I had the opportunity today to work with a friend of mine who is a widow. We both have boys around the same age and in the same school district, so we share many of the same acquaintances, as well as the status of “single mom”. We talk about a variety of issues related to being single, middle aged women. Even though we arrived here via different routes, we share the same space, so we always have something to discuss.
This morning we talked about how people treat us. Acquaintances often use what I call the head tilt, arm touch, whisper method when speaking to us. “How are the boys”, they ask, as if conspirators in our plight. “How are you making out financially? Everything ok?”, as if they’ll hand us a pile of money if we say no. “How are things going in the dating world?”, as if we are in a holding pattern, just waiting for a new man to complete us. All of these questions are said with their head tilted to the left, their hand somewhere non-threatening on our arm, and in a tone no louder than a whisper.
These techniques are all subconscious cues to facilitate conversation, to gain trust and elicit cooperation.
The head tilt is a non-verbal cue used to present yourself, the speaker, as trustworthy and open. It is a submissive gesture. Research has shown that when you speak to someone with your head tilted, they are more likely to cooperate which, in our case, means answer your question. Watch politicians – they often tilt their head when asking for something.
Touch creates a bonding effect between the speaker and the person being touched; it is a show of active support. Physical bonding is a powerful method for influencing others. In other words, when you touch our arm we are more likely to answer your question honestly. Again, watch politicians. Bill Clinton comes to mind, as he always touched someone’s arm, often while shaking their hand.
Whispering is how we tell secrets. Whispering requires the listener to lean in and pay attention to the speaker. Whispering also insinuates that your “secret” will not be revealed. If what I remember about Whisper Down the Lane is correct, it is often true that what we have actually said is never revealed. What is repeated however…..that’s another story.
There are some people who ask out of genuine concern. To this group, I apologize if I sound rude, but it’s ok to leave us be. When you see us, simply say “hi. It’s great to see you. You look well” and move on. We aren’t offended by this. If anything, we are relieved to experience a normal interaction, the type of interaction that was the norm before we became public property. This interaction is the one that says to us “Hey, you are fine, life goes on, I don’t need to know about your personal life”.
There are some, though, who are asking for the gossip material. At times, it can be difficult to figure out which place the speaker is coming from. Are they actually concerned, or do they need newsworthy gossip for the weekends’ dinner party? With some, we know automatically which side they come from, and we answer accordingly. A polite smile, everything is fine thank you, I’ve got to run goes to those seeking gossip. A more genuine response, or perhaps a response changing the subject, goes to the sincere seeker of information.
When you really get right down to it though, what possible business is it of anyone other than our closest friends and families? Would you walk up to your neighbor in the grocery store and say “Hi. How are your finances?”. Of course not! Would you approach an acquaintance, tilt your head, place a loving hand on their arm and whisper “So how are things with you and the spouse?”, or “are the kids doing ok in school”. Never! Yet here we are, bombarded with these questions, as if the events of our lives have turned us into public property, dissolved us of our right to privacy. The “tragedy” we live has left us in need of repeated questioning.
We understand that we represent some rather uncomfortable issues. We know that some people just don’t handle difficult situations well. We know that some are just not very good at expressing sympathy without over-stepping. In fact, we have probably been in similar situations ourselves, when we felt unsure of what, if anything, to say. Therefore, I offer some guidelines for handling us.
- First, and most importantly, ask yourself the following question before you approach us: is this any of my business? Do I have a close enough relationship with this person to say what I am about to say. If not, walk on.
- If you are close enough to us, and are truly concerned for our well being, offer to help. Offer to come mow the lawn, or help us tackle household repairs, or do something with the kids. We will most likely say “no thank you, but it is so kind of you to offer”. While we decline your offer though, we have heard that you are concerned, you don’t want to gossip, and you understand boundaries. This, we really appreciate.
- If you are concerned but not enough to offer assistance, or not close enough to offer assistance, simply say “It’s great to see you” and either move on or change the conversation to something not related to us.
- If you want to acknowledge our circumstance but not overstep, just say “I’m sorry for your loss/your cancer/your divorce. I hope you are well”.
- If you are seeking gossip, DON’T.
Equally important is what not to do.
- Don’t tilt your head. We’re not children. We will figure out where you are coming from without the visual of the head tilt.
- Don’t touch our arm. Or any other part of our body, unless we are close enough to hug.
- Don’t ask personal questions. Trust me – if we want you to know the details of our lives, you’ll know. We actually have close friends with whom we share the intimate details of our experience. If we haven’t done so with you, perhaps you aren’t a close friend.
If you choose to continue the head tilt, arm touch, whispering method of interaction though, I suggest you beware. You never know when you might be on the receiving end. Worse yet, you might end up on the receiving end and not know why. You know how gossip works.