The Fumbling Things People Say

Any time a group of special needs parents gets together, the topic of conversation will eventually turn to The-Stupid-Things-People-Say. I’m not sure why this is such a popular topic; it ranks right up there with “poop” and “meltdowns.” We spend whole evenings sharing the most outlandish remarks made to us by strangers with regard to our situations. We try to outdo one another with the absurdity of a particular comment we've received. It's a curious pasttime.

And frankly, it bothers me that we assume the worst in people.
We need to give The Public a little more credit. Seldom are the comments intended to be mean or insensitive, they just come out sounding that way sometimes. I honestly believe (yes, call me Pollyanna) that the majority of people are trying to reach out to us. They recognize that we deal with plates heaped higher than the average parent. They are simply trying to offer some encouragement. What comes out of their mouths may be floundering or patronizing or downright ridiculous, but it is generally offered with a good heart.
We can choose to take offense at the words or to see past the clumsiness to the spirit of the offering. It’s up to us.
Think how awkward it must be for strangers to speak up—they don’t know what to say, what would be helpful to us. They want to express empathy somehow and so they say the first thing that pops to mind. I’m sure plenty feel quite embarrassed as they hear those fumbling words stumble off their tongues, wishing they had eloquent words instead. But they tried and we need to appreciate that.
I like to think about the possible motives that move people to break out of their comfort zone to offer support to a strange. What drives them to speak?
·    They want to acknowledge that “this wasn’t our plan.” The wheelchair, the orthotics, the communication device, the cleft repair, the various tubes and cannulas, and the seizures are not part of the dreams new parents hold dear. Many strangers have shared these idyllic dreams and are probably able imagine that our expectations have been severely jolted. That recognition over the unfairness of disability strikes at people’s hearts. Out of genuine kindness, I believe, they hope to express their empathy. There are times I don’t want to be alone in remembering that things didn’t turn out as I had expected. For some warped and unexplainable reason, it just feels validating to have others acknowledge that I am surviving a pretty big adjustment…and am doing a doggone good job at it, too.

·    Our situation may make them truly uncomfortable. Words come out sounding especially ridiculous when we feel ill at ease (Remember being humiliated by the dorky things you said in front of your Middle School crush? How many blundering comments at a job interview have you wished you could suck back in?). We need to give people credit for moving one step closer to their source of discomfort instead of turning away. They are doing this for us so we won’t stand alone in a situation that they perceive, wrongly perhaps, as uncomfortable.
·    They may be a parent or relative of a child with disabilities themselves. These unknown insiders may genuinely relate to our challenges and want to make a connection. But what 3-second snippet can anyone offer a stranger to share the depth of all that goes into loving and caring for someone with disabilities? No single sentence can do that. What comes out instead sounds trite or patronizing even to the speaker. Of all our Public Commenters, these people probably feel profoundly embarrassed at their inability to create a meaningful comment.

We need to cut a little slack, extend a little grace. We don’t know the history of these strangers. I choose to believe that most comments are made from well-meaning hearts. And honestly, if the roles were reversed, I doubt I could say anything more tactful.
I appreciate when people make comments and ask questions. The connection is comforting to me, because I like that people are trying to come alongside me, however awkwardly, however briefly. Thank you, kind stranger, for walking my way.


Aadhaar said...

Sure, of course people mean well and it's sort of schadenfreude that we laugh at their discomfiture when something comes out awkwardly. Because we've all been there, as you say. But the syndrome of a group (like the one you're describing, of 'special needs' parents) having a semi-serious competitive bitchfest and a laugh about a social phenomenon they all share - well, that's in large part just tribal bonding I think. I hear what you're saying about having some compassion, for those who fumble, of course, and agree. But everyone needs a little vent every now and then; a space where we can be honestly less-than-perfect and feel supported in this vulnerability by a sense of kin. It's OK, really, I think.

Tasha said...

The best way I have had someone ask about Bree was a kind sweet older lady who walked up to us (mind you we had the oxygen tank, and apnea monitor with us and Bree had on a nasal cannula, NG tube, and all wires and tubes while in her infant car seat) and she said "Oh she is just beautiful, what's her story?"

Made my heart feel warm to know that someone wanted to know about her, instead of commenting about her.

Lately we've been getting 'the look' from people because with her speech problems she sounds very special needs. I wish people would ask more instead of assuming.

Rose-Marie said...

Tasha, thanks for sharing that lady's thoughtful remark and question. That was very kind of her. It helps me know better what I might say to new moms (and you'd think I'd have a clue after 14 years at this, but it still feels like new territory sometimes).

I agree, I'd much rather have people ask questions than just give odd stares. "The look" just makes it uncomfortable for everyone, while you can at least work with a question.

Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

I've been reading blogs in this arena for over 3 years now and this is the first post I've seen that expresses any understanding for the sometimes clumsy things people say. Like you said, it's like we are expecting everyone to be perfectly socially appropriate no matter their age or intelligence. Thanks for this post.


Katy said...

Well, I'm completely guilty of thinking people say crazy things. I just wrote a blog post about it, in fact. That doesn't mean that I would ever assume the worst. I wouldn't. In fact, I appreciate every stumbling, lousy attempt at connection-making. I find that far better than acting like everything is just fine.

Rose-Marie said...

Katy, I'm sure you wouldn't assume the worst (in fact, after skipping over to your wonderful blog and reading the post, you didn't say anything like that at all). But as a whole group, I think we tend to forget that really important point you make--a fumbling attempt to connect with a special needs parent is better than choosing not to see us or our kids.

Paul said...

While I agree with most everything here, you do encounter the occasional deliberate jerk who mutters, just loud enough to hear, "Freak." All reason turns to ash.