At my age, you'd think I'd know better: that I'd learned to stop saying things inadvertently that could be seen as insulting, embarrassing and stupid. Well, you'd think wrong. Sure, the number of foot-in-mouth incidents have dropped over the years, but that's not the result of social and language development. It's because I limit contact to people who wouldn't be offended by my forays into verbal doo-doo. My thick-skinned social circle has been downsized to about 14: husband, four co-workers, one neighbor, three friends, two relatives and, if I'm lucky, all three of my children (which is dependant on recent incidents of mortification).
Sticking my foot in it is a strong, unfortunate instinct that I tapped into this past weekend. My family went to the grand opening of a sprawling art community. At the entrance of the first gallery, we were met by a woman in a black artist smock, to whom I declared, "It smells like Subway in here!" Gasping, the woman replied, "Aw, come on, it's better than that."
Husband quickly ushered me away, mumbling: "I cannot believe you said that."
Husband: "That woman was a chef."
Me, condescendingly: "Honey, she's an artist. Didn't you see her smock?"
Husband: "That was a chef's jacket."
Me: "How was I supposed to know?"
Husband: "Because it said 'C-H-E-F' on it. And she was holding a platter of food."
Son, talking as if I weren't there: "She actually said it smelled like fast food!"
Husband: "Hey, I thought she said, 'It smells like a subway', so she's getting better."
The encounter made me take stock of my gaffe resume. The biggest section is Common Blunders, which includes, "Hi, Jennifer, is Mommy home?" to Jennifer's adolescent brother and "You're in your seventh month, right?" to a non-pregnant woman. Then there's the Significant Damage area, which contains these tidbits:
• Fall, 1998: To husband's aunt, whom I just met, "Looks like you're in the middle of painting over that hideous orange!" Turns out she was in the middle of painting WITH the hideous orange.
• May, 2005: Flight attendant wouldn't allow son to unbuckle to use restroom, so I said loudly, "He is going to have an ACCIDENT!" Note: Son was 18 years old ... and is finally speaking to me again.
• July, 2000: On a hot day, in an attempt to break into a soccer mom clique seeking shade under a single umbrella, I said to all, "Hey, you all look like a bunch of cows standing under one tree!"
My friend Kathryn shares my foot-in-mouth affliction. She recently told me a story that involved her father, from whom she inherited the gift of gaffe. When Kathryn was 14, her older brother invited his girlfriend's parents for dinner at the family's home. It was the first meeting for both sets of parents. Although the young couple canceled at the last minute, the girlfriend's parents came nonetheless.
Shortly after they arrived, Kathryn's father came home from a long day's work and was rushed into the living room to host while his wife fixed appetizers. Somewhat disoriented, he had forgotten who the guests were. Hopeful for a subject to discuss with these strangers, he asked where they were from. "Oh, that's where my son lives with his new girlfriend." He continued with unflattering stories that included words like "horrid," "floozy" and "doomed relationship," concluding his diatribe by asking the stunned couple how they suggest he "encourage his son to end it all."
Kathryn, "transfixed at the train wreck," said her mother finally entered the room with cheese puffs and belated introductions. Her father, "after a look of shock and pain crossed his face, recovered by pretending it had all been his little joke."
To Kathryn, this riotous faux pas is a family heirloom. Maybe someday, my social ineptitudes might, too, live long and prosper. As a way of thanking Kathryn for sharing this story and giving me perspective, I plan on taking her out to lunch. Where else: Subway.
[September 30, 2009]
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