June 28, 2012

Words, Otherwise Beautiful, Can be So Harmful

“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.”
 Jodi Picoult, Salem Falls

Words have power. They can inspire and destroy.

Last week, the lovely Callie Leuck wrote an amazing post, Some People Can't Mind Their Ps and Qs. She shares customers' comments while she performed in a living history museum, and also discusses how hateful people can be with negative book reviews.

It struck a chord with me.

Be Mindful of What You Say
My oldest daughter was given several gifts from her paternal Mexican great-grandfather. Like him, she has beautiful olive skin, black hair, and dark brown eyes. So many times as a teen I prayed for a tan. My skin knows two colors: red or white. I am quite fair with blue eyes and dark red/brown hair. My husband has the black hair and dark eyes, but fair skin (although he tans when he has time to soak up sun).

Twenty months after our first daughter, we welcomed another. She takes after me with insanely fair skin, green eyes, and golden brown hair (okay that's after my mother).

The comments have never stopped.

When I was obviously pregnant with baby #2, I can't tell you how many times women came up to me and said:

"Congratulations, you can get pregnant!"

I looked at the beautiful little girl in my arms and didn't try to mask my confusion. They would continue:

"You hear it all the time. You adopt a baby and then immediately get pregnant. So glad it worked for you."

Or, you don't want to know how often I've heard this question:

"Where did you get her?"

At first I didn't know how to respond. Now I say, "The doctor handed her to me after I pushed her out."

Now that my oldest is twelve, she fields a lot of these "what are you" questions. People have asked her if she's my foster child, people pull her sister aside and ask if she's adopted or from a different father. People assume she isn't mine. I'm astounded in this day and age that people are so perplexed by the color of her skin and details of her features.

Curiosity is Not an Excuse for Insensitivity
I understand curiosity. I do. But I don't understand how a moment of curiosity in the brain travels out from the mouth without any consideration. My daughter has cried about not fitting in. I tell her everyday how beautiful she is.

We cannot control our thoughts or even judgmental moments of weakness. But we can, and should, control the things that come out of our mouths. Or worse yet, get written in emails, texts, Facebook posts, Tweets, etc. I tell my preteen daughter... what you write in a moment of anger, hurt, sadness, meanness can and will live on in perpetuity.

Just last night at a swim meet, a woman said to me (quite loudly with my daughter standing right next to me), "Man she has dark skin." I could see the pain on my daughter's face. Kids her age were standing around. She doesn't want to feel different right now, but I hope she grows to love her beauty and individuality.

Beyond My Experience
I calm myself by blaming people's insensitivity on curiosity and poor manners. What I cannot understand is why some people get so heated when they review places and items online.

Specifically for book reviews, not everyone likes the same thing. There's a huge difference between pointing out what you didn't like about a book or offering constructive criticism and attacking an author personally. Maybe it's because I understand the blood, sweat, and tears most authors put into their books. Regardless, there's a person behind every book, restaurant, product, retail shop, and service reviewed online. The words left behind can be damaging to people's careers, livelihoods, and self-worth.

Remember that what you say or write travels quickly past a person's mind to their heart. Before you commit your thoughts to words and actions, take a few seconds to consider how you would feel if someone said that about you or someone you loved.

Last November, I wrote a post about bullying and the power of words: The Power of Words: Adult Bullying. A man my sister worked with was chastised for his weight all his life. He considered, on several occasions, committing suicide. It's a powerful reminder of the weight of our words.

Do you think "attacking" reviews should be removed from online sites?


Christine said...

Your daughters are beautiful, and the adults asking those questions should be ashamed of themselves! Too often people just don't think before saying whatever pops into their heads.
Sharing this post :)

Melissa said...

Now I say, "The doctor handed her to me after I pushed her out."

LOL. Good for you, Tia.

I'm not sure I should comment on the review question, though. My alter ego is a pretty tough book reviewer. I don't personally attack authors, but I have written some scathing reviews focusing on the writing when a book was of poor quality. Of course, I back my remarks up with examples.

As to reviews that are criticizing something other than the writing, I haven't seen any. I know sites like Amazon allow members to report abuse, but I'm not sure that would be the ideal way to handle it.

Julie Glover said...

I've done a Bible lesson where you give kids a tube of toothpaste, have them squeeze it all out, and then tell them to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Of course, they can't. Then we talk about how words are like that: Once spoken, you can't ever really get them back.

I think your product or work is fair game. The person is not. Thus, personal attacks are not okay. We should offer basic respect and courtesy to others. It's just like that other (Bible) lesson: Treat others the way you would want to be treated.

Oh, and your daughters are lovely!

Callie Leuck said...

I think you put it beautifully with "But I don't understand how a moment of curiosity in the brain travels out from the mouth without any consideration."

That's absolutely what I was trying to get at with my examples about the living history museum. It's somewhat excusable when it's coming out of a child's mouth, but when it's an adult it's just astounding.

I've been considering the topic of online reviews, and I think a lot of it is a sense of consumer entitlement. We all know that good businesses put the customer first, so we are taught to think that everything is about us and what we like.

But after considering that aspect of online reviews, I thought "Nah, people act like that in real life, too." So my conclusion is that sometimes people are just jerks. The best you can do is try not to be one yourself.

Your daughters are both beautiful, and I'm sure that someday they'll believe that, even if your claim that they're beautiful doesn't carry much weight. (You're their mom, after all!)

Laura Orsini (aka Marcie Brock) said...

It's not the same at all, but I have scoliosis and had to wear a back brace for grades 5-8, the most challenging times of a person's life. The questions I received were sometimes merciless, and I had an early taste of never, ever heaping my judgment on someone else - or invading them with questions that were none of my business. One lady in NYC asked me what happened to me, so I told her I jumped off the Empire State Building. She asked, "REALLY??"

I also have a son whom I placed for adoption. He lives with his family in New Jersey and we have a very nice open relationship. When I was pregnant with him, I had a challenging time when it came to his name. They wanted to name him Eric (which they did), but I hated the name Eric. I'm Irish, Italian, and Mexican. Eric is a blue-haired, blonde person - certainly not my son. Until the recessive genes won (my dad and his birthdad) and he turned out to be a blue-eyed blonde. It's taken me many years to say this - but I'm glad his parents stuck with their original name for him.

Bless you and your girls. They are learning a valuable lesson - too bad it has to be at the hands of such thoughtless adults.

Elizabeth Anne Mitchell said...

Oh my goodness, Tia! I love your response, lol. I had the exact same experience--our older son has my coloring; our younger, his German dad's. I got sooo tired of getting the "whose is he?" question.

The worst, though, was a man in an elevator with obviously pregnant me, my 11-year-old stepdaughter, my 9-year-old stepdaughter, and my 1-year-old son. After staring at my belly, he said "Haven't you ever heard of birth control?" I was speechless and angry.

It is unconscionable that anyone would make your stunningly beautiful daughter feel bad about herself.
All your daughters are beautiful, and like Callie said, they will eventually believe you--mine did. :)

Elizabeth Anne Mitchell said...

Duh, I didn't answer your question (it is fomenting a blog post where I refer to this post, though). I go all over the map--at first I thought, yeah, delete the personal attack. Then I thought of my aunt, who was a consummate Southern lady. She would let it stand, saying that the person was making him/herself look bad, not her. I can still hear her, though she has been gone 19 years: "Rise above it, my dear, rise above it."

Where I do turn into a tigress is when mean things are said to my children or friends.

bookworm said...

"The doctor handed her to me after I pushed her out." Priceless. This was a beautiful post and I have shared it on Twitter.

Tia Bach said...

Christine, Thank you!

Melissa, It seemed the appropriate response. I am also a reviewer, and I want to be honest. I believe wholeheartedly in being honest about a poorly edited book or bad story. I just think it has to stop short of personal attacks (I saw one that said the "dumb author couldn't spell". Dumb wasn't needed.)

Julie, I LOVE the toothpaste lesson, and I agree with you. Honest reviews of a book or product, even if negative, are fair game. Just no personal attacks. And thanks, I think they are all lovely.

Callie, Thanks again for the post that inspired this! Also, you said it so well... the best we can do is not be a jerk and rise above those who are.

Laura, Thanks for your candor. I appreciate it, and I'm glad to know you made it through.

Elizabeth, Wow, I don't know how I would have handled that. Some people! Glad to know your children listened eventually. And I love the Rise above (as I pointed out to Callie above). Perfect advice. I agree.

Alana, Thanks. And I appreciate the share.

Rebecca Barrow said...

When I started at secondary school there was a girl who asked where I was from. When I named our town, she said, "Yeah, but where were you born?" And then I named the nearest hospital to our town, where pretty much everyone our age in our town (including her) was born. I know what she was really asking was "Why is your skin the colour it is?" I know people can be curious but sometimes they really need to think about what they're saying and the way they're saying it before the words come out of their mouths!

Tia Bach said...

Rebecca, Thanks for sharing your story. I agree. I understand curiosity, but not insensitivity.

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

Tia -

My kids both look like me, and like Jim.

We tend to get a different type of insensitive question - the type taken for granted by many adults...

"What grade are you in?"

"Why aren't you in school today?"

"How can you learn if you don't go to school?"

No one would ask a monkey in a jungle why it doesn't live in a zoo.

Yet, very often, it just gets assumed that a child's identity and place is defined by school - an institution Jeremiah and Annalise have never been a part of, and which has no meaning in their lives...

Invariably, those who ask these types of questions seem to have nothing to say that doesn't fit their "talking to kids" script.

So much insensitivity and hurt could be released by simply remembering that children are people.

As for the reviewers, there is no need to be mean or insulting, no matter how little one enjoys a book.

To the extent that reviewers are unkind, I expect they are also wounded....

Tia Bach said...

Shan, I agree. Children are people, and they take those thoughtless things adults say to heart. And they hear. Sometimes I think adults don't think kid pay attention. Anyone who has kids knows different.

And I agree about wounded reviewers.

Eden Mabee said...

Because of "curiosity" I followed Elizabeth Anne's post to here (and to Callie's wonderful post).... So I guess I must say I like acting on my uncertainty and desire to learn more, but like you, Tia, I have experienced enough of people who act on it carelessly.

One can ask questions without ire or acid... And one can know when a question is appropriate and when it is not.

Where your daughters are involved (and yes, both girls are lovely... actually I would have loved to have looked like your eldest all through school), the real question is--what does it matter to anyone else if either one of them looks like you or your husband? If your daughters had been adopted, they would still your daughters--and choice or accident of random gene combinations, your family's joy with each other should be the only thing that matters. And all that that should matter to anyone else is that it should make people smile to see joy in the world...

Tia, I know it's hard sometimes, but try to ignore the rude and thoughtless...and just enjoy the good stuff. >>HUGS<<

Tia Bach said...

Eden, Thanks so much for your encouraging words. They mean the world to me and are a great reminder to ignore people's thoughtlessness.