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Coping with Foot-in-Mouth Disease, Reader Poll

by Dear Jon
March 15, 2002

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Sort 124_Dear Jon-Coping with Foot-in-Mouth Disease; Reader Poll ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,

Let's say that you are just in a good mood, and you throw some comments out there, and a friend misinterprets them, and thinks you are something sub-human. You didn't want to, or try to offend, but you were misunderstood. How do you set matters straight? How do you let your friend know you really DO care about people?

Hapless N. Surprised


Dear N.,

This is the second day in a row that I've gotten a letter from people with the first name of "Hapless." Because your last names are different, I conclude that you are not the same person. Besides, the first Hapless was a jerk who wanted to save money on greeting cards.

It must be terribly difficult going through life with a name like "Hapless." It is kind of like the name "Ichabod," which is Yiddish for "hapless." In English, most of the cruel names are last names, like "Humperdinck" and "Stalls."

So, how do you make up with a friend who thinks you are sub-human? The best strategy is not to offend in the first place. This means allowing the brain to evaluate the appropriateness of a comment.

Suppose a guy friend comes to you and says, "I'm getting married!"

Considering that you have seen this friend every week and had no idea he had such plans, you are surprised. He goes on to say that he found a catalog of women from Nepal who want to enter the United States. He has given $5,000 to a broker and he will be marriend in a month.

You could say, "Are you a complete IDIOT?" or you could buy time by calmly taking a swig of whatever it is you are drinking, and then say, "I'm happy for you. Tell me more about what you're doing to prepare for this change in your life."

Another strategy is to be less sensitive in general. I don't mean less sensitive in that you should be more thoughtless; I just mean setting your own ego boundaries so that you don't take personally every downward shift in your friend's mood. This is harder for women to do than men, because of a subtle psychological difference between men and women. Men realize that nobody really cares if they die, so the main goal in life for a man is to die well. For most men this involves holding up John Wayne in "The Shootist" and "The Sands of Iwo Jima" as role-models. In the West Bank, the typical male holds up whoever was the last lunatic to blow up a bus as an example of dying well.

Thus, when a man puts his foot in his mouth at work and then gets yelled at, the man retreats to his cubicle and relishes fantasies of heroic, life-saving martyrdom.

A typical woman, on the other hand, realizes that everyone else in the world is looking at them. This means that the typical woman has to hold up Miss Universe as her role model. Whereas many men can die well, thanks to private yachts, wars, and dangerous rescue operations, (and West Bank "intifadas") only one woman a year gets to be Miss Universe. Thus when a woman puts her foot in it, and someone else yells at her, the woman hears the message, "YOU'RE NOT MISS UNIVERSE, YOU KNOW!" which ruins her day.

This is why women clump together. They set up mutual ego-protection covenants which involves essentially blurring the boundaries between identities. (Women call this "relating.") The advantage is that it is very difficult for a woman to offend anyone within the sphere of her best friends. The disadvantage is that it is extremely easy for the same woman to be overly sensitive to any feedback from outside her ego-protection sphere. Husbands, being men by most definitions in at least 49 of our 50 states, are automatically outside any wife's ego protection sphere.

The question, "Does this dress make me look fat?" while emerging from a dressing room during a shopping spree with 13 of her best friends, has 13 possible right answers, including something as blunt as, "Like, WAAAY!" The same question asked at home to a husband has zero right answers except, possibly, "Are you kidding? You should enter the Miss Universe Pageant with that dress!"

So, for men who fear they have offended a man and have no current opportunity to participate in an amphibious invasion of hostile territory, the best strategy is to bring up the other guy's favorite sport in your next conversation. For women who have ventured beyond their ego-protection pack and are worried they have offended another woman outside the pack who criticized her work, I suggest that you send a greeting card, one of the sappy kind.

For men who fear they have offended a woman but there are currently no infernos from which to pull her gasping, grateful body despite your own fatally punctured lungs, I suggest that you send a greeting card, one of the sappy kind. For women who worry that they have offended a man because he inarticulately grunted in response to your greeting and was otherwise totally insensitive to your relational needs, I recommend that you send a greeting card, something with golf balls on it.

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