In a departure from the usual Happiness column, I feel compelled to share eight comments that real people have actually said that they may not realize are truly horrible. Some may read it and say, "But Valerie... I've said that and I'm not a horrible person." Maybe you aren't right now, but at the moment those words came out of your mouth, you were. You were horrible. Sorry, that's just a fact.
This is by no means a definitive list. I'm sure you have a few of your own to add. Feel free.
1. "She's wonderful. She's not like other black people at all."
This was said often by my great uncle, who had exactly one black employee, which he thought made him not a racist. Any time you "compliment" someone for not being like other members of their race, you're a horrible person. Variations include complimenting someone for being good at some everyday thing that you think is beyond their abilities (like being articulate or a good driver), or assuming someone is good at something like basketball or math or getting the best deal on new carpeting because of their skin color or background. You only add to your horribleness when you say, "It's okay for me to say this because my best friend is [insert race here]." Keep it safe and just assess people as individuals, based on their demonstrated behavior. Anything more, and you risk being horrible.
2. "Wow, you used to be so beautiful!"
I've heard this one twice. Once, when a colleague brought her bridal album in to show another woman some wedding ideas and it became clear that she had gotten married about 90 pounds ago, and once on Facebook, when a friend posted a picture from her youth, and another friend wrote it. The latter got a private note from me, and quickly changed her post to what she should have said in the first place: "Wow, you are so beautiful!"
People change. They age. They get fat. Reminding someone that they are no longer as physically attractive as they once were is mean. And unnecessary. And it makes you a horrible person. Which brings us to the runner up in this category: "You have such a pretty face, if you would just lose weight." Yep. Horrible person. Next time, put a period after the word face.
3. "My sister-in-law was in labor for 18 hours and the cord was wrapped around her son's neck, and he was born severely brain damaged. He was perfectly healthy up until then."
This was said to my friend when she was 7.5 months pregnant. With a boy. She burst into tears.
What is it about seeing a pregnant woman that makes people feel the need to share their harrowing labor/birth defect/stillborn stories? If you see a woman who is clearly about to produce life from her loins, happiness and sunshine better come out of your mouth, or just keep it shut.
4. "My friend did IVF for six years and as soon as they stopped trying, she got pregnant."
I swear, when you are going through IVF, everyone in the world happens to know someone who got pregnant just by giving up. That baby is about as real as the offspring of the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot. Every physical act is part of the "trying" process, whether one will admit it or not, so it's cruel and painful to tell someone to stop trying. For every unique snowflake who gets pregnant naturally after $30,000 spent on fertility treatments, there are a thousand heartbroken potential parents who are not at all comforted by your fairy tale. They're in pain and you're making it worse.
Close runner up: "Maybe this is for the best. Don't you think you're too old to have a baby?" This was said to me by a family member one week after I miscarried my daughter, after four years and $30,000 spent trying and "not trying."
Also, don't ever ask an infertile couple if they've considered adoption. Do you really think that had never crossed their minds until you suggested it? Nothing will come of asking that other than an even more painful conversation.
Stick with, "I really wish you guys the best of luck." That's all there is to say.
5. "Did you try to have children of your own?"
I could write an entire post about the idiotic things people say to adoptive parents, often in front of their children, particularly if those children are a different race. For a mother, her adopted child is a "child of her own," and her journey to motherhood is none of your damn business. Instead, bust out with, "What a beautiful family! I'm so happy for all of you."
6a. "All that kid needs is a smack on the ass."
6b. "It is disgusting that people medicate their children instead of just parenting them."
I am embarrassed to admit, these are things I've said in the past. Repeatedly. Before I knew better. It's so easy to pass judgment on parents and children without knowing all the facts, but that excuse doesn't make me any less horrible for having said those things and others like them.
My cousin's son has a mental illness. These comments are just a small sampling of things that have been said to her, sometimes in front of him. They are mean-spirited, disparaging, ignorant and heartbreaking. From the outside, we have no idea what kind of parent someone is or what their child's special needs might be, so it's best to pipe down. Making a comment isn't making the world a better place. Next time, smile and try, "It's the hardest job in the world. Is there anything I can do to help?"
(Speaking of children with different needs and abilities - if a small person in a costume comes to your house on Thursday night and doesn't make eye contact or can't manage to say, "Trick or treat," be a decent human being and happily give them the candy without making a big deal out of it. Their beleaguered parents will be eternally grateful.)
7. "That medicine is poison. It actually causes cancer."
This gem was said to a dear friend of mine who was put on Prednisone for her severe allergies, after countless doctors and several years of nothing else working. Way to go, horrible person with no medical training whatsoever! Your eight words caused an extremely ill woman to spend two hours on the phone crying to me, in sheer panic and desperation.
A close runner up in the illness category is, "You don't look sick," usually said in an accusatory or suspicious tone, since the speaker clearly has X-ray vision and can medically scan a total stranger's internal organs. Need something to say in the face of illness? Best option is, "I'm so sorry you're still not feeling well. Do you need any help?"
8. "Everything happens for a reason."
I understand. Someone has passed and you feel the need to say something to the loved ones, but you don't need to be original or special. No one is waiting for your witty bon mots. Stick with what is 100-percent safe: "I am so sorry for your loss. You and your family are in my thoughts. Please let me know if there is anything I can do."
Follow that with silence. Silence is your friend. It's okay to just quietly be there for someone when they need to cry, or yell, or fall apart, without pouring fuel on it by saying something potentially hurtful.
When I was a junior in high school, my best friend died of a brain tumor. I will never forget standing next to her mother at the funeral, hearing person after person say to her, "Everything happens for a reason."
Each time, she had to grit her teeth and resist the urge to slug them in the jaw. For a parent who has lost a child, there is absolutely no freaking reason. Keep that thought to yourself.
Also, if someone else's religious beliefs don't jibe with yours, the death of their loved one is not the time to make that clear. And if you are using the death of someone's child to evangelize about your religion to them, then you are a horrible person and whatever God you believe in is pissed that you're doing it in his name.
We have an obligation on this planet not to make life more sucky than it already is for anyone else, so take a fearless self-inventory and choose your words more carefully next time. Every time.
Ask yourself if what you're about to say will benefit anyone other than you, and if the answer is, "no," swallow those words and find a way to be as loving and harmless as possible. Do your best not to be horrible. That will make the world a much happier place.
For a guidebook in achieving lasting, permanent happiness, check out "Happiness as a Second Language" currently the #1 Happiness book on Amazon, on sale in October for just $0.99! For added fun, watch The Happiest Book Trailer Ever. And for even more happiness, please visit Speak Happiness, and follow Speak Happiness on Facebook and Twitter.
For more by Valerie Alexander on Huffington Post, click here.
For more on happiness, click here.
Follow Valerie Alexander on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SpeakHappiness