March 2022

28 Mar Calm Down & Cheer Up

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 28.3.2


While I very much believe in science, I still have questions about the speed of human evolution. Maybe I’m impatient (I am impatient) but there are behaviours we persist with even though they are relentlessly unsuccessful.

Take the wolf-whistle specifically, or the more general “shouting at women from a distance”. I once wrote a whole book about how people meet and fall in love and in none of my research did I meet a couple whose passion was ignited by “phwoar, nice tits”. You’d think at some point there’d be a conversation along the lines of, “Trust me, son, we tried it in the 70s – no dice. You and your mates will have to think of something else.”

Asking around, other things people prefer not to hear out loud are the sort you might put on a bumper sticker – collections of words that sound like helping but feel more like someone rang your doorbell and ran away. None of us really know what to say when someone dies, for example, but it’s not, “They’re in a better place now” (only helpful if you have the address) or “Everything happens for a reason” (unless you can provide specifics of the upside and this will always be too soon).

And honestly, no-one likes, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”. It puts the onus on the person who is already stressed or heartbroken to produce a list of things that need doing and match it inside their fuzzy head to another list they have to make of your talents and skills. Dream up helpful things yourself. Drop off a casserole or mow their lawn (depending on your personal skill set) in the firm knowledge that everyone always needs food and shorter grass.

Let’s also evolve past, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” because there are in fact lots of things you might not die from that leave you weaker, like cancer, heart attacks, lung disease and Long Covid. Daft phrase really and I don’t know how it caught on.

I have never had my mood improved by someone telling me to “cheer up”.  I mean, I’d love it – I think we all would – if that was all it took to banish worry about the future or sadness for the past. But being instructed – often out of the blue and in a shouty voice – to change your mood to something you are clearly not feeling or they wouldn’t have mentioned it is about as uplifting as being slapped in the face with a three-day-old fish. I love fish, but not like that.

Similarly, I doubt anyone has ever achieved a state of inner peace as the result of someone telling them to, “calm down, love.” I don’t know why anyone still says this. It’s not like we have endless examples of people being angry or upset and then being told – most likely by the person they are angry or upset with – to be a different thing and voila, instant Zen. Generally the opposite. It’s one of the reasons we have gun laws.

“Cheer up” and “calm down” are great examples of advice that effectively achieves the opposite of what it says on the box. See also, “You should smile more”, “Don’t be so sensitive” and “You’re overthinking it” – unsolicited advice which really means, “It would be better for me if you behaved in a way that’s different from the way you feel.” Maybe we should try saying that? See how that goes. If it’s a disaster, you’ll get over it.


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21 Mar You Are More Fun Than Bubble Wrap

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 21.3.22


Couple of years ago, I was about to perform at a fancy lunchtime gig in a huge venue filled with hundreds of fancy people seated at long fancy tables. They were enjoying many courses and also many cocktails, and I knew it could go either way.

Being on stage isn’t scary, it’s in the waiting to go on that the fear lives.

As I’m about to walk on stage, a woman I sort of know who is famously a take-no-prisoners kind of gal grabs my arm and says, “You’re very brave to wear that dress – I wouldn’t have the courage”.

She knew what she was doing. This, dear reader, is one of those ‘complinots’ I talked about the other week – structured like a compliment but possibly containing traces of insult. See also, “You’re looking good for your age,” and “You could look really pretty if you wore makeup”.

But – and I cannot stress this enough – this is not what we usually do to each other. What women often do is offer random compliments to complete strangers, as though we all know at an instinctive level that it is our job to hold each other up and add a bit of sparkle to our day.

I asked friends and acquaintances for their favourites and this is what they told me. “A lady in the supermarket said what a beautiful smile I had. I walked out on Cloud 9.” Someone at a pedestrian crossing told Lorna she was wearing a great hat and she fairly bounced across the road. A couple of women with curly hair say they always compliment other women with curly hair because they know how unruly it can be. Jessie says sometimes she keeps wearing a thing because some stranger told her once it looked great. And oodles of people said how good it feels to tell another woman she looks like a million bucks.

And not just looks. A woman with a kid walked passed Barb in the supermarket carpark and said, “I get such a good vibe from you,” and Barb’s never forgotten it. A stranger told Alessandra she has a great laugh. Someone at the gym walked by Holly and said, “Far out, you put the Hulk to shame when you’re smashing those weights, girlfriend.” Boom.

You don’t have to be a stranger to make a compliment shine. A colleague told Esther that they love how her brain works. Someone was told they were admired because they were “unafraid”. Another woman in a leadership role told someone when she was leaving, “I learned a lot from you. You always made me want to be better”. Yes!

Three women were told that people love seeing them walk into a room because it makes that room better. I’d like to get that trio together for a party.

It’s seems like we are born knowing how to do this because the masters of compliments are kids. From the simple-but-effective, “You smell delicious, Nan” by Shona’s grandchild, to the more complex, “You look like fashion!” which came from a 4-year-old kid Liz was babysitting back when Liz was a self-loathing teen. The 9-year-old brother helpfully translated, “She means you look like a model.”

Kids also do killer comparatives. Lyndelle was told, “You are more fun than anyone or anything I know, including bubble wrap.” Meanwhile, Tina’s daughter told her she was “better than Maccers fries dipped in soft serve” and Tina can’t think of a loftier compliment.

You, by the way, look fabulous reading this. You light up my day.


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07 Mar What Not To Ask

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 14.3.22


We’re all a bit edgy in these Pandemic times, so I’ve been asking around for samples of the things we might be saying to each other than tip us over that edge. Turns out, you don’t have to bring up the virus or vaccines to ruin a conversation – pregnancy and parenting can do it, too.

It’s weirdly comforting to remind ourselves we’ve been saying dumb stuff to each other forever. But since we are living in what is objectively a Very Difficult Time, a chat about what not to ask each other is timely.

In terms of frequency, my survey says top of the list of Worst Questions People Ask is, “When is the baby due?” It’s a sweet enough enquiry if you’re planning to knit booties and want to know how fast to get the needles flying, but it’s a truly terrible thing to ask of someone who is, you know, not actually pregnant. Looking pregnant when not pregnant is not aspirational. Nor is being reminded you’re not pregnant if you quietly aspire to be.

We should agree right now on a fundamental rule: do not mention someone else’s pregnancy until they do. If they’re actually pregnant, they’ll probably bring it up so wait for that. Even if they’re having something that might be contractions and you think you can see a baby’s head crowning, I’d still keep it subtle and maybe gently ask if they’d like you to boil some water and grab some towels.

It may seem counterintuitive but, as much as people love talking about their kids, let them take the lead on what gets covered. Definitely do not ask “Was it planned?”  (we always say they were, regardless), or “Do your kids know they are adopted?” followed by, “How much did they cost?” (Not kidding, real question asked of a real parent.)

Also, we need to keep our sticky beaks out of when people might have another kid, and out of asking people who don’t have children why not. Though the opportunity to say, “Because we don’t breed well in captivity” can be very welcome.

Also, we must not ask, “Have you had your baby yet?” While it can be hard to tell because normal women don’t go back to their pre-pregnancy shape … like, ever … this is going to be awkward if her response is to call over a toddler as Exhibit A. Instead, maybe try, “What you been up to?” and see if a recent birth is at the top of her news.

When we a see a woman out doing her career, let’s not immediately ask her who’s looking after the kids – it suggests that’s her real job and she must have done something strategically and logistically amazing to wriggle out of it. Plus, right now she might want to exist in the world as something other than a parent.

We should not, at any point, ask if her partner is “babysitting”. Fathers don’t like it either. That thing dads do when they spend time with their kids is just called “parenting” and you don’t get paid for it by the hour or get a lift home afterwards, and you make your own supper.

Best thing to say to parents? One person told me they’ve never forgotten being told by a stranger, “I love the way you talk to your kids!” And a mother overhearing grandma say to her daughter, “You are a strong woman, and you come from a long line of strong women”. Gold.


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