12/01/2011 04:33 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2012

Etiquette: Think Before Saying "Just"

Just one child. Just a waitress. Just an average student.

There are times when just is appropriate, as in "I'm OK. I just stubbed my toe." But often, the word spotlights exactly what the speaker, consciously or not, deems inferior or lacking.

Having raised one child, who is now 18 years old, I've been sensitive to this for years. In sizing up my family, many women haven't hesitated to say something along the lines of "So, you have just one child?" (I've been tempted to ask if they have just one husband, because I have had two.)

Just once (and in this case I do mean just, merely, not more than) did another mother edit herself, 15 years ago at a baby shower. "You have just ... I mean you have one child?" she asked me. I could have hugged her, standing there beside a table brimming with baby presents, distraught over my approaching divorce, and fearing the impending sorrow on our 3-year-old son. What a difference the omission of just made for me in that situation.

I was reminded of the nettlesome, four-letter word last month when I attended an art museum with a good friend who was recently widowed, for the second time. Before we entered the exhibits, Suzanne and I had shared a few tears over the sudden death of a man who was her beloved husband and our friend.

"I can't imagine the future," Suzanne had said, as we waited for my husband to return from the coat check.

At the admissions counter, my husband presented our membership card, and the employee handed the two of us two entry stickers.

Suzanne then presented her membership card.

"Just one?" I heard the museum employee ask her. Ouch.

A moment later, Suzanne stuck the round entry sticker to her vest. "Sometimes it's the smallest of things," she said with resignation, and we entered the exhibits.

Here's a quick, two-part exercise. First, replace just with one of its synonyms and note how it sounds and the message it conveys. I have merely one child. I am merely a waitress. I am merely an average student.

Now, leave it out altogether: I have one child. I am a waitress. I am an average student.

Just is usually harmless. But when we use it, we can be quietly pejorative, even to ourselves. What a difference the lack of this one word can make.