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Column: I Really Shouldn’t Be Telling You This, but ...



For The Hartford Courant
Sunday, January 06, 2019

“We should talk. Are you sitting down? In my humble opinion and with no offense, there’s something you should know. Don’t worry, but I should warn you: You won’t like it. I’m just being honest. Look, I genuinely care for you. That’s why I’m the only one telling you what everybody’s saying behind your back. Don’t tell anybody this came from me. Even though you asked me not to bring it up, there’s no need to get upset, because I’m saying this with all due respect.”

And those, my friends, are some of the worst ways to start a conversation.

My stomach hurts as I’m typing the words. That’s how anxious they make me, and I’m not a delicate flower. Even as I ridicule these ghastly phrases by piling them on top of each other in an attempt to diminish their power, they sting my fingers as I hit the keyboard. That’s how poisonous they are.

Insensitive cliches, delivered with barely repressed glee, have exactly the opposite effect of the expression “abracadabra” — they make everything magically slam shut instead of open up. Want to terrify your listener into short breaths, dilated pupils and rapid heartbeats? Using a confidentially condescending tone of voice, start your sentence with “Not that it’s really any of my business, but ...” and watch the color drain from their face.

A conversation beginning with “We should talk” has never ended with a hug and a kiss. Never in my life have I come away feeling better after a tete-a-tete initiated via “Don’t take this personally.”

And anyone who lives in the mistaken belief that muttering “I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this” will bring us closer together has made a perilous choice. Honey, if you shouldn’t be telling me this, if you’re betraying someone else’s confidence by saying it, if it only serves to make you feel important because you think you have a secret, then you’re right. You probably shouldn’t tell me this.

Mark Twain summed it up succinctly when he wrote, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart: one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.” I’d add that the friend who gets the news to you is not really your friend. Does a true friend whisper into your ear a piece of gossip that will make you miserable, especially if it’s about something you can’t change?

Beware the bringer of contraband information. Examine their motives.

Beware, too, those who begin conversations in ways that depend on the bad fortunes of others. Those who enjoy jaunty rounds of “Guess Who’s Dead?” play a version of this bad conversational game.

The game of “Guess Who’s Dead?” gets increasingly unnerving as we age, given that the list of possible correct answers gets longer. Yet I never know how to answer. I mean, do you really want me to guess? Do we go by alphabetical order, age, body mass index or wish fulfillment? Is it like charades, where you can give hints: “OK, two syllables, sounds like ‘bowling.’ ” Rolling? Rolling Stone? Keith Richards?

No, it can’t be. Keith Richards, 74, smoking cigarettes since he was conceived, will bury us all. When anybody asks, “Guess who just died?” I simply reply, “It’s not Keith Richards, so just tell me already.”

We all have our own take on the worst conversation starter. But these are not so much pet peeves as they are the guard dogs of our sanity.

For University of Connecticut alumnae Christine Avarnetaki Tarrio, it’s “Do you remember the (insert something of which you have no recollection) I loaned you eight years ago?”

For Heidi Strandt Andrews of Wheaton, Ill., it’s “What are you doing (insert day/date)?” without any information. “It’s a trap — and highly passive aggressive.” My pal Lisa King, a former operating room nurse, has some advice: immediately toss back with “Why do you ask?”

An index card with “Why Do You Ask?” bold-printed in red could, in fact, prove useful.

But don’t take this personally. I’ve heard that you’re terribly good at conversation. Everybody says so — well, almost everybody.

You might not want to hear this, but ...

Gina Barreca is a professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.