As I was brainstorming ideas for my next blog post, I decided that I wanted to focus on how we treat others with the words we say. It then occurred to me that I knew the perfect person to help me with this topic, and I contacted my friend Jacqueline to ask if she would like to write a “Guest” post on my blog. To my delight, she accepted my invitation.
It was a hot April day in southern Florida, and I was squinting in the middle of a field, my 11-month-old balanced on one hip while my other hand was occupied in holding my sunglasses, which I had pulled off so that I could politely make eye contact with the person standing in front of me. We were preparing for a big event and there was no shortage of things going wrong. The crisis of the moment consisted of the beverage supplier supplying us with the wrong spout for the keg. We would soon be faced with a drove of sweaty, exhausted adult dodge ball players, and announcing that we didn't have chilled beer was something I was trying desperately hard to avoid.
“So what is it doing, again?” My husband asked.
The man, a friend of ours, reenacted the event that had been plaguing him. But this time, as he tried to force the obstinate plastic piece to fit, with sweat dripping into his eyes, he insulted my daughter.
My stomach dropped, my heart beat furiously in my chest, and I could feel myself holding my breath as my checks flamed red. My husband, gently, courteously, hinted to the man about what he’d said, but the point was missed.
It may be surprising to hear that our friend insulted my daughter. But the truth is, she is regularly insulted by our distant friends, close friends, even family. Whether we are going to a family-friendly function or a sophisticated dinner party, we run into this problem so often that during the car ride, my husband and I have practice conversations about how we’ll handle the insults. It is sad but true that at some point during the evening, I’ll be discussing current events or a good book and someone will exclaim, “Oh! I thought that movie was so retarded!”
I've had enough practice conversations now that I don’t get as flustered as I used to. Now I can calmly explain to the person, “When you said, ‘I thought that movie was retarded,’ you were using the word ‘retarded’ to mean ‘stupid,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘a waste of my money.’ But you see, my daughter is retarded. If you were to open her medical file, that is what it would say across the top of the first page. But she is not stupid or worthless or the waste of a single penny.”
I am well aware that most people don’t mean that my daughter is stupid or worthless when they call a movie retarded, but that is what they are actually saying. They are using a word to mean stupid that describes my child. We live in a society mature enough to understand the inappropriateness of insulting my black neighbor or my Jewish grocer or my Hispanic hair stylist, but deems it acceptable to insult my special needs child in the form of careless slang.
It is inevitable that wherever we go and whatever we do, we’ll encounter people who are different from us. Handling ourselves in a mature manner opens doors, be it for personal reasons, like new friends, or professional ones, like business opportunities. Using precise language is key. Perhaps the movie you didn't like had a lame ending. Or the politician you disagree with had a very harmful plan for this country. Or the way that athlete acted when he lost the game made himself look bad. Saying what we mean makes us look smarter and more approachable.
But just as inevitable as taxes and death, are mistakes. When we do find ourselves with our feet in our mouths, the best thing to do is to apologize and to do it sincerely. I was at a book club meeting with some friends when one of the girls let the r-word slip. She cut herself off mid-sentence, turned to me, and said very humbly, “Jacqueline, I am sorry. I didn't mean it.” Her willingness to apologize and learn from her mistake elicited more respect from me than if she’d never used the wrong word. I left that book club meeting with a stronger friendship than when I’d entered. It has been wisely noted that virtue is not a patient person being patient, but an impatient person being patient. The same is true with etiquette, “most improved” is a more impressive title than “born perfect.”
Having good etiquette when it comes to language doesn't make us weak or overly sensitive to political correctness, it makes us friendly and graceful because we can make people feel comfortable around us; it makes us genuine and truthful because we are good people both when others are watching and when we’re alone; and it makes us admirable because we handle frustrating situations without reverting to insults.
Jacqueline Kuschel is the blogger behind Journey Narrative, where she chronicles life as a law school wife and special needs mother. She loves reading, writing, hiking, and crocheting. She resides with her husband and daughter in Chicago, Illinois.