Tactless remarks cloaked in concern

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

A hurtful remark could be uttered not out of a mean spirit but out of stupidity or concern

Excuse me, is that a foot in your mouth?

Straightforward taunts are nasty, but tactless words which come cloaked with a smile - oh, just joking, oh, just concerned - are nearly as bad.

And then there are tactless words which come with contrition and are cloaked as clarification.

In a recent incident which had some people in Singapore yelling "WT…" at their screens, WTA commentator Kevin Skinner signed off saying "goodbye from China" during the tennis singles final in Singapore.

Hanlon's Razor, a saying commonly summarised as "Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice", probably applies here. Here is a more blunt saying: "cock-up before conspiracy".

So it was a simple cock-up. No dark intentions, I think.

It was actually his apology on Twitter which came with a bit of a kick.

He tweeted: "I made a serious mistake. I signed off saying Singapore 11x & said China once. This is not acceptable. I apologize to those I have offended."

He removed his foot from his mouth, only to put it in again 11x more.

How much of tactlessness is just an honest opinion with no harm meant though?

Name an awful thought and it has probably crossed my awful mind and, occasionally, fallen out of my awful mouth.

But if I let those thoughts come hurtling out of my mouth freely and I said everything I truly thought of everyone, their ears would be on fire.

We can be factually correct and socially wrong at the same time.

Some people defended the staff member who wrote "Pink Fat Lady" on a Pizza Hut Singapore receipt by saying the person is just being factual and, in comments left on online reports of the incident, said the customer's appearance is to blame.

Some even gave her unsolicited dietary advice - hey lady, like quit eating the fast food, lady.

If scribbling "Pink Fat Lady" is putting a foot wrong, these later comments trample over the customer. All in the name of "oh, just being factually correct".

I have always wondered why it is considered somewhat acceptable in Singapore to greet people by exclaiming, "You've gained weight!"

A query cloaked with concern.

If this is asked out of concern, then try and read the expression of the person this is aimed at.

After all, one is already scrutinising the person's belly and behind. Lift the gaze a little higher and look into her eyes.

Does she look delighted with your concern? Relaxed? How lucky for everyone - she really is not bothered by it.

Does she have a somewhat fake smile on her face and a well-rehearsed jokey reply rising to her lips?

Is there nothing else to talk about?

Yak about the plus-sized Apple iPhone if size matters so much to you. Go big on how flawless your own body is. Whatever it is, don't go on to exclaim the very unwelcome "You look tired" too.

Sometimes, tactlessness comes cloaked in the form of a compliment.

Someone once said that single women are better at their jobs because they are not distracted by marriage.

The people I was with were silent for a while, probably digesting how, in the elegant economy of one sentence couched in a perverted form of praise, the person trampled comprehensively on women.

Females apparently have too little brain power to focus on more than one thing at a time.

If they are single and therefore can have nothing meaningful to occupy their time, they can hurl themselves into work to excel at it, or if they are married and therefore must be meaningfully occupied, they do not have much mental capacity left to be brilliant at work.

And then, there is the kind of tactlessness that come with gloves off.

There was that dentist who chose to put his foot in his mouth even as he put dental instruments into mine.

"Isn't it a waste of time?" he said of an organisation that I was with.

How was I supposed to respond to that? (But, seriously, I could not reply because my teeth were being worked on.)

Tactlessness cloaked as friendly chit-chat is powerful because it kicks you when your defences are down.

We are not revved up to fight during social occasions, even though people say things like, "You're the only person in the room who does not have a child" or "Oh, is that what you are feeding your pet? I do that only if I'm desperate."

We can immediately show that we are not pleased by glaring at the person while issuing our counter-argument.

The baleful human glare is a dam against the tide of tactlessness.

But over on social media and in the comments section of websites, which is all about mouthiness and facelessness, it is normal to expect tactlessness despite a good amount of intelligent, thoughtful remarks.

We now mentally steel ourselves against tactless remarks and childish fights before clicking on comments sections.

So excuse me if I don't ask whether that's a foot in your mouse.

denise@sph.com.sg