milk. Trip and spill contents of purse in such a way that photos array themselves in front of the woman in question; when she exclaims, “Oh my God, these photos are horrible! What are they of?” simply say, “Why, I don’t know, I was merely carrying some photos for a friend of mine who is extremely active in La Leche League, an advocacy group that educates the public about the health benefits of breast feeding. These must be photos of the sorts of diseases children can get when, as helpless infants, they are not provided with the special nutrients and antibodies that are present in human breast milk.” But there’s no need to go any further than that. Remember, people must be empowered to make their own decisions, in private.
Don’t say: “You look good for your age.”
Why: Anything with a caveat like this is rude. It's saying, "You look great—compared with other old people. It's amazing you have all your own teeth."
Instead say: Actually, go ahead and say “you look good for your age.” Especially say it if you are considerably younger than the person in question. If you’re pretty, well, even better. Make a goddamn habit out of it, because once a person—for simplicity's sake, let's say a woman person—has reached a certain age—let’s say 42—just about the most pleasurable part of her life comes from witnessing the flighty disregard women less advanced in age have for their own mortality. Sure, it’s sad to get old, but what’s not sad is how funny it is that women ten years younger do not yet understand that their own cherubic little faces and taut bodies will also undergo a process that will take them to leather, then ash, and then dust. What’s also not sad it how if they do have some fuzzy sense that this fate awaits, they will be very shocked when it happens in what feels like the amount of time it should take to purchase a bottle of water, a Luna Bar and a copy of In Style at Hudson News before flying to Turks and Caicos with their fiancé, who they don’t yet know wishes they were a tranny. Saying “you look good for your age” to a woman who is fully aware that what she looks like is merely some increasingly meaningless increment of No Longer Young might seem like cruelty. But anyone who knows how much she is going to enjoy reporting the incident to her hag friends and cackling over the clueless little tramp who said it can see it for the act of generosity it is.
Don’t say: “This might sound stupid, but…”
Why: Never undermine your ideas by prefacing your remarks with wishy-washy language.
Instead: Say, “This would sound stupid if everything else everyone said before wasn’t way stupider.” See how much more confidence is packed into that statement?