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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Curbing the Familiar Smart Mouth

When and how to answer back.

January 25, 2015

Nearly 20 years ago, I overheard my brother describing me to his then-girlfriend (now wife): "She has a good heart, but she doesn't suffer fools gladly." Fortunately, my sister-in-law is neither a fool nor easily scared off, and we are good friends. But I was surprised by his description and thought about it for a long time.

I have always had a "smart mouth" (as my brother does; as our father did), and it's true that I can lose patience and say sharp things. My surprise had to do with the importance my brother placed on that particular characteristic. If he was going to mention only two things about me, and one was (appropriately, I felt) my "good heart," why wasn't the other "she loves animals," "she has perfect relative pitch," "she reads all the time," or another quality that his girlfriend might be able to relate to? This sounded more like a warning.

So I asked my brother about it, and ended up talking to other friends as well. The consensus was that I could be a little scary sometimes. I am physically small and soft spoken, and I smile a lot, which apparently lulls people into the belief that I am a pushover. I don't push back often, but when I do, it is a surprise, made worse by the fact that everyone else in the room usually ends up laughing at the pushee.

I had never thought of myself as "scary," or my comebacks as hurtful, and I worked after that to modify my behavior. I have tried to channel my sharp remarks into fiction writing, sketch writing and improv.

I thought I was doing pretty well, both offline and on — not that I didn't still get annoyed, but I tried to confine my retorts, when they erupted, to the other person's behavior. I thought that was good enough. But then I read this exchange (for those who have requested link warnings: the source is Daily Kos, and it contains racist language).

After I read it I decided to try imagining that everyone whose words or behavior annoys me is a motherless 14-year-old. And in a way this is probably accurate — we all say and do stupid and annoying things, and these tend to spring from old, unhealed wounds to the heart.

A friend who had made a similar vow reported that a few hours later, he was attacked on Twitter and "went straight to sarcasm." I lasted a little longer, but this morning someone at my gym (apparently assuming because of my gray hair and wrinkles that I was a kindred spirit) made a nasty remark about another person's tattoo, and about the "ridiculousness" of tattoos in general. If I had been the goddess linked to above, I would have taken time to talk about diversity and tolerance, the cultural significance of tattoos, and the importance of respecting other people's decisions regarding their own bodies. Instead, I said, "Well, I guess he didn't get it to please you, did he?" and walked away.

So, two days before a lapse. And I felt afterward as though I had eaten an apple that turned out to be rotten — which is a good thing, because with luck the memory will make me more patient next time.

I don't know if that kid is real. He sounds real to me, but he could be an expert meta-troll. The writer's responses are beautiful in either case, and ones I am going to strive to emulate.


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