Why “What Not to Say Lists” Really Make Things Worse

There are many “what not to say” lists out there. Here’s why those lists make things worse, not better.

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Hey y’all, Tiffany here.

What I Won’t Do with What Not to Say Lists

I have Crohn’s disease, which I’m pretty open about.  As a result, I could write a long list of “what not to say to someone who has Crohn’s.”

But I won’t.

I use a handicap parking pass even though I am not in a wheelchair, and I could write about how people should stop judging me or think I’m stealing the spaces.

But I won’t.

I had another miscarriage last year, and I could talk about the things well-meaning people said that felt hurtful.

But I won’t.

I could give several more examples of events or situations in my life that could spark another list of “what not to say/do to someone who …..”

But I won’t.

(Although the one time I really wanted to was when someone told a new mother that she shouldn’t expect meals to be brought to her because she “had 9 months to prepare.”)

what not to say lists

Why I Won’t Do It

In all seriousness, the reason why I don’t write those lists is because they’re honestly not all that effective.  We are all different!  Something that hurt me during my miscarriage may be extremely comforting to someone else going through the same thing!

I’ve read lots of articles on “what you should do someone is in the hospital.”  Often, these posts tell you to reach out in love, visit, make phone calls, etc.  I personally hate when people do that.

The same thing has happened with my Crohn’s disease, with my miscarriages, and with many other situations I find myself in – what works for others doesn’t always work for me, even though the situation appears the exact same from the outside looking in.

And they’re also somewhat ineffective because they don’t really make the impact we want them to, even if they were to go viral.

Let me explain.

The majority of people who ask questions or say something are simply curious, not spiteful.  These people are simply trying to understand – they aren’t intending to hurt or wound.

People who make comments or do things that inspire these lists fall into one of three categories.

  1. The first (and hopefully the smaller of the two) is that they really are jerks.  In this case, a list isn’t going to make them be any different.  If they bother to read it, they’ll sniff condescendingly and move on.
  2. The second group of people is filled with those who are genuinely interested in your situation!  But unfortunately, this group is getting smaller and making way to a third group…..
  3.  The people who don’t say anything.

By making these lists, we scare those people who want to get to know us.  People who want to learn about someone else’s life.

And how can they know anything about you if they don’t ask?

what not to say lists


Our society as a whole has shown a shocking increase in lack of empathy over the past several years.  We’ve also seen an uptick in “political correctness.”  I don’t think that those two are unrelated.

(And before you lecture me on correlation vs. causation, please remember that I have a degree in mathematics.  I do think that there is causation.)

To illustrate, I have a new friend. She’s a white woman married to a black man, and their children are biracial.  With all of the tension in our society of race inequality, I have some questions that I really, really want to ask her.

But I don’t.

Why not?

Because I’m afraid she will see it as insensitive or rude. I don’t want to ruin our budding new friendship.

However,  if I don’t ask the questions, how will I (as a super white woman who gets 2nd degree burns after 5 minutes in the sun) ever be able to get a true, better understanding of racial inequality that occurs on a daily basis?

Because I am trying to be “politically correct” and not ask a question that may offend, I lose out on the opportunity to understand and empathize with someone.  This extends to future interactions I have with other people.  The next time I see a situation on TV that is similar, I won’t be able to say, “Oh, yeah, my friend is in that situation and it is so hard.”

I may get on the airplane and be judgmental of the parent whose older child is throwing a fit, instead of recognizing some of the same symptoms that my special-needs siblings have.

I might not recognize the symptoms of a woman who is in an abusive relationship, because I don’t know what that looks like since my own isn’t that way, and I was too afraid to ask a friend who has been through that experience.

So to those of you who are in situations that make you want to scream the next time someone asks you, “Oh, you have twins?  Double the trouble!” (or whatever it is in your life), please, please remember this:

A question is a teaching moment.

what not to say lists

What We Should Do With What Not to Say Lists

When I get stopped in the parking lot because I am in a handicapped spot with no wheelchair, I could get upset.  I could rant and rave to the person about my 35+ hospitalizations in 6 years.  But what good would it do?

The scriptures tell us, “Charity suffereth long and is kind.”

So instead, I choose to be grateful that they cared enough and had the courage to stand up to those less fortunate, to those who might be being bullied!  I thank them for it, and gently explain my situation.  We both walk away with positive feelings instead of negative feelings of embarrassment (on their part) and anger (on my part).

What kind of example would I be to my children if I got frustrated with people who were trying to understand my life?  I would teach them that it’s not a worth the risk to try to ask others about their situations, and my children would never be able to empathize with others.

There is no possible way for us to understand another’s situation without them telling us about it!

How could we possibly understand what someone “might be going through” without it having occurred at least once in our imagination?  The stories I’ve seen as a CASA worker (volunteer with foster kids) are things I never could have thought of in my wildest dreams (or most horrific nightmares, as the case may be).

(If you’re judging them, read this post on why you should be throwing stones at others.)

When What Not Say Lists ARE Helpful

Sometimes these lists are helpful!

If you know someone going through a certain situation,you make intentionally seek out these kinds of lists in order to better understand what you can to do be helpful.  That is a wonderful thing to do!

Please remember, however, that lists like these should not be written as the rule of thumb for every situation.

When you read one of these lists, take it in and try to put yourself in their situation.  Just remember that the author is coming from their own perspective, and not that of others.

If you want to write a list like this, it should be done in the spirit of suggestion – not out of frustration or anger.

We Can’t Control Others

I want to reiterate that we have zero control over others’ actions.  We can’t control what they say to us.

At the end of the day, we have absolutely no way of controlling others’ behavior. All we can do is work on controlling our own and doing everything we can to make the world a better place. These kinds of lists, when done in an all-or-nothing spirit, don’t do much else but divide.

The Savior, on the cross, is the perfect example of this.

Even when He was in agony, He was merciful and kind to others.  All He did on the cross, which had to be the most incredibly painful experience to ever occur, was think of others.

When His feelings were hurt as they mocked Him after He just suffered for them, He reached out in love and forgiveness to them.

And He did it from a place of despair, as the presence of the Father left Him for a time. This was so that He could know what it felt like to be all alone.

One of the biggest reasons that He was able to do this was His incredible ability to show empathy towards others. He put Himself in others’ shoes, and He always responded with kindness and forgiveness.

In our lives, we will all hear a comment or suggestion or statement causes us hurt or pain or anger.  That is part of life.

But we are not given a free pass to respond in kind.

Our job is to rise above.  If you doubt that, please feel free to read any of these General Authority talks:

Isn’t His example something we all strive to emulate?

what not to say

Your Responsibility with What Not to Say Lists

If someone is in a difficult situation, do all you can to follow the Spirit to know what to say.

When you are the one in that situation, it is your job to respond how the Savior would respond, no matter what your feelings are.

Sometimes, questions and comments that hurt may be the thing that we most need to hear.  The Savior, for example, always spoke out of genuine love and concern for others.  However, many chose to feel offended and not follow Him.

This doesn’t mean that every single person is always saying the right thing or is speaking out of concern for us.  This doesn’t mitigate the pain some comments may cause.

Here’s what it does mean: when someone says something that hurts your feelings (even if it is said over and over by so many people, and you’re sick of hearing it!), it is your job to rise above.

A Plea for Unity

So can we all please just agree to not be offended?

Can we please be open with one another?

Can we encourage questions and in return offer patient, honest answers?

I think the world would be a much happier, friendlier, safer place if we could.

And then maybe there won’t be a need for any kind of “what not to say/do” list at all.  Because we chose to control our own emotions instead of trying to force our wishes on the masses.

You can find an earlier version of this post on The Crazy Shopping Cart.

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  1. Well written! I’ve had similar feelings about these self-righteous lists. “Don’t judge me while I judge you.”

  2. Great perspective, and heart-felt empathy.

    I disagree that society has become more harsh. I think it’s a lot less harsh than when I grew up in the 1980’s.

    I DO, however, think that people have gotten a lot more sensitive, and I don’t mean DIRECTLY… oh no, that would be too easy.

    People now, seem to be ridiculously OVER-SENSITIVE BY-PROXY!!! Like people get offended by what you say or shouldn’t say to, or about, OTHER PEOPLE… …not THEM, but someone else.

    I mean, how do these people believe they can understand if another person would possibly be offended by you saying something about them or to them?

    Maybe the person I’m talking to has a sense of humor… or maybe the things I COULD say actually AREN’T THAT insulting at all.

    But the weekend heroes of society are all bout being politically correct to a point of fault. To where you can’t even say things that make people laugh becuase they’re edgy anymore, because someone else not involved in the conversation might decide you did something wrong..

    I LOVE THIS article. Keep writing like this… it’s awesome!!

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