Should we be careful about every comment we say?

Free speech is a great thing, but I think with it comes a great deal of responsibility. This responsibility has the potential to be so great that it produces the question of whether we should be careful about every comment we say. In this instance, I am not talking about the freedom to express political or religious views, I am talking about the freedom to talk to other people, and the potential harm such talking could cause. Everyone is unique and therefore has different ways of looking at things, and understanding comments towards them, but this also means that things that are said can always have the potential to not be taken the way they were meant to. It is a tricky dilemma, and can cause pain to people which another person may not even realise.

The example

In terms of possibly taking things in a different way to what was intended, I would like to take this for an example; a person (person A), who could be male or female, is at work and is eating their lunch at their desk and opens a big chocolate bar. A person (person B), who could also be male or female, is sitting opposite and comments on this and says, jokingly, that person A shouldn’t be eating that and to think of their waistline. Both could laugh at the exchange, but a comment like this could actually be quite damaging. It doesn’t matter if Person A is of a healthy weight or overweight – comments like that could potentially cause a lot of pain. To many people, a comment like this would be laughed off and not given another thought, but what if actually it’s not? What if a comment like that resonates with the person and they start thinking about why the person said it, and even question themselves about their eating habits and/or their weight. How about if Person B then later on apologises for unintentionally insulting Person A even when Person A had not outwardly seemed to be offended by the comments? Person A could then ask themselves (possibly again) why Person B thinks they insulted them; could it be because they think they should be insulted because they probably are conscious about their weight, because there is something to be conscious of?

Of course, this is just an example, but it is an example that could be carried out in an infinite variety of ways in life; comments that are just said in a normal conversation or environment. However, how a person takes an unintentional small comment is extremely subjective, but has the potential to cause a great amount of distress. Comments that could cause distress do not just have to be about appearance, it could be able anything, and this is where the question needs to be asked of whether everything we say should be thought about. But how can this be done if everyone has different opinions on things? This is where another problem arises; how do you know when something is OK to say and then when it’s not? Well, social etiquette could dictate this in a number of situations, but not everything. And social etiquette changes through the years as well so generations of people may be used to one way of thinking and interacting, but comparing that to others can be very different.

Little comment, big problem?

We live in a world where social media allows comments to be made about people all the time. If someone posts a photo on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. potentially millions of people could see it and therefore comment on it and pass their own kind of judgement. I think it is important to discuss a situation like this because anyone we encounter could be going through something we don’t know about. How does Person B in the above example not know if the Person A has a complex relationship with food, is very conscious of their weight, or extremely mindful of how they are perceived by others? They don’t, and it’s important to also stress that everyone is mindful of different things they do and say, and this can change through growing older and the life experiences they have. People may become more aware of other people’s feelings and the way comments can be misinterpreted by going through exchanges like in the example, but it is not always going to be an issue they would need to worry about. But it is something to be mindful of. As I’ve previously said, in the age of social media, comments (bother verbal and online) have the potential to resonate even more with people because we now live in a society where everything about our lives can be documented, enabling people to scrutinise, even more, about themselves and others. Some people do and others don’t, but the type of society we know live in fuels this kind of self-observation, which has the potential to consume people’s lives. And it’s not just social media that causes such problems, some people are and can become self-conscious, and it could only take one comment for people to start thinking in a different way about themselves.

Real-world analysis

I suppose the potential repercussions of this is that no personal comments would ever be said, even complimentary ones. It is possibly a fine line between what comments could be positively viewed and what could be negatively perceived. However, as we now live in a society where such things are more scrutinised and thought about, why should we put up with comments we don’t like just because it could cause friction if they are spoken about? Should anyone have to put up with something just because of the consequences it could cause? Depending on the situation and the scale of it, this is perhaps a question for another time, but some people would just live with their reaction to a comment they dislike to not rock the boat and cause a potentially unpleasant interaction. But this is subjective, and perhaps sometimes, depending on what has been said, it is right to stand up to what you believe and to tell someone if they have offended them. At the end of the day, no two people and situations are the same.

When writing this, I am trying to keep a balanced view, because some people would not care about small comments because there could be more important things in life that they are worrying about. I think it depends of who the people are, what is said, and the life experiences people have had. It is also possible that comments can be said and not thought about until another comment is said. However, if people do take small comments to heart, that is OK to do as well. Everyone is different and is allowed to feel whatever they feel, even if it is different to other people. Pretending to be OK when we are not causes its own set of problems, and should be discouraged. If a person feels hurt, then they should be able to feel that and not think that they have to pretend they are OK.

It could be easy to think that this is article is nit-picking and that if we were extremely careful over everything we say, we would never say anything. This is not the intention of this article, but I just think that we as a society should just be careful of how comments, especially about topics such as appearance, could be taken. Just because they do not seem to be that big of a deal to one person doesn’t mean they are not one to another. And if someone does feel upset, then they should be allowed to be. However, if people can become more aware of the potential upset that can be caused, then hopefully they will think more about what they say. Therefore we don’t need to necessarily be careful of everything single thing we say, we should just be aware that what we say could have deeper consequences to the person we are talking to; maybe even consequences we can’t even imagine.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach