"If you keep your mouth shut, you will never put your foot into it." Austin O'Malley
I hate it when my observation skills dull, and I don’t notice the subtle signs during a conversation with someone that my words have somehow slipped into a sensitive zone. Usually, this occurs when my personal experience with the topic proves limited, and I begin with an incredulous statement like, “You’ve GOT to be kidding!”
As my sluggish mind tries to grasp a new concept, my mouth keeps going; and I inevitably say something that ticks someone off. I never intend to do this, of course. And because my thoughts slowly sift through this new information, I don’t notice the indications that my opinion counters the very personal interpretations of my listener. The slight intake of breath of the other person goes unobserved. I blunder onward, stupidly asking questions to clarify something which my conversation partner feels is obvious. I unwittingly say the perfectly wrong thing.
By then, no matter how deeply into the zone of oblivion I’ve stumbled, my listener’s response pulls me to an awkward stop. I feel my eyes widen and my face redden as I try to determine which treacherous ideas or statements caused the response I belatedly notice. The other person’s lips purse tightly, and I can discern grinding teeth or a clenched jaw. This friend shifts with muscle tense, preparing for fight or flight.
My brain races to rewind the conversation and determine where I first entered perilous ground. If I can discern that moment, I quickly offer an apology for unintentionally upsetting the other person, but the damage cannot undo itself. Sometimes, my thoughtless response goes beyond justification because it questioned a fundamental view of my conversation partner. Saying, “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry! I didn’t know you’d get upset,” seems inadequate. When that happens, I simply veer the conversation quickly onto another topic, hoping desperately that my friend will graciously forgive me and kindly allow me to remove my foot.
Copyright 2013 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman