Fix my faux pas or forget it?
June 13, 2008 7:08 AM   Subscribe

Should I try to fix some insensitive behaviour of mine?

I was speaking to a colleague today who I don't see as often as I used to, maybe once a quarter. I admired her sweater, she mentioned it was from her mother. I asked whether her mother was still at home (knowing that she had had Alzheimer’s for several years now AND not wanting to avoid talking about it because, you know, people do), and it turns out her mother is in care. I think I said, I'm sorry, that must be hard. How's your stepdad taking it? She tells me that he's at home by himself, and doesn't want to go into care, but because he's had a stroke and now has no-one to talk to, he's losing speech abilities. That's rough, I said. Does he get a chance to see your mum? I asked. Once a week, she said, he gets a taxi and spends time with her, and they feed him, and he gets community support in the form of supplied meals. It must be hard, I said, for him, seeing her. Not that it isn't for you, (panic) but he's there watching it happen. (Oh god.) And then she mentioned that they met through an agency 20 years ago, and married, and so on. She did tell me that her mother still recognised her and knew her but that was about it.

Later, we went to coffee with another colleague and didn't mention it again, but it wasn't until 3 hours later, after I left work that I realised how much I minimised what she must be going through.

So, I was an insensitive callous cow, but every time I think of contacting her to say, "hey, colleague, I was such an insensitive callous cow, I'm sorry, I can't imagine how difficult it is for you, and by the way, did I mention, I'm insensitive," it seems like it's about me feeling better, and not about her.

So, if you had a friend/colleague ever be stupid like that, and you think like a woman, would you have preferred that they just shut up and forget it, or made contact. Other issues include that she works in another branch so face-to-face won’t occur for about 3 months, and I guess you can imagine, my primitive social skills might cause a phone call to make it worse, which leaves a letter, card or email, and they all seem wrong.

So what would you do? What's the kindest thing to do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Did you pick up clues from her that she thought you insensitive? What you said does not sound all that bad to me.
posted by allthingsbright at 7:16 AM on June 13, 2008

Wait, what did you say that was wrong? I don't get it.
posted by jejune at 7:19 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't get it either. It sounds like you were interested and sympathetic. What should you have said?
posted by JanetLand at 7:21 AM on June 13, 2008

You are super-sensitive, which sometimes makes you feel insensitive.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:23 AM on June 13, 2008 [20 favorites]

Yeah, the only gaffe I can really see is saying, "Not that it isn't for you", and only then because it's awkward when someone apologizes when there's no need. Unless she gave an indication to the contrary, I don't think she's going to assume that saying it must be rough for her step-father implies that it's not rough for her.
posted by ictow at 7:31 AM on June 13, 2008

I agree with previous posters that your responses, as you've reported them, sound fine.

But I'd like to examine this a little closer:

"hey, colleague, I was such an insensitive callous cow, I'm sorry, I can't imagine how difficult it is for you, and by the way, did I mention, I'm insensitive..."

My guess is that you were joking. You probably wouldn't actually say to her, "I'm an insensitive cow," but maybe you'd say something similar. To me, that does sound selfish. It sounds like a plea to the effect of, "Please tell me I'm NOT an insensitive cow."

On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with "I'm sorry if I was flippant about what's going on in your life. It must be really hard for you."

You can simply apologize and express concern without the self-flagellation. True, any apology might make the other person feel she has to say, "Oh, you don't need to apologize. You didn't do anything wrong," but as long as you don't go overboard (falling on your knees; wearing a hair-shirt), I think it's fine. She can say, "Thanks" or "It's okay," and her social responsibility is taken care of.

The goal -- whenever apologizing -- should be to simply apologize (to give a gift to the person you're apologizing to). If you feel that your apology deserves a response, don't apologize in the first place. It will generally be clear, from your tone of voice, whether or not you're making an honest apology.
posted by grumblebee at 7:37 AM on June 13, 2008

I can think of a couple occasions when someone's apologized, I had no idea they had done anything wrong, and I still didn't really understand the problem even after they apologized. While I could hardly do anything but accept their apology, in my head I was thinking: "Oh, so I guess you did something wrong. I had no idea. Uh ... thanks for telling me."

I recommend not doing that.
posted by jejune at 7:43 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't think you were insensitive, but if you want to make a gesture, send her a Hallmark card (they have lots for "coping" and "sorry you're going through rough times") also signed by other people in your office who know her (otherwise it might seem creepy, like you're hitting on her, but that depends on the age range and your work environment). Also, next time you see her, make a big point of asking how she's doing and don't talk about the mother/stepdad until she brings it up.
posted by desjardins at 7:52 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you're over-thinking this, and falling into the same mindset that causes people to, as you reference, avoid talking about difficult subjects.

If you're afraid that you came off as insensitive (maybe through your tone? I can't see anything wrong with the conversation as described) you could tell your colleague something like "hey, I was thinking about our conversation the other day and hope that I didn't come off as insensitive in any way. It's hard to know what to say because I just can't imagine your situation, but didn't want to avoid the topic, you know? Or maybe I'm overthinking things. Anyway, I wanted to know that I was thinking about you and wish you the best." And she can say "no, really, you didn't do anything weird at all. Don't give it another thought, thanks for asking about my mom." And then you say "oh, good" and drop it.
posted by desuetude at 8:01 AM on June 13, 2008

I'd say you're not insensitive; you're overly self-critical.

Given the overwhelming support above, I'd also say that this opinion is rather well-founded.

But don't just take our word for it. Ask some friends of yours - friends who are capable of great honesty, without brutality nor flattery - if they think you have a problem with insensitivity.

When you have this evidence in hand, write it down:
"Metafilter: 9 say I'm not insensitive vs 0 say I am."
"Friends: 10 say I'm not insensitive vs 0 say I am."
(Or whatever the numbers are.)

Remember, 1 or 2 votes that agree with your firmly-held self-critical belief that you are an "insensitive callous cow" as you put it don't prove your side of it. Be objective: do most people agree? Everyone has a couple friends who are themselves somewhat quick to criticize.

Now, armed with all this evidence, admit you have a problem - not with insensitivity, but with self-criticism. The person in your life who should be your best friend, and lifelong staunchest supporter - namely, yourself - treats you in a way that you (hopefully) wouldn't put up with from another friend.

You deserve better. Treat yourself with some kindness, and generosity, as you do others.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:03 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think your conversation was exactly at the right level for someone that you see that often (once a quarter). You're not her best friend, and she doesn't expect intimate, probing sympathy from you. I bet she was impressed that you even remembered.

I would *not* bring up your conversation again. It might feel better to you, getting absolved of your perceived faux pas, but it will only remind her again of what the conversation was about - her family problems, which she'd probably like to escape for at least a while each day. If you really want to make her feel better, find something else to talk about. Organize a group of people to go out for coffee in the middle of the day, or something, and invite her along (so it's less awkward), order in Thai food for lunch and ask if she wants to put in an order too, something like that. Like desjardins said, don't bring up her problems unless she brings them up first.
posted by GardenGal at 8:11 AM on June 13, 2008

Uh, grumblebee, she didn't actually say that yet, she came to us so she could avoid saying that.
posted by amtho at 8:13 AM on June 13, 2008

I don't think you were insensitive, however, you changed a remark on a sweater to an 'interrogation' of a person's personal and difficult situation. I counted about 5 probing questions (is it difficult? how's your dad handling it? does he get to see her?) which seem to be some pretty intense questions to ask someone you only see once in a while. You don't lack sensitivity, only a sense of, let's say, perspective. The questions you asked seem to have put your friend on the defensive.

For example:
You: Does he get to see her?
Her: Not that much.
You: Why not?
Her: Well, you know, it's difficult to...umm..(what's it to ya?)
You: How's your dad handling it?
Her: Well, you know, ok....(leave me alone! why am I answering to this person?)

It's great that you are genuinely concerned, but sensitivity sometimes means leaving things unsaid.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:16 AM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

What you said sounded just fine to me.

For what it's worth, when my grandmother had Alzheimers, and when my dad died, and when generally bad things like that happen, I rather someone say something mildly sympathetic instead of being super-sensitive about it. It's already awkward enough to talk about that I don't want someone to make a big deal out of it.

Note that I don't mean "don't talk about it because it's awkward," but it's just one of those bad things that happen that isn't easy to talk about. I always want to let people know what's going on, but to get through it as quickly as possible because it's a downer to talk about. I think I'd feel pretty badly if someone seemed really upset by the news.

Some other people mentioned the questions might have been too probing. That's possible. I personally would not have found them too probing. I think you're probably the only one that can figure out if she felt that way. Keep in mind, though, that it can be difficult to find words even if you don't think the questions are probing, so that alone wouldn't be enough evidence. If she seemed annoyed or put off, she might have found them probing.
posted by Nattie at 8:49 AM on June 13, 2008

[This is not a problem]

you're fine chill out
posted by Rubbstone at 8:53 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Uh, grumblebee, she didn't actually say that yet, she came to us so she could avoid saying that.

I understand that. The point I was trying to make (badly, I guess) is that -- in her example of what she wanted to avoid saying -- she was mixing two messages:

1). I'm sorry, and I feel for you.
2). Please absolve me or wrongdoing.

My point is it's possible to say the former without the latter.
posted by grumblebee at 9:11 AM on June 13, 2008

I have conversations like this often. You said something I often say: "I'm sorry." I usually phrase it something like "I'm sorry to hear about your troubles. I hope that things get better soon."

I do try to avoid telling anyone anything in a conversation like this. "That's rough" and "That must be hard" are sort of editorial comments. A person in this situation does not need editorial, they just need the sympathy part of the comment. In fact it may not necessarily be "rough" for a demented parent to be moved to long-term care. To the contrary, the parent's needs will be better met and the overwhelming burden on the caregivers will be ameliorated somewhat.

There is often guilt associated with this; I try to say something like "I'm so glad she's in the best place for her needs right now" so that everyone knows I understand and approve. Disapproval is not what people in this situation need to hear, and often they are feeling guilty and seeing it even where it does not exist.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:16 AM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound THAT bad to me, but if it's really bothering you, this is what I would do: try sending her a card offering your sympathy and support to her. I wouldn't go on about how you feel bad for what you said in the card. Keep it short and simple: "I know you're going through a rough time and I just wanted to let you know I'm here for you", or something along those lines. It shows you care about her and what she's going through while alleviating you from any guilt you are feeling for saying the wrong thing.
posted by geeky at 9:17 AM on June 13, 2008

get over it?

how could bringing it up possibly help?

"hey remember when i made you feel uncomfortable for a minute? lets focus on that some more!"
posted by swbarrett at 9:20 AM on June 13, 2008 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you did just fine. If you're worried about it, and you obviously are, an email or a card saying, "I've been thinking about how hard it must be for you to cope" is a nice gesture.
posted by theora55 at 11:59 AM on June 13, 2008

Speaking about an intimate subject with someone you don't know well tends to fall into a strange social space. You're not quite sure to behave towards them in the future. Are you closer friends now? Not really, although you were closer in the past. And yet you know something very personal and painful about her life. Your urge to apologize is not quite appropriate, and I'm glad you understand that.

So, what is appropriate?

First, you want to acknowledge that you are not frightened or embarrassed by her disclosure, and that she has no reason to feel like she made a mistake to confide in you.

Second, you want to make the boundaries of your friendship clear again.

Third, you want to be a genuine help to her in her time of need, within the boundaries of your current friendship.


It was great having coffee with me and Colleague on Friday. That coffee shop is so cozy, and it's so fun to see you (when we get a chance!)

On another note--I was very sorry to hear about your parents. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you in this difficult time.

Have a great weekend-
posted by sondrialiac at 12:08 PM on June 13, 2008

One caveat about my advice--I'm not sure if I "think like a woman" or not.
posted by sondrialiac at 12:10 PM on June 13, 2008

Here are the things you did right:

1. You asked after a colleague's family.
2. You remembered that a family member was going through a difficult time.
3. When your colleague explained what was going on, rather than saying "huh, too bad," you took a genuine interest in the situation and asked a few followup questions.
4. You expressed sympathy both for her stepfather and for her.

Here are the things you did wrong:

1. Nothing.
posted by HotToddy at 12:58 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

As many others have said, I think you are being overly critical of yourself. While my father was making his ten year trip towards dying, had any of the people I worked with and only saw a few times a year had even remembered there was something big and bad going on with my family and asked about it, I would have been stunned. Even the people I worked with every day never asked how my family was doing or how anyone was holding up. I would have found it really touching to have someone ask about how my other parent was coping and showing as much caring and compassion as you did.

You showed concern for your coworker merely by remembering and showing you cared about her family problem. Don't beat yourself up over this.
posted by Orb at 1:20 PM on June 13, 2008

You did nothing wrong. Remembering and ssking about her family is so much kinder than not asking - it wholly outranks any awkwardness you might have created. There is no honest way for her to answer questions on this topic, without everyone feeling a bit awkward.

If you want to be extra-nice, a card like Sondrialiac described would do it nicely.
posted by AuntLisa at 3:17 PM on June 13, 2008

"That must be hard."

I think that's a great expression. It shows sympathy, concern, it leaves the individual you're speaking with room to respond simply, or open up more if they wish.

I'll try to remember that.
posted by elf27 at 3:34 PM on June 13, 2008

Agreeing with elf27 about "That must be hard."

I've gone through the type of situation described (elderly parents sick, both deceased last year -- I actually saw my father for the last time a year ago next week). I would hear it as empathy, not editorializing. It allows me room to talk if I wanted to talk, or not talk if I wanted not to. It's similar to the cliched style that psychologists are said to use:

Patient: My parents are both doing so poorly...
Doctor: That must be hard.
posted by Robert Angelo at 4:27 PM on June 13, 2008

And yes, I just remembered ikkyu's profession -- sorry, I didn't mean to sound insensitive to you! It's just that for me, in a similar position, I would appreciate the words.
posted by Robert Angelo at 4:29 PM on June 13, 2008

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