‘Never assume a woman is pregnant. Even if her waters break’

Jennifer O’Connell: Small talk is fraught with peril. A few rules can help avoid catastrophe

Never, ever assume someone is pregnant, even if you’re both on the labour ward and she’s screaming for an epidural. Photograph: Getty

Never, ever assume someone is pregnant, even if you’re both on the labour ward and she’s screaming for an epidural. Photograph: Getty

 

I was waiting in the pharmacy to pick up a prescription – there was a bit of a backlog, and a small crowd was milling around the counter – hoping that when our turn came, and the pharmacist went through the side effects, they wouldn’t include flatulence or sexual dysfunction. Just in case, we kept our eyes trained firmly on the floor.

The pharmacist’s assistant came out with a box wrapped in a paper bag. She called out a name, and a woman about my age, accompanied by two restless children, stepped forward. The pharmacist’s assistant looked at her, hesitated and said she needed to check something with the pharmacist.

“It won’t take a minute,” the assistant said importantly, and loudly enough for us all to hear. “I’m just not sure if you’re allowed to have this.”

“Why not?” the now slightly agitated woman with the restless children asked.

“I don’t think it’s safe in pregnancy,” she said, delighted that, at last, all her studying had paid off. She was probably already imagining the pharmacist congratulating her on her keen perception and care for customers.

The pharmacy fell silent as though we all, in unison, had a premonition of what was coming next

The pharmacy fell silent as though we all, in unison, had a premonition of what was coming next.

“I’m not pregnant,” the now highly agitated woman enunciated, syllable by syllable. “Wow. Wow.”

She turned to the rest of us. “Do I look pregnant?” she demanded.

We all turned for a look. She definitely did not look pregnant.

You could see the red radiating through the assistant’s fake tan, as far as her hairline. “I’ll just ring this up for you.”

“Wow,” the not-pregnant woman said again.

It has happened to us all, hasn’t it? Well, no, actually. It hasn’t happened to me, because I live in fear of the possibility, and adhere to a simple rule. Never, ever assume that someone is pregnant until they tell you. Even if you’re both in the waiting room at the obstetrician’s office, her stomach is the size of a basketball, and she grabs your arm and shouts, “My waters just broke,” assume nothing. Even if you’re both on the labour ward, and she’s screaming for an epidural, assume nothing.

And when she does tell you she’s pregnant, and you feign shock, don’t follow up by saying, “I just thought you’d put on a bit of weight.” Don’t ask if she planned it. And certainly don’t say, as a friend’s former boss did, when she was announcing her second pregnancy in as many years, “Ha ha ha! You’re either very unlucky or very stupid.”

Small talk is fraught with the potential for diplomatic incident. There are other rules I keep meaning to start following. Don’t tell someone they look tired, unless you’re their mother. “Tired” is a euphemism for many things, and none of them is code for “You have a glow like Chrissy Teigen after a three-hour diamond-peel facial.”

Don’t tell anyone – women, actually, as men never seem to get this – to ‘cheer up, love, it may never happen’

Don’t tell anyone – women, actually, as men never seem to get this – to “cheer up, love, it may never happen.” You’ll be familiar with this one if, like me, you have a resting face that falls anything short of Julia Roberts when she discovered the EuroMillions-winning ticket in the pocket of her jeans just as she was about to put them in the wash.

We know we don’t always look pretty when we’re concerned, incredulous, outraged or thinking about the State giving a €300 million maternity hospital to the nuns, or merely stuck in the back of a taxi that reeks of curry and digestive indiscretions. We don’t care. It is not our job to provide your brain with a constant supply of miniature dopamine squirts.

Don’t ask someone where they’re “really” from. While I was living in the United States I noticed that Irish people have an unfortunate habit of not taking anyone’s word for it. If you ask someone where they’re from and they say they’re from Oakland, Oughterard or Outer Mongolia, you have no reason to be suspicious, regardless of the colour of their skin. Repeating the following phrase to yourself can be quite helpful: “I am not the ethnography police.”

Don’t tell anyone to look on the bright side. Whatever they’re facing – death, cancer, a break-up, a miscarriage – they don’t want to hear about the row you just had with your boss, your mild insomnia or your colossal email backlog. It can be tempting to try to find common ground, but resist. There’s a simple, but quite difficult to master, rule in offering comfort to someone in crisis: if what you’re about to say is designed to make things less uncomfortable for you only, don’t say it. Repeat the phrase: “I cannot fix this, and I shouldn’t try.”

Finally, in every context other than medical, lay off the inquiries about other people’s fertility plans. If you really have to know, assume nothing. Ask instead. And take it from someone who had two children within 18 months: humorous comments about their unconventional, or nonexistent, approach to family planning may not be appreciated.

Now go forth and make small talk without fear of becoming an anecdote in someone’s column.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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