Recently, I shattered my elbow so badly that what I suspected was dislocated cartilage was actually broken-off skeleton. I was immobilised for weeks: my arm was in a cast and my bicep bruised until it resembled a sausage casing that had been haphazardly packed with thick clots of black-currant jelly. “We’re keeping you in a cast,” the surgeons explained, “to prevent your wound from exploding.”
During this period, some people were godsends. My best friend sat in the emergency room with me, bringing me fruit, juice and crackers, somehow knowing that I hadn’t eaten properly the entire day. She gasped over my arm’s wrong angles, before we joked and gossiped about other stuff to take my mind off things. Back home, my sister put fresh sheets on my bed. Friends SMSed their concerns, insisting that I needn’t reply.
Others expressed their concern in odd ways. Horrified by what they’d heard through the grapevine, they called me in hospital - at night - although I’d only just come out of surgery and the anaesthetic was just wearing off. When they finally got me on the phone, they insisted things could have been a lot worse. Others sent urgent emails pressing me for details about the accident, forgetting I had shattered my elbow and could not type. Still, one of the worst things was acknowledging that I probably would have reacted the same way: expressing concern while somehow managing to make the situation worse.
When faced with someone’s trauma or horror, we often find ourselves brain-stumped and tongue-tied. What is it about other people’s catastrophes - accidents, death of a loved one, breakups, major illnesses, shocking revelations - that sometimes makes us say or do things so searingly inappropriate it’s as though our lines and actions have been scripted by Larry David or Ricky Gervais?
Years ago, one friend tried consoling his recently dumped housemate by saying, “Don’t worry, even the ugliest people find true love.” When my partner’s father died, a mutual friend tried to lighten the mood by joking, “Well, I guess he wasn’t a hypochondriac after all!” A girl named Cassie told me about her inexplicable blurtings, too: “When my friend was leaving for her grandfather’s funeral, I shouted, ‘Have fun!’ as she drove away in tears.”
If a propensity towards faux pas is genetic, my family definitely carries the gene. I’m still trying to work out why I recently farewelled a devout Christian friend by merrily calling out, “See you in hell!” My younger sister once told a friend that her newly shaved scalp made her resemble someone with leukaemia, only to later discover this friend’s brother had died of the illness. Another time, my eldest sister infamously bemoaned her “corpse-like complexion”, somehow forgetting she was: (1) at a funeral; and (2) talking to the dead woman’s daughter. For my family, it’s less about foot in mouth than jamming our entire thigh into our oesophagus.
But we are not alone. Scientifically at least, there is a very basic explanation for this sort of behaviour: our brains are hard-wired this way. In 2009, Harvard University psychologist Dr Daniel Wegner wrote a paper for the journal Science called, “How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for any Occasion.” Wegner found it’s not only possible but very likely that our brains will sabotage ourselves in tense situations. As our brains become more watchful and alert, monitoring our thoughts, speech and actions, that very process increases the likelihood of making the errors we’re trying to avoid. It’s what Wegner calls an “ironic error”.
Sometimes ironic errors can be smoothed over easily. Other times they can almost get us fired. In her forthcoming nursing memoir, Get Well Soon!, Brisbane’s Kristy Chambers recounts the first time she had to examine a patient’s prolapsed anus with a fellow nurse. They found it so distressingly awful that after examining the woman’s posterior, both nurses became helpless with laughter and had to leave the room. “It was an involuntary nervous system response, rather than malicious enjoyment,” Chambers writes. “I knew where my uncontrollable giggling was coming from, and that it didn’t originate from a place of evil, but that didn’t make it any easier to explain to other people.” After a doctor chastised them both (“She could die from this, you know!”), Chambers had to go to the bathroom and splash cold water on her face.
Gold Coast-based Patsy Rowe, who has been an etiquette coach for the past 16 years, remembers one party where a guest told a small group of women that her son had committed suicide by jumping off a cliff in eastern Sydney. Upon hearing that, another guest remarked, “Oh, if I was going to knock myself off, I’d never do it like that! Too messy.” Rowe recalls a stunned silence. Sensing the situation, Rowe softly said, “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t mean that to sound the way it sounded.” Mortified, the guest said to the grieving mother, “Oh no, I’m sorry. Oh dear, that was awful.”
Rowe says that while faux pas are inevitable, you can rectify the moment just as easily. “There is nothing wrong with indicating you know what you’ve said at that particular moment was inappropriate and unfeeling,” she says.
Rowe adds that if you see other people who have made a horrible misjudgment, it’s kind to throw them a lifeline, too: “It’s important to teach people not to speak immediately. When you’re confronted with any situation that has potential embarrassment to it, don’t say anything for the moment. You only need two or three seconds to compose yourself.”
Of course, everyone’s needs are different during a catastrophe. It’s tricky: most of us want both company and privacy. We want kind words and jokes to lighten the mood. Doing and saying the right thing by other people requires sonar-like sensitivity.
Most of the time, though, we don’t need to say anything at all. When the American writer Joan Didion lost her husband to a heart attack, her friend Calvin knew her well enough to anticipate that she wouldn’t be able to eat properly in her grief. “Every day for those first few weeks,” Didion wrote, “he brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat.”
Similarly, following my accident, one of my favourite people unobtrusively dropped off freshly made chicken broth to my home. Even if you don’t know what to say during hard times, it’s easy to know what to do. You might starve a fever, but you always feed a disaster.
From Good Weekend