Rx for Foot-in-Mouth Disease

What should you do when you feel like bursting the cartoon bubble over your colleague’s head? Or your own? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Maria Shine Stewart prescribes.

December 16, 2011

“You know, Maria, the hardest part of this business is compliance,” my internist shared with me of the practice of medicine, closing the door to his office. He was sharing an insight, establishing rapport on a point tangential to my reason for being there -- or maybe not so tangential after all. What brought me to his practice in the first place was meeting a couple at a health fair on campus who were pleased with their experiences with him. Word gets out when someone is kind -- or isn’t.

I am not a doctor, I don’t play one on TV, and  I do not operate under the illusion that one can “erase all of the unpleasantness from the world,” as a commenter on my previous column put it. Even though I carry a pad (a notepad), any prescriptions here to boost kindness are tentative and the proof of their efficacy -- or lack of it -- is up to the individual to determine.

There is research in many disciplines (communication, nursing, sociology, education, and business among them) to support the effects of civility, the power of empathy and the impact of social modeling of any behavior. For me, a lot is at stake as I ponder the continuum of crassness to cruelty.  What the world needs now may not be as elusive as love but rather as accessible as goodwill. William Stafford offers a call to authentic communication in “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” In Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart the psychiatrist Mark Epstein suggests that one’s awareness might extend beyond one’s neurosis. Stretching that clever, alliterative phrase, I feel that kinder possibilities might extend past rougher boundaries, if we dare. Our kindness might transcend our callousness.

Yes, we all have bad moments on otherwise good days and might tip a wayward foot into an open mouth now and then (a troubling image unless the cutest baby is doing it). A simple list of do’s or don’ts cannot address the imprecise art of being human or humane. Evidence offered here is strictly anecdotal and so much depends upon … context. Seven snippets from my formulary follow, and when in doubt, check with your own best tact-adviser.

I. Rx: The reverse of eloquent is tneuqole. Turn around a true glitch as quickly as you can.

For example: “You got that right!”

It was a sticky late-afternoon class, one of the first I ever taught. Why I accented you, I have no idea. It was not my intention to embarrass the student.. Quickly, I added that I meant, “That’s a great answer!” She was often off-course in comments, but remained an ebullient participator, even after this encounter. Watch out for fatigue, new teachers.

II. Rx: Tread carefully when making assumptions about someone’s body.

Assumptions as in:  “When is that baby of yours due?”

I had stopped by an office with a manuscript while working as an editor/writer following graduate school, and was greeted with that comment by a dean. After a pregnant pause, I offered that my son had been born a full four months before. True gentleman, this administrator, kind enough to be flustered, insisted that he was “often the last to know what was happening on campus.”

He was out of the larger loop even as my waistline was still ensconced in it.

A friend at a literary gathering reported to me after intermission a woman praising another friend she had not seen for some time on her weight loss.

“I have cancer” was the reply.

III. Rx: Blunt can be funny -- laugh if you can.

Inciting comment: “The food is good, but the music is terrible.”

From a relative outside academia, this unsolicited remark at my wedding is included here as our two musicians (we were on a strict budget) included an author of textbooks -- a professor by day/musician by night and also on a strict budget. Jazz was not to this aunt’s taste, though. As my husband and I flitted from table to table stunned that we had pulled this event off at all – and initiating our careers as both party-planners and family mediators – we stared in disbelief, then laughed.

IV. Rx: Refrain from admonitions for others to smile (laugh, cry…?)

Famous writer visiting campus, after lubricated lunch: “Smile, for heaven’s sake, would you smile already!”

I am blessed with a downturned mouth; a plaintive look I can disguise -- or not. I was heading to a reading by a legend with a reputation for an acerbic wit and had been warned that he sometimes provokes the audience. As fate would have it, the genius crossed my path en route. When I opted not to step into the packed elevator of admirers around the artist, all in the jolly mood of those with full bellies and lowered inhibitions, he didn’t miss a beat.

 “I didn’t even smile in my wedding pictures,” I replied, emboldened by the elevator snapping shut. Short of commenting on my hair -- “Flatten it down… would you flatten it down already?”  -- the visiting writer couldn’t have chosen my signature feature with any more acuity.

 “Oh, he really is a very nice man,” a woman carrying a box of books said to me, following me up the stairs to the reading. “I’m his wife.”

V. Rx: Temper some absolute statements.

As in: “Don’t smile before midterms!”

Prof. X uttered this as a powerful mantra and in a booming voice. Maybe two-thirds of what he told us could be marked with exclamation points. We were sweaty-palmed graduate assistants clustered at early morning boot camp, preparing to teach for the first time. And he meant well, not wanting us, in novice status, to be taken advantage of. But smiling appropriately can be calming and rapport-building; there are various strategies for ushering new teachers into the classroom without inducing wimp-effect.

VI. Rx: Sometimes a simple nod is sufficient. Say less; listen more.

Blooper: “You’re still here, Maria? Oh! I shouldn’t have said that!”

Her shout-out (in a strong voice) echoed across three or four rows in an auditorium. This former campus staple herself had flown the coop to fame and glory elsewhere. She was back to attend a literary reading, as were many in the campus and community. Was  longevity -- in her mind -- the kiss of death at that institution? I don’t know, but I do know that heads rotated to look at me, maybe thinking “long-time loser” versus “mover-and-shaker reappearing on campus.” But wait. Most of the auditorium themselves were still employed by the same institution. Longevity doesn’t mean deadweight, loafer, drudge.

VII. Rx: Create a bridge, even if you disagree. See Carl Rogers’s assertion of the need for common ground.

From chronic foot-in-mouther: “You can’t be a secretary after earning your graduate degree. That’s demeaning.”

This remark came from someone I had served well in that capacity. And it seemed that everyone on campus – from top administrators to struggling students -- had stories about this individual’s incivility and incessant demands. I was dumbstruck by the comment and even now have no snappy comeback. “Well, working as a secretary is not demeaning, even if I learned from you how not to behave” has no flair. Which brings me to my final prescription.

VIII. Rx: A perfect gift for the (un)kind of person who has everything.

Announced here for the first time: The tactometer (pronounced tact-o-meter). A device that measures tact.

What if we could pull from our pockets a scientific-looking, candy-bar-sized scanner -- maybe even an easy app on a  phone -- that could, as on Star Trek, discern the energy field of a recent comment instantaneously to measure tact? It would be objective. If the person sped out of sight after making a remark, one might feed in a few words. A spectroscopic image or a numerical reading or a verbal code would appear on the screen, and why not all three.

“Bright red! On the scale of tact, you just earned a 2/100! Not so good!”

In short, it could be a mindfulness tool in gauging the tact of others.

And, for that matter, I could use it on myself.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


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