Friday, May 13, 2011

Some Days Have Bouncers That Won't Let You In

I had an uncomfortable conversation with a client yesterday afternoon. I often do. It's the nature of my work, and I am suited to it. It’s my job to listen and be polite and diplomatic and accommodating when dealing with these frustrated and sometimes frustrating people. And I’m good at my job. So I let her say what she felt she needed to and then waited for the conversation to trail off with the usual pleasantries once she'd made her grievances known. This personal touch, too, is part of my job. She asked me how married life was treating me, and I told her it was treating me well. "I fall asleep in the arms of the man I love every night" I didn't say to her "and he reads to me to help me sleep". No. People ask after the measurable things in your marriage. Houses and children. Not love and happiness. I sucked at my teeth, remembering how, at her request, I’d emailed her the link to our wedding photos. I feel embarrassed by that now. “You’ll have to send us some photos!” she’d said, as everyone does when you say that you won’t make a meeting because you’ll be taking some time off to get married. So when next I emailed her about some event or other, I sent her a link. No point in being precious. My colleagues ended up publishing one in our newsletter anyway.

She asked me then about another colleague on maternity leave; a soft topic of conversation for all callers to our office and as suitable as segue into pally bluster as you could hope for. I reassured her that mother and baby are very well and then braced myself for what I knew was coming.

"Tick tock! It must be nearly time for you now, ha ha!"

"We'll see!" I said. Last time someone asked I made the mistake of saying "here's hoping!" and then spent five minutes nodding mutely as my new friend reassured me that it would happen soon, please God, and that it would be all down to the power of prayer and positive thinking.

"Are you not working away at it?" asked my client; bubbly, rather than curious. "We'll see" I said again, my tone a little flatter. Which of course made her curious. So she needled a little, and my patience snapped. "Actually" I said "we've been referred to the infertility clinic in Holles St. and we're having a bit of a hard time of it". This, I figured, was as good as saying "fuck off and mind your own business". I thought she'd drop it, that she'd say goodbye and give me sympathetic looks next time we meet, but she continued, undeterred. "You've probably heard loads of these stories but..." she began, and then told me all about her next-door neighbour who adopted a Little Mexican Boy a year ago. He's a lovely little fella, so he is, apparently. Her unfortunate neighbour travelled to Mexico three times to be there for the birth of three babies, having covered the mother's medical costs each time in the hope she might be allowed to adopt her child. "Surrogates, I suppose" said my client, though she seemed unsure as to the ins and outs of the arrangement. Not that I asked. I sat silent, waiting for her to finish. The first two mothers decided to keep their children, she said, but isn't three the charm! And so her neighbour brought her new son home that summer and hosted a barbecue to celebrate his arrival. Over spitting meat and chardonnay her neighbour announced to all assembled that she was three months pregnant. "She kept the Little Mexican Boy too" my client reassured me. I can imagine how some of the neighbours might have made jokes about her keeping the receipt for him. "And she was forty!" she added "so..."

For the first time since I met her, it occurred to me that this client might well be the same age as I am. I find this depressing. I like her very much, but in that way you like people who are that bit older or that bit younger than you are. You make allowances for their behaviour, their attitudes, their sense of dress. Not that it matters, one way or the other. It’s still my job to listen and be polite and diplomatic and accommodating.

I didn't know how to respond to her story. It's not the first time I've been told one like it, nor will it be the last. Everyone's got one, a brother's wife's sister's neighbour who thought she couldn't but then she did and sure maybe so might you! They usually end with an exclamation mark on a hopeful, high note. They're inspirational stories of lucky and inspirational people. I don't want to hear them. I want to be listened to, both when I want to talk about making babies and when the flat tone of my voice says clearly that I don't.

22 comments:

Leedslass said...

Don't you just hate holier than thou people, I know I do? I'm with Fiona, well done for keeping your hands in your pockets - wish I could have been there for you to kick her in the proverbials.

Anne

SDaedalus said...

I really do sympathise. These people are toxic.

Just smile sweetly and don't get into a discussion with them, or, if you want to say something, just say, strange, you're the first client who's ever asked me that. Make them feel stupid.

After a while, they stop asking, although I do know one woman who stopped wearing her wedding ring to client meetings because she couldn't bear the questions about babies. I can't honestly say I blame her.

There might be a bit of the old 'put the uppity career woman in her place' too. It's always women who ask these questions.

I agree it is terrible when you realise someone you thought was much older was actually the same age as you.

Conor said...

Great post. I like all your stuff but that hit me as great writing.

G luck

Annie said...

Aw. You know, with people who ask intrusive personal questions and can't or won't read your tone of voice, I've started to realise it's best to be direct.

You don't have to be rude, just say cheerfully but firmly "If you don't mind, I prefer not to talk about it." Then change the subject. I know it's hard not to sound defensive, (I get just the same thing with 'but why are you still single?) but if they are so blind to other people's feelings & experiences, they really need to get a clue.

Weighting for Mr. Right said...

Well done you for not punching her!

Fiona

Leedslass said...

Don't you just hate holier than thou people, I know I do? I'm with Fiona, well done for keeping your hands in your pockets - wish I could have been there for you to kick her in the proverbials.

Anne

SDaedalus said...

I really do sympathise. These people are toxic.

Just smile sweetly and don't get into a discussion with them, or, if you want to say something, just say, strange, you're the first client who's ever asked me that. Make them feel stupid.

After a while, they stop asking, although I do know one woman who stopped wearing her wedding ring to client meetings because she couldn't bear the questions about babies. I can't honestly say I blame her.

There might be a bit of the old 'put the uppity career woman in her place' too. It's always women who ask these questions.

I agree it is terrible when you realise someone you thought was much older was actually the same age as you.

Conor said...

Great post. I like all your stuff but that hit me as great writing.

G luck

Annie said...

Aw. You know, with people who ask intrusive personal questions and can't or won't read your tone of voice, I've started to realise it's best to be direct.

You don't have to be rude, just say cheerfully but firmly "If you don't mind, I prefer not to talk about it." Then change the subject. I know it's hard not to sound defensive, (I get just the same thing with 'but why are you still single?) but if they are so blind to other people's feelings & experiences, they really need to get a clue.

Amy said...

There was another blog post a month or two ago about similar conversations (can't remember where) and a few commenters suggested that sometimes the best thing to do (when you can, as in, it's someone you can be frank with) is to say something about how uncomfortable the conversation is to jolt the person into awareness, gently. Because half the time it seems like they're doing it to be nice, that they mean well, but they have no idea how painful the conversation or their "help" is to you. But then... what do you say to them? No clue. Good advice with no follow up on how to actually do it.
In this case she was a client, so probably not, but ARRRRG. How to people not understand that baby making is personal and sometimes painful to talk about!

Niamh said...

Long-time lurker, first-time commenter and just wanted to say that I've made a point of not asking couples anything regarding their baby situation. My boyfriend doesn't want to get married (ever), and it really grates on me when people say stupid shit like, "Oh, you're next!" or, "When are you giving us a day out?" etc. etc. etc. It's the same with babies...you never know if one person in a couple wants them and the other doesn't, they would love one but are having trouble, can't have one or just plain don't want 'em. Whatever it is, it's no-one's fucking business.

Also, I love your blog and your writing and think you're awesome and I'll stop being creepy-stalker-commenter-lady now.

Karen said...

As a newlywed, hearing stories like this always rocks me back on my heels. I've NEVER asked anyone when they're going to have babies. And so far, even though I'm almost 33, nobody's said anything to me. Particularly a client?! Really?!

What an insensitive eejit. Well done for not strangling her. Though you could have, no court in the land would convict you.

Rosie said...

thanks for all the supportive comments, kids. you're like Spanx for my brains.

my client's a nice woman, though, and like everyone else who's done it (and that incudes family and friends) she means well.

i've probably done it myself. it's that verbal scutter thing in uncomfortable social situations: accidentally ask an inappropriate question because you've run out of conversation, fail to process their answer because you're too busy backpedalling in your head, respond with the closest corresponding situation you've encountered, realise that comparing their child's learning difficulties with those of your cat is inappropriate, make effort to counteract flippancy by lurching into a heartrending anecdote about a child with an intellectual disability, realise you've appropriated a plot from Life Goes On, backpedal a little further mid-sentence and then finish with another inappropriate question to distract from the gaping chasm you've dug yourself into. we've all done it.

perhaps it's a cultural thing, Annie, but to say to an Irish person that you'd prefer not to talk about something with them is considered on par with ... i dunno, something very rude.

i heart creepy-stalker-commenter-ladies, Niamh. i pride myself on being one of them, elsewhere on the internet.

stwidgie said...

I sympathize. Hate hate hate those questions and whatever makes people think it's okay to ask them.

When I was a newlywed, the bank teller with the thick accent told us one day out of the blue, "You are goink to haff a son!" I thought it was funny that she was talking like a fortune teller. Ages later I realized she'd thought I was expecting, but I was just fat.

And the time we were talking about the supposed personality traits that tie in with birth order and I asked the boss whether she was an oldest or youngest child. She told me the answer, which turned out to be both, owing to her older sister dying, then her mother dying, then her father remarrying and younger siblings being born.

I am now very careful about the questions I ask.

All goodness to you.

Anonymous said...

Enough of the "those people are toxic" emails. I'm sure she meant well, but didn't just know what to say. How can she say the right thing when she doesn't even know you? I don't have children and I'm sure I say the wrong thing plenty of times, but what's the alternative? "Mkay, that's nice. Well, good luck, then."

Jo said...

Ah, I was going to say what you said in your last comment there - awkward verbal scutter and hole digging is what it is, I agree. We mean well, but we're stupid, is sort of what it comes down to.

I love your point about being listened to, that says it all.

Rosie said...

it wasn't a matter of knowing what to say in this case, Anon, as she raised the subject in the first instance. anyway, i believe we're broadly in agreement (see my earlier comment) even if we differ in tone.

thanks, Jo.

Rosie said...

míle buíochas, Karen. tharla sé domsa leis gur shíl daoine go raibh mé ag iompar - n'fheadar an mó náire a bhí ormsa nó iadsan.

xtrekki said...

You're way way way too gentle!!!This was the occasion for an accidentally-on-purpose step on her toe!!!!

Rosie said...

no, that occasion was provided on tuesday evening, XTrekki. it seems this one will run and run. le sigh.

Annie said...

I love this post.

Also, the title reminds me of another song:

"Sometimes I wear nothing on the outside because there's too much on the inside. The bouncer wouldn't let me in he said my emotions are too close to the skin"

el said...

"realise that comparing their child's learning difficulties with those of your cat is inappropriate" as I don't have children, I am forever doing this. I love my cats like they were kids (yes, a crazy cat ladee!!) and I'll blurt something out before I know it. So I am probably one of those people that are annoying.

However, when dealing with these people and awkward situations, I like to briefly answer a question then throw one back at them, something like blah blah blah answer to your question, anyway, sure I'm working away in the mean-time happy out, do you know what, sure I never asked you about blah blah blah blah and hopefully they will be so wrapped up in their own lives that they will forget about yours. Doesn't always work, but sometimes it does!