My birthday happened recently and a wonderful friend, C, offered to host a dinner party as her gift to me. The guest list included a married couple (the W’s), myself and my date, and C’s older male friend, J, who she invited as her “date”. (There is no romantic involvement between the two.) I’ve had interactions with J in the past that have made me wary of him, but I thought that since C was kind enough to throw the party, I wouldn’t quibble over the guest list.
C is a terrific hostess and she really went all out for this dinner party. The table looked like something out of a magazine and she had obviously put considerable effort into the food. I was enjoying myself very much, until I opened a birthday gift from the W’s. I love to cook and they love to be invited over for dinner, so they gave me a very nice paring knife and a knife sharpener. As I was admiring the gifts, J said “Too bad she’s a cutter!” and I felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room.
For many years, I had issues with depression and self harm. I’m doing much better these days but I am still very self-conscious about the scars on my arm. I don’t know if J has noticed my scars before or if he just thought that he was making a “funny” joke but it made me feel awful.
[I didn't think I should include this because it is such a specific detail, but it felt especially rude given that J is a retired psychiatrist and it seems like he should know better than to make comments of that nature.]
I did my best to keep my composure and not react to the comment, although the W’s noticed that I did not seem enthusiastic about their thoughtful gift. (A few days later, I told them how much I appreciated it and explained why my reaction was so subdued.) I tried to force myself back into good spirits and make the best of it but I just didn’t feel very social after that. I wouldn’t have been able to get a word in edgewise anyways – J thoroughly dominated the conversation for the rest of the evening.
Thankfully, a few days later I had a dinner date with a separate group of friends that gave me some happy birthday memories, but I still hate that a rude person put a damper on what should have been a wonderful gift of an evening. 0625-13
I’ve said it before many times and I’ll be saying many more times in the future–life is populated with people who serve their own egos at the expense of others. Just because J was once a psychiatrist does not mean he has an altruistic desire to help people. I would go so far as to say some people have an unhealthy intention to keep others slightly off balance (it’s a power thing) by saying these kinds of indiscreet, inappropriate comments. They live for the reaction. J, being a retired psychiatrist, wielded his power of expertise by unethically diagnosing you at the dining table in front of other guests and that was his way of keeping you in the subordinate position of patient, victim or survivor for the remainder of the evening.
So, how to respond to this? By becoming aware that people such as J exist and that they have a character flaw which compels them to try to keep everyone else tipped back off balance as a power play, you begin to develop this understanding of what these people are seeking and how to thwart them. You then begin to develop a backbone that says, “I will never allow anyone to achieve satisfaction from my reactions….ever.” You refuse to become a person whose emotions are manipulated to satisfy someone’s need for power or control. If a shocked/sad/horrified reaction was the intention by astonishing remarks, you deprive them of that pleasure with an unexpected reaction. It’s the verbal equivalent of the push back to get the conversation back in balance or even push J off balance.
One reaction is gracious humor. One option for your situation would have been to turn to the gift givers after J’s stupid comment and say with sincerity, sweetness and small smile on your face, “Thank you so much for the lovely set of knives. They will be a welcome addition to my kitchen and I may even practice on J occasionally.”
Ignoring J as if he did not exist and the comment never said is another optional reaction…..you thank the gift givers for the knives, and take control of the conversation by segueing into a discussion of how a good set of knives makes cooking so much easier and how the last time you made roast chicken you had wished you had a good knife to cut it properly (and now you do!), and isn’t cutting up a whole chicken somewhat of a mystery and oh, btw, have you tried that dijon mustard/maple syrup chicken recipe making the rounds on Pinterest? It’s delish! You be the person who rescues the conversation from the awkwardness created by J.
Or you can firmly and CALMLY confront J regarding the inappropriateness of his comment. “Good heavens, J, what on earth are you talking about? Mr. and Mrs. W, thank you so much for the knives. You have given good tools to increase my culinary skills in the kitchen.” I’m not in favor of this last possible option because J,being a pompous man, will feel challenged to defend his comments and that may be a reaction he wants to get so that he can flex his verbal muscles more. Unless you have a backbone of steel and a firm grasp of how to take command of a conversation, this would not be a first option to consider.
Btw, OP, if C really was the spectacular hostess, she would have recognized the awkwardness J’s comment injected into the gathering and taken steps to minimize it or dispel the awkwardness as a kindness to all her guests. A great host/ess takes command of the atmosphere of their event and does not allow other guests to negatively impact that atmosphere of convivial pleasantness.