What Not To Say

28 Feb What Not To Say

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 7.3.22


You know how it is – you’ve had a hard week and what you’d most like to do is slip into something with an elasticated waistband and binge some small screen trash. But there’s a thing you’ve promised to go to and it will probably be lovely once you get there.

So you make the effort, do magic with under-eye concealer and dress like you’re totally up for this so that, by the time you arrive in your favourite frock and sexy shoes, you’re starting to believe your own hype.

Until someone, head tilted, concerned of face, says, “You okay? You look tired.” Oof. You feel it now. Deflated. Rug pulled out from under. All that concealer is just dragging your eyes miserably, inexorably, down towards your ridiculous shoes.

“You look tired” is one of those things we should never say, unless it’s to a small child we are encouraging to go to bed. In all other circumstances, it is a cruel observation, an appalling conversation starter, and a self-fulfilling prophesy. I’m pretty sure you could say, “You look tired” to a woman who had just returned from an invigorating 3-day retreat and she would visibly slump with sudden exhaustion.

There are other “Things We Shouldn’t Say” to each other – and I know this because I asked a bunch of friends and acquaintances to share their pet conversational peeves.

They fall into categories: things that sound like compliments but aren’t (compli-nots, if you will); unsolicited advice (“Calm down, love”); questions you shouldn’t ask, (“When is your baby due?” which gets asked of people who aren’t pregnant more often than you’d think); and daft platitudes that are the opposite of helpful, (“Cheer up, it might never happen!” when actually, take a breath mate, it just has, hence my face).

Each category gets a page of its own in coming weeks, along with a crowdsourced list of beautiful things we absolutely should say to each other – random compliments for courage and skill and also great pants, which are what we all want more of.

But this week, the compli-nots! The backhanders, which too often are to do with age or weight. “You were beautiful when you were young!” and “You would have been quite something in your day!” both have the structure of a compliment but feel like a dagger to your shrivelled old heart.

“You’re looking well,” is, we all know, code for, “You’ve chunked up”, or the new-to-me rural expression, “You’ve been in a good paddock, haven’t you?”. Moo.

Then round the other way, we have weight loss conflated with attractiveness – the classic, “You look great, have you lost weight?” which is not only wildly judgemental, but also more than one person has discovered the reason for weight loss was dire illness. So let’s just not talk about each other’s size.

Including “You’re shorter than I expected” which I get a lot. Depending on my mood, I’ll go with either, “It’s been a shock for me, too” or “You’re less charming than I’d hoped”. Whichever way I go, the dialogue stalls.

Worse, I get, “I don’t usually like female comedians, but I like you,” – again, it left their brain as a compliment but arrived as an insult to all the women I work with and adore. Though if I say this I’ll get, “Calm down, love.”

Finally, no compliment on appearance – your stunning hair, your beautiful face, your divine outfit – should be followed by, “I barely recognised you!” Ouch.