Do me a favor before you read this post. Google the phrase “five things you should never say” and scroll through the results.
5 Things You Should Never Say at Work
5 Things You Should Never Say to a Woman Over 30
5 Things You Should Never Say to Your Pastor
5 Things You Should Never Say to a Stay-At-Home Mom
5 Things You Should Never Say to a Working Mom
The list goes on and on and on. Click on any of the links and you’ll find articles ranging from sarcastic to well-intentioned to bitter, but at the heart of them lies this unspoken message that our words are more likely to divide than open doors to communication and frankly, I find that message to be a deeply troubling prospect for our future.
Everytime someone I love shares one of these articles, I read it. Every time. I want to understand my friends and I don’t want to cause pain with my own words, so I click and read it. Usually, the articles contain a couple of truly inflammatory statements, but sometimes, the “things we should never say” are just well-intentioned but maybe not perfectly-worded attempts at explaining a different choice or even expressing curiosity about the life of the person in question. Yes, some people spout off thoughtless remarks because they are inconsiderate, or passive aggressive, or they want to create conflict, but I feel fairly confident that these internet articles are not going to give them pause. The only people who might be impacted by these lists are people who are already, albeit imperfectly, trying to speak with care. The result is that the well-intentioned among us slowly close the doors to communication while the not-so-considerate voices fill the void.
Let me give you an example that relates to me personally. I recently read a couple of articles about things you should never say to a homeschool mom. According to the articles, a couple of the things that you should never say to me are “what do you do all day?” or “what about socialization?” Friends. These are not offensive questions. They reflect curiosity from people who are unfamiliar with homeschooling. I’m thrilled to answer these questions, even if they are questions about things that I’m not so sure about myself. Actually, those are my favorite questions, because they prompt dialogue and include varied opinions and experiences which can lead to solutions and new ideas. In a nutshell, they become a conversation.
This trend at shutting down conversation before it begins is disturbing because it is through dialogue that we come to know and understand the choices people make that are different from our own. Yes, conversation can be tricky. People will not always choose their words with care. Our feelings may get hurt. We may feel judged. We may actually be judged. But the alternative, in which we all stop saying all the things we should apparently never say, will ultimately result in more hurt because we will cease to understand one another. We will stop engaging in conversation with people who lead lives different than our own for fear of saying the wrong thing, thus shutting the door to the possibility of new relationships and broader understanding.
Yes, we should choose our words wisely. Words have incredible power. But, ultimately, we are the ones who give that power to words. We are the ones responsible for the way we react to the words of others. We live in a world full of examples of actual, hateful speech (and accompanying actions) yet we give power to innocuous statements like, “He looks just like his dad!” (seriously, that was actually listed in an article about things you should never say to a new mom).
The next time you are faced with a statement that someone should never say to you, consider responding with a little bit of grace at the not-quite-perfect commentary. Resist the impulse to be offended, and instead consider it an opportunity to open dialogue about the topic in question. You just might learn something, or have the opportunity to share something important to you. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll be reminded that we’re all imperfect humans together.