Help Me Understand

You Cannot Be SeriousI received an e-mail from reader Jeany saying “When someone says something to me that’s rude, often the only thing that I can think to do is be rude in return, or I can’t think of anything at all.  Do you have some kind of “go to” phrase that can help start a conversation?”

First of all, being rude and/or walking away without saying anything are both completely valid options. Each of us gets to deal with the oppression and bullying in whatever way we choose- just like we don’t owe anyone else “thin” by whatever definition, we also don’t owe anybody else a teachable moment or a “polite” response.

That said, there is a phrase I have found helps start a conversation if that’s my goal.  The phrase is “Help me understand…”

Some examples:

A doctor tells me that I should lose weight to be healthier (or cure strep throat, a broken toe, or a separated shoulder).  I say “Can you help me understand what research you are basing this recommendation on?”

Someone comments on what I’m eating.  I say “Please help me understand what made you think I wanted your opinion about my food choices.”

Someone insists that I should stop talking about what a massive failure Weight Watchers is because they did it 6 times and it worked every time. I say “help me understand your definition of ‘worked’”

Obviously, this isn’t for all situations, or for all people – you get to decide what works for you. I like it because it puts the onus on the person who began the interaction.

It can also have a number of different connotations depending on what tone of voice I use.  In situations where I’m actually interested in an answer (like with the doctor) it can be a conversation starter and be less combative than, for example, saying “I don’t think that weight loss meets the requirements of evidence-based medicine.”  In the case where someone has just been inappropriate it gives them the opportunity to make that determination on their own and apologize, which I have found often happens.

If you’re going to do this, I think it helps to understand that you are inviting conversation – the person who commented on my food may come back with “your body shows me that you need somebody’s advice” and so I don’t use this unless I feel like I’m prepared to engage.  Also, please be clear that you are not under any obligation to engage in these conversations.

It’s perfectly ok to say “I’m not taking unsolicited opinions about my food choices” in a way that does not invite conversation. Being fat in a society where people are encouraged to participate in stereotyping, bullying, and oppressing people based on their sizes leads to a lot of effed up situations.  So to me, it’s all about empowerment and whatever makes each of us feel the most empowered in a situation that should never have happened. If you have suggestions I hope you’ll put them in the comments.

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12 thoughts on “Help Me Understand

  1. I wish I had this about 2 weeks ago. The 2nd in command of my store stepped into my office (have I mentioned this was about a week after he fired my husband for making him look bad by doing his job better than him?) and made this huge deal about how our office was going “sugar free”. He then looks right at me and says “do you have kids?” I nodded, he said “Don’t you want to be around to see them?”

    I just nodded and bit back my argument that just because one person wishes to live a long life, that one’s vision of mortality should not be pushed on others. (It is my personal belief no one is promised tomorrow for whatever reason – accident, illness, whatever… and I’m fine with this. I rather do what I can today and if I go tomorrow – I’m at peace with that. If someone wants to live a long life, so be it, but don’t tell me I should want the same.)

    He then continued on a longer list of changes that would be made and any example question he threw out was always directed at me. (questions involving the assumption that I don’t exercise, don’t eat well, and I’m putting myself at risk for diabetes.) I’m quiet by nature, but I could feel my face getting hot out of being thrust into this spotlight and wanting desperately to say something but completely frozen in fear because I didn’t want to argue with him and have him fire me too.

    I still don’t know what I could have said in that situation though. 😦

      1. Wow, it’s tough when it’s your boss, and you’re stuck like that.

        As for “don’t you want to be around to see them?” that’s just silly. As you said, you could die at any time for any number of reasons, including accident, illness, or violence.

        I used to say, “You never know when you might get hit by a truck.” Then I got hit by a truck. Now I don’t say that, any more, but it’s still a valid point. I say, “You never know when something might happen.” Because something might happen, you know?

        Now, if you take the “Live like you were dying,” advice from that song, I’m sure you’d take your regular meds, and have your regular check-ups, and do what the you need to handle your issues right now, but since “you’re dying,” already, you won’t worry about some phantom health issue that MIGHT crop up in thirty years, if you eat a donut today. And you’ll have fewer regrets.

        And I’ll tell you what: After all this time, I have no “I regret eating that piece of cake,” moments, but I do have a LOT of “I regret dieting” moments, including a few specific “I regret not eating X” moments, when X was a special treat.

        All the internet hugs coming your way! Hang in there!

  2. Sometimes, it also can work very well when someone makes a rude, inappropriate comment, to just stare at them a moment, and start laughing out loud. If they ask, “What’s so funny?” reply, “I figured you must be joking, because you seriously can’t be that freakin’ rude/ignorant/(fill in the blank)!”

  3. I borrowed a phrase from a friend who used this for rude breastfeeding comments, but it works for pretty much anything.

    “Did you actually mean to say that out loud?”

    It often pulls them up short that a) You think they were rude and
    b) You are assuming they *don’t* want to be rude (positive intent) and they just didn’t realize it.

    1. I wish this had occurred to me when a customer at the small food store I work in, trying to get through a crowded aisle when I was stocking, actually said to me, “Sorry, but your butt is still too big for me to get by.”

      I was totally in “be nicey-nice to the customer” mode, and defaulted to a jolly “Let me just tuck it in for you, then!” but it was breathtakingly rude. She apologized–“for being a butt,” I kid you not–a couple days later, and I kind of waved it away, because I didn’t want to engage.

      I later kind of wished I could have burst out sobbing and given her a story of ED (which I don’t have) and how triggering that was and all the horrible things it caused, just to teach her that comments like that to strangers aren’t cute, but I’m not that kind of person. I do wish I’d said, “That’s ok; I figured you didn’t mean to say it out loud.”

  4. Miss Manners’ all-purpose response is “How KIND of you to take an interest.” or just “How KIND of you,” for short.

    You can vary how much emphasis you put on “kind,” and vary how much coldness you put into your voice. It can actually be used warmly to express real gratitude, for something kind they did, as well.

    “Cough! Cough!”

    “Oh, are you OK? Do you want a cough drop?”

    “No, thanks. I just breathed in a speck of dust. How kind of you to take an interest.”

    So, it works for good or bad or indifferent comments. It even works for those impertinent questions, such as “When are you going to get married?” or “When are you going to have kids?” or “You have so many kids! Don’t you know how birth control works?”

    It’s great if you want to respond without being rude, and shut them down, at the same time.

    If you want to engage, then I like Ragen’s “Help me understand” thing.

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