There comes a time when everyone must learn there are things you just don't say. For my daughter Betsy, that time came in about the sixth grade when she began to preface her comments with the words, "No offense, but… ."
For some reason, she thought this phrase constituted a pre-emptive apology of sorts, allowing her to follow it with painfully honest opinions such as, "No offense, but those jeans make you look fat," or "No offense, but your breath smells like a wet dog."
After a while, we realized Betsy's propensity for "no offense" was backfiring, risking damage to her relationships, not to mention the self-esteem of many unsuspecting victims.
My husband finally set her straight. "Betsy, anytime you have to begin a comment with the words 'No offense,' you absolutely are about to offend someone. Stop talking instead."
From then on, we banned the use of that phrase in favor of simply keeping one's thoughts to oneself.
It's not easy to teach children the rules of polite conversation – because there no longer are any rules to teach. We parents grew up knowing it always was inappropriate to discuss one's salary, the price of one's home, or the details of one's colonoscopy, but those kinds of topics have become commonplace.
Even the one standby rule – never to discuss politics, sex, or religion in polite company – no longer applies. This is because avoiding these three topics would preclude talking about the day's headlines.
Heck, if you simply mentioned the recently revealed antics of former Rep. Mark Foley, you would hit all three of those "taboo" subjects in one conversationally inc orrect swoop.
Thanks to the media, any guidelines we could offer children about polite discourse would make virtually no sense to them anyway. You can't turn on a TV or radio or even stand next to a magazine rack at the supermarket checkout without being subjected to examples of the very topics we might counsel them to avoid.
(Example: You say, "It's not polite to talk about someone's plastic surgery." Your child says: "But mom, it says right here Suzanne Somers is accused of lying about having a face-lift.").
Adding to the confusion is the holiday season. This is the time of year when we remember that although it's inoffensive to discuss a person's sexual preference, bankruptcy proceedings, or stomach stapling, we run the risk of social faux pas by wishing someone a "Merry Christmas." And don't even think about asking someone if he or she has seen the Christmas tree downtown. If you call it anything but a holiday tree, you most certainly will offend.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this is a twisted trend.
Call me a dinosaur – call me repressed, even – but I yearn for a bygone day, a day when social conventions offered structure, propriety, and common sense in the exercise of polite conversation.
At least it would be easier to raise up the next generation of polite conversationalists. I'd be able to explain that folks generally are uncomfortable if you voice an opinion about their lawn ornaments, their hair color, and their dysfunctional families, while it's a safe bet to make idle chitchat about sports, the weather, and your favorite foods.
Trouble is, people love to talk about their dysfunctional families. It's a favorite topic for lots of folks. (The lawn ornament thing is still touchy, though.)
It's not that I want to teach my children to be shallow. Far from it. Rather, I would like them to appreciate that there are such things as sensitive subjects. I would like them to learn to respect people's privacy. I even would like them to extend this courtesy to people they don't know – celebrities and politicians.
I know. This seems pointless because celebrities and politicians are the first ones to reveal the truth about their sordid sex lives or their Botox treatments or their visits to rehab.
Full disclosure at this level promotes the belief that nobody cares if you voice an opinion about virtually any aspect of a person's life. (No offense, but obviously Suzanne Somers has had a face-lift. Just look at the photos at the supermarket.)
What we need to do a quality parenting job on this issue are some new rules, such as, "Never ask Grandma why she doesn't get a face-lift like Suzanne Somers," "Never be the first one to use the word 'dysfunctional' when talking to a friend about her family," and "Never call your own family dysfunctional, even if it's true."
It's just too complicated.
Maybe Betsy was on to something when she discovered the phrase "No offense, but… ." Maybe we all should start using it before we voice our opinions.
It's not as good as resisting a comment about someone's big feet or avoiding the question of whether a friend's brother will be home from prison in time to decorate the holiday tree, but at least it would show we're trying to be polite.