Quick, answer me this: What’s the first comment you hear as soon as you meet/greet someone you haven’t seen in ages?
Chances are “Oh, my god! You’ve put on so much weight!” slash other weight-related observations, right? At the risk of people calling me “racist” etcetera, I’ve observed it is a very Indian phenomenon. I am not sure whether it is our complete ignorance of social etiquette, a total disregard for human sensitivity, or a driving urge to hit a person where it is likely to hurt the most in an effort to make us feel better about our own shortcomings.
When it comes to being politically incorrect, we are completely unapologetic. Unaware of the utter rudeness of it all? Now that is a matter of debate. Doesn’t something strike home when your target grins sheepishly, mumbles, shuffles feet, looks around to count how many people heard that (or to find the closest exit), or gives out a loud, hollow laugh, followed by a rueful “I know.”
The other day at the gym, I watched admiringly as a girl, whom I am now on smile-and-nod terms with, went through her stretching routines and then did a perfect ballet split. She, being of a slightly stocky build, raised many an eyebrow, but it was fascinating to watch, nonetheless. Finally, one of the ragamuffins (the manner-less, inconsiderate, territorial tribe of men who thrive in the gym) commented, “You know, you’re really flexible, but you don’t look it at all.” Just had to throw in a little bit of a sting in that compliment, didn’t you, sweaty towel muncher?
The only way to deal with blatant rudeness is to turn a deaf cheek or offer the other ear. Ha! Who am I kidding? No, the only way, I’ve learned, is to return a ‘compliment’ in the same vein. It works like a charm. For instance, I put up with my pain-in-the-wrong-place insurance agent for quite a while, but my patience wore thin after she chose to open every single one of our meetings with statements about my innate skinniness. Of course, it was heavily tinged with jealousy, for there always seemed to be “a lot more of her” at each meeting. (An inability to pile on the pounds and instant obesity, fyi, are really two sides of the same coin). Finally, one day, she greeted me with a cheery “Oh, you’re so thin!” Equally thrilled to see her, I gushed back, “Oh, you’re so fat!” The expression on her face told me that vengeance was mine. All our subsequent meetings have since been devoid of any more personal small talk. Ah, bliss!
It’s people’s inability to draw the line at delving into the personal that really irks me. Like the painful office gossip that plonks her nosy self on your desk and right away begins to ask about the romantic goings-on in your life like she’s your best friend and confidante. (Of course, she is most likely to clam up and feign ignorance when asked about her personal life.) If people are that starved of spicy stories, might I suggest reruns of The Bold & the Beautiful or closer home, the spate of familial fiascoes being aired on Colors?
How anyone can get away with saying things like, “You’ve put on so much weight, you look like a father of many kids”, “Homosexuality is very common in the army” (to a newly wed army wife), or “You look like you could benefit from this weight-loss program” (to a total stranger in the hallway) is beyond me. When I recall things I’ve heard, it almost seems like I could be reading them off a “Best Quotes from the World’s Stupidest People” list.
The line that separates frankness and total discourtesy is very thin. Unfortunately, there seem to be very few who toe that line. Social etiquette is almost lost. There’s nothing much to do, people, but to give back in equal measure what you receive. When someone completely disregards politeness, all bets are off. Go ahead, point out that that mole on the nose is showing robust growth, ask if female beards are the new trend, whether chewing with the mouth open is a come-hither tactic… anything that takes your fancy really. The results are worth it.