Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Don't Say That, Say This!

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?

Sarah Miller is the author of Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl, which are for teens but adults can read on the beach. She lives in Nevada City, CA.

Illustration by lineartestpilot, via Shutterstock.

28 Comments / Post A Comment

camelface (#4,600)

Tremendously helpful, thanks! I can't wait to try out these suggestions during the Holiday season.

Bittersweet (#765)

@camelface: Me, too. I'm really looking forward to telling my mother-in-law how good she looks for her age.

Mr. B (#10,093)

Thanks a lot: Now I'm out 40 bucks.

sarahpm (#13,702)

@Mr. B why?

Mr. B (#10,093)

@sarahpm Touche Éclat. You know, from Yves St. Laurent. *Hides face in shame.*

sarahpm (#13,702)

@Mr. B that stuff kicks fucking ass

Claire Zulkey (#7,101)

Another one: telling someone to "relax." Unless they have already expressed a desire to relax.

I once heard that it's best to avoid telling a person they look like a famous person, because that person might find said famous person ugly. I have a hard time remembering this because for some reason it's my brain's default mode to figure out that, for instance, that kid from the Twilight movies looks like a cross between Ricky Martin and a baby.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Claire Zulkey The trick is to be smoking weed when you say it. Preferably you would be offering a toke.

PS "Wonderful Christmas Time" is great

SeanP (#4,058)

In the linked article, I had to roll my eyes at the suggestion that you not bring up the issue of work hours, benefits, etc. These topics are an essential part of the deal being struck between employer and (potential) employee, and it does no one any favors to pretend that you're not interested in them. I do a lot of interviewing in my position – people bring up these questions almost every time, and I never mind the fact that they do. In fact, if they don't ask, I tell them anyway. If you're at an interview and your potential employer takes offense that you asked about work hours and benefits… you probably don't want to work there anyway.

sarahpm (#13,702)

@SeanP Hi, this is the author. I hate women's magazines for this reason. They're like, oh, never ask for anything, have no agency, tell no one how you feel ever, unless you're showing them where you get off — and even then, it's like, rules rules rules. I have written many articles like that though…ironically.

Rollo (#3,202)

@SeanP Seriously. Can we please all stop being complicit in the continuing rapid erosion of every hard-won gain made by workers in the 20th century? Christ.

sarahpm (#13,702)

@Rollo im so with you

MissMushkila (#42,100)

@SeanP I have a job interview today! That has nothing really to do with this except I'm NERVOUS…

SeanP (#4,058)

@MissMushkila I hope it went well!

SeanP (#4,058)

@Rollo This is an excellent point. Articles like this (and even more so, the ubiquitous suggestion that it's ever so impolite to discuss salary with your co-workers) are nothing more than society attempting to keep workers deprived of information they need to strike an equitable deal with employers.

SeanP (#4,058)

@SeanP uhh… I hope it's not necessary to say that by "articles like this" I mean the linked article, not Sarah's funny response (which was hysterical).

It's BerNese Mountain Dog.

That is my one and only objection.

sarahpm (#13,702)

Oh wait. there's two kinds! thanks! but you can look it up! thanks though! i appreciate

caddie (#189,150)

@sarahpm There are a couple of 'Burmese Mountain Dog' websites out there, but they're jokes playing on the common confusion. Only Bernese Mountain Dogs are real. Sorry.

sarahpm (#13,702)

@caddie OH MY goD. NO WAY hilarious. ok…

roboloki (#1,724)

this is awesome!
am i allowed to say that?

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@roboloki awesome will always be awesome. Some people don't like the overuse of the word these days, but I disagree. If you want to be so literal with your awe say something is awe-inspiring, and then you'll really sound like a dingbat.

MythReindeer (#5,553)

"she’s just some fat lady who thinks you’re an asshole—and she can just get in line"


iplaudius (#1,066)

Touche Éclat is my Lord and Savior. How many profligate nights have been wiped away with a few clicks and strokes!

"getting banged by sea animals all night" — love this.

sarahpm (#13,702)

@iplaudius i love it so much. it is the best

ritualtheory (#10,563)

Love. Love. I'm also 42 so, you know, fuck those chicks. Not literally, of course. Just…forgive me, I am 42, did I say that? And ash, and dust.

No, my weeping ego and I really do love this. Please mock "Real Simple" (that name!) at every opportunity.

sarahpm (#13,702)

@ritualtheory smiley face

"Some things should indeed never be said."

Wrong. This is a bad, dangerous thing to think. No matter how good it starts out, it leads to cruelty, always. 100% guaranteed. Even expressed ironically or off-the-cuff, this is a terrible terrible thing.

Please rethink this. It's scary that such a respectable publication would express this sentiment.

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