When We Overhear Distasteful Opinions

by admin on September 22, 2014

My husband and I recently attended a birthday party for our 4 year old nephew. It took place in a large backyard. There were a lot of people and everyone was having a great time.

There were small tables set up in the yard. My husband, our 16-month-old and I were sitting at one table eating dinner. A few feet away were three women. It was Fay, her 17 year old daughter Mary, and another woman I had not met. I know Fay and Mary as they had been at numerous family gatherings. My husband and I are not related to her.

Our tables were close enough together that it was impossible to not overhear their conversation, although nobody else was close enough to do so. They started discussing Fay’s job, which led into her mentioning a certain religious group always causes problems for her. As I am part of this religious group (Judaism – I am not sure if you want to include that or not), I was surprised at what I heard. The women then spent about 10 minutes talking about how “disgusting” people of this religion are, how they can’t stand them, and they are always the most difficult people to deal with. They also discussed many fallacies about the religion (sex through a sheet, etc.).

This whole experience was very upsetting to me and I was nearly in tears. I did not say anything because I did not feel that a 4 year old’s birthday party was the time or place. My husband agreed that I should stay silent.

My questions are: Did I do the right thing in staying quiet, or should I have politely informed them that I am part of that religion and find their comments highly offensive?

Do I discuss what happened with my sister-in-law? They are her family members and I do not want to upset her, but I do feel uncomfortable about being around them in the future. I had not originally planned on telling her. It should be mentioned that she is a wonderfully sweet person and would be devastated that something so upsetting had happened.

Thanks for your help!   0819-14

Had you said something to Fay you would have acknowledged that you were eavesdropping on their conversation whether you intended to do so or not.   Just because we may be placed in situations where we hear things we’d rather not does not mean you need to pay attention to it.   The presumption most people have is that their conversation is private and if it happens to be overheard, that unintentional hearers will, at least, pretend to have not heard it.  And you are correct that a 4-year-old’s birthday party is not the time for a confrontation on religious differences.

Judaism is not the only religion to  suffer from stereotypes and hatred.  Religion is not the only area of life in which people have negative opinions and stereotypes.  The point being that there are a lot of ugly opinions about a lot of things out there and a large part of learning to live a happy life is to recognize the badness, realize you cannot singlehandedly change all the badness in the world, don’t perpetuate any new badness, bide one’s time to speak out about badness when the circumstances favor it and, finally, never let someone else’s badness ruin your happiness.

As I understand it,  your sister-in-law is your husband’s sister, not yours.  I’m a firm believer that any information that has the potential to blow up one side of the family should be addressed by the spouse whose family is causing the drama.   That means it falls to your husband to use his discretion as to if, when and what he would say to his sister regarding the inclusion of guests to his family’s functions that hold obnoxious opinions.

As for you, I would never let the distasteful opinions of someone else dictate my relationships or actions.  If you love your sister-in-law, keep attending her family functions but now you know who the snake in the family grass is and you are under no obligation to get friendly with Fay.  Civil, yes, but bosom pals, no.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

MPW September 23, 2014 at 9:26 pm

I have an uncle who has a wonderful wife, but some not-so-wonderful sisters and even worse husbands to those sisters. I endure their indirect comments (like the OP, but make no mistake that they are not intended to be private) – no matter how bad they may be – when I am a guest at my uncle’s house. It’s not my place to admonish them there, and it would be rude of me to disturb the peace when I am an invited guest. I leave the area and ensure that I stay out of earshot. I’m not going to change their little minds, and I don’t have the time or energy to even try.

Being polite also means having respect for your host.

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MichelleP September 24, 2014 at 10:37 am

Pktaxwench, your post is absurd. The OP was not eavesdropping, and even if their vile comments aren’t true it is offensive.

I am a Southerner and am sick of hearing generalizations about them. I usually ignore it, but relatives at a child’s birthday party spewing filth where it could be heard?? No, no, no. I would have calmly responded like other posters have suggested; coldly stated that they were being overheard and I was of the faith that they were discussing. Then just calmly walk away, and avoid.

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SamiHami September 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm

It was a party setting where many people were gathered. The people were speaking loud enough to easily be overheard. This is by no means eavesdropping and it would not have been inappropriate for you to say something. I would suggest something along these lines:

“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help overhearing your comments on people of the Jewish faith. As one, I am so sorry that you evidently have met a few jerks who just happen to be Jewish! But I just want to assure you that those people are jerks because they are jerks, not because they are Jewish. Oh, and it sounds like you have a lot of wrong ideas about what Jewish people do. We certainly don’t do the “sex through a sheet” thing (LOL!) nor do we (name whatever else she said that was false.)” I would then finish up with “You know, you might find it interesting to learn more about us, so you don’t accidently say things that aren’t true.” You could then have mentioned a book or website possibly that has factual information.

At best she might learn something and lose her bigoted views. At worst she might learn to think before she speaks next time she is in a group with people she doesn’t already know.

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JackieJormpJomp September 25, 2014 at 12:21 am

“distasteful opinion”?
Some things are just racism and bigotry. Agreed with the OP that maybe a kid’s party is not the place, but dignity help us all when full out bigotry is considered “distasteful opinion” and we should just politely cluck tongues.
No way.

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admin September 29, 2014 at 8:51 am

The self righteous sanctimony of some people in these comments is somewhat amusing. I can guarantee each and every person holds a “distasteful opinion” about another religion or group of people.

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Enna September 29, 2014 at 12:06 pm

I have a negative view of racists: they are narrow minded!

Admin, you make a good point that we should look at our own prejudice/s. As an indvidual we don’t have to agree with a religion but we don’t have to be nasty about it either.

I remember bumping into some Mormon Missionaries once in my local town. I explained to them that I am a Quaker, that I think Mormons are good people, that the missionaries are good people – but the faith is not something I can follow or believe in. It’s the same with the Jehovah Wittnesses who knock on the door. There’s no need to be mean.

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AthenaC September 25, 2014 at 10:19 am

I have a suggestion for next time (assuming there is a next time). After you overhear something antisemitic, you could pull them aside a few minutes later and say something like, “Do you have a cousin that attends X synagogue? I met someone new there the other day and they looked just like you.” When they say that no, they don’t have any relatives that attend X synagogue, if you REALLY feel like making them uncomfortable, you can say, “Oh, well, I thought you might, since I thought I overheard you say something about being Jewish.”

Then just look on with polite concern while they squirm.

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Angie October 1, 2014 at 3:29 am

I totally understand the OP’s problem in saying anything. It isn’t like, when you confront a bigot, they suddenly say “Oh, wow, you are so right that my views are wrong…thanks for pointing that out to me!” They usually get upset and/or angry about you butting in and often a confrontation often follows. I don’t even know that a statement such as “Well, I’m Jewish” would have helped either (except that at the next family gathering they likely would have sat further away from you…which is likely a good thing). All of the logic in the world doesn’t change bigotry. Relationships and life experience often can.

I don’t even know if saying anything to SIL would help. She doesn’t control what her family thinks and it may just cause her a bunch of anxiety about the next gathering that she cannot help.

If anything, I would have leaned over to the table and said “I don’t know if you know, but your conversation is a bit loud.” and then moved on with what I was doing.

I’m not saying that one shouldn’t confront bigotry. But there is a time and a place and a child’s birthday party is not the place.

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Lady Catford October 5, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Anything said in a ‘public’ place is public. Eavesdropping is not listening to someone speaking in a public place. Eavesdropping, by definition, is a hidden someone listening to a conversation being held in a private place.
The op was not eavesdropping. As one poster said, “voices carry”
In Canada we have a law regarding racial bigotry, it is called defamation and it is illegal.

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admin October 6, 2014 at 1:51 am

You are incorrect. The US legal definition of a “private communications” is one that “takes place where one may reasonably expect to be safe from casual or hostile intrusion or surveillance, but such term does not include a place to which a substantial group of the public has access.” The OP made it quite clear that no one else except she and her husband were in hearing distance of this conversation. It was therefore not in a public place and the women had a reasonable expectation that their conversation was private.

And second, you don’t get the laws of Canada correct either. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hate_speech_laws_in_Canada For hate speech to be illegal in Canada, it must promote a genocidal hatred.

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