I’m a big fan of Miss Conduct over at the Boston Globe, and she got a question recently that comes up a lot in advice columns and spaces like this one:
I am disabled by an incurable disease. On the outside, I appear OK. But on the inside, I am slowly dying. People ask me what I do for work. When I say I am disabled, they seem to require a further explanation. I would like to keep my affliction private, so I would like an appropriate response. J.M. / Essex
Here’s how she responded:
J.M., I am in awe of your courage. But you probably don’t want people to be in awe of your courage, or shamed by your stoicism, or inspired by your grace, do you? You probably just want to be J.M. from Essex, who can bloody well make small talk like everyone else. What else are you doing besides tending your illness as best you can? If you’re well enough that people don’t realize you are sick and well enough to write to me, you are probably engaged in some kind of activity – crafts, reading, going to movies, listening to music, following sports. People aren’t prying into your work or health situation, necessarily; they’re probably only looking for some conversational fodder. So give it to them: “I’m not working right now because I’m dealing with some health problems – that I’m really tired of talking about! But I’ve been listening to books on tape lately and really getting into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Have you ever read those?” (or whatever is appropriate for your interests). If people keep pushing (most won’t), repeat that you’re not interested in discussing work or health, but how ’bout them Sox? If they still pry, say, “I think I left the oven on” (or some similarly nonsensical excuse) and wander off.
Now, there are some things in this response that make me a little tingly in an irked way, but that’s not actually why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post because, well, y’all are pretty awesome when it comes to crowdsourcing solutions and ideas, and I’ve got two questions for you:
- Have you/do you use conversational redirections like changing the subject, ignoring the question, etc., and if so, has it worked/does it work?
- How do you deal with situations like these where people believe that your disability makes you a subject for open quizzing and discussion?
And, a followup, because this is something I always have trouble with: What exactly is ‘small talk’?