What Not to Say to Other People, Even if You Mean Well

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We’ve all done it…unintentionally offended someone with our seemingly innocent question or comment. Over the years, I have discovered many things NOT to say. As a very curious and fairly awkward person, I have learned many of these lessons the hard way. It’s not that I’m a jerk; I just didn’t know any better. Wouldn’t it have been nice if I had known what not to say, so I didn’t have to embarrass myself and hurt other people along the way? That’s why I’ve compiled this list of 35 things not to say, even if you mean well.

Things to avoid saying to other people

Avoid saying these rude things! (Photo credit: creatista, Depositphotos.com)

I’m using the word “they” throughout this story to mean he or she because it’s more all-encompassing. 

Table of Contents

What Not to Say About How People Look

1. What’s wrong with you?

Why: My friend, Cory from Curb Free with Cory Lee, uses a wheelchair and this is the question he finds most annoying. I can’t imagine anyone would like to be asked, “What’s wrong with you?” — no matter the intention.

What say instead: “What disability do you have?” Obviously, this should not be anywhere near the first thing you ask a person, either. Another tip: don’t crouch down to talk to someone in a wheelchair because it can seem like you’re treating the wheelchair user like a child. If needed due to a noisy environment, then bend instead.

Man in wheelchair with standing woman

No one wants to be asked, “What’s wrong with you?” Photo credit: AllaSerebrina, Depositphotos.com)

2. Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?

Why: Often, this question is asked to people of color in the U.S. and it implies that only white people can be Americans.

What to say instead: “What is your family heritage?” Still, this may be taken as an insult. As a travel nut, I admit I have often asked people of various ethnicities (including Caucasian) about their heritage to spur a discussion about our global community. To be on the safe side, however, I now avoid asking this question until I get to know the person fairly well.

American Asian woman

Americans come in all shades (Photo credit: Syda_Productions, Depositphotos.com)

3. Is that your real eye color (or hair color)?

Why: I had a friend in high school who had gorgeous strawberry blond hair and striking bright green eyes. Not only did people ask her if these features were real, but also, they would then accuse her of lying! Some people even asked her to move her contact lenses with her finger to prove that her eye color was natural. People do not need to defend their looks. Also, if someone’s eye or hair color is not natural (or they’re wearing extensions or a wig), then this comes across as an insult — like you’re “outing” them. Worse yet would be asking if someone’s teeth or boobs are real. Yikes.

What to say instead: “You have such beautiful eyes (or hair)!”

Compliment beautiful features but don't ask if they're real

Compliment beautiful features but don’t ask if they’re real (Photo credit: duskbabe, Depositphotos.com)

4. Can I touch your (or your child’s) hair?

Why: This one I must admit I’ve done many times, unfortunately. I absolutely love ringlet or thick, silky hair since mine is thin and bone-straight. When I was in my teens and 20s, I often played with the hair of friends or acquaintances blessed with a gorgeous set of locks. Although I don’t think I have ever said this to a black person, I have since learned this question is quite offensive to people of color. It makes people feel “other” and as though you are treating them and their hair like an object. Plus, some people don’t like others touching them, particularly individuals they don’t know very well. This is especially true for parents — don’t make a mama or daddy feel defensive by trying to touch their child’s hair!

What to say instead: “You have beautiful hair!”

Yes, her hair is beautiful. No, you may not touch it

Yes, her hair is beautiful. No, you may not touch it. (Photo credit: sam741002, Depositphotos.com)

5. You’re so skinny. Or short. Or tall. Or whatever.

Why: People know what they look like. They know that they’re very skinny or have some other noticeable feature. Someone’s appearance may seem unusual to you, but it’s not unusual to them. Not only is it just an obvious fact, but you could also make the person feel like a freak just for being unique! When it comes to a person’s weight, you never know if that person is struggling with an eating disorder or medical condition. You might find that attribute appealing but pointing it out sounds…weird.

What to say instead: Nothing.

People come in different shapes and sizes -- and you don't need to point it out

People come in different shapes and sizes — and you don’t need to point it out (Photo credit: Kostudio, Depositphotos.com)

6. Do you play basketball? (To a very tall person)

Why: I had a boyfriend once who was 6’10”. Everywhere we went, someone would exclaim to him, “You’re so tall. Do you play (professional) basketball?” I wasn’t the one being asked, and I only dated him for a few months, but this line of questioning got tiresome even for me. Just because someone’s body is built a certain way, it does not mean that person has a natural talent or interest in a specific sport. Also, if the person does not play basketball, then this question implies there is something is deficient with them simply for not having that skill.

What to say instead: Nothing.

Not all tall people play basketball

Not all tall people play basketball (Photo credit: XiXinXing, Depositphotos.com)

7. How old are you?

Why: Really, everyone should know better than to ask an adult their age, unless you’re their doctor or bartender. While we’re on the subject, it drives me CRAZY when someone (usually a young man) asks for my I.D. when I’m buying an alcoholic drink and then he makes a joke about me looking 21, which is obviously not the case. They want me to find this flattering, but I find it patronizing. I get it. I’m old.

What to say instead: “What year did you graduate high school?” Or, ahem, nothing.

Only ask an adult's age if you're a bartender or a doctor

Only ask an adult’s age if you’re a bartender or a doctor (Photo credit: Sepy, Depositphotos.com)

8. When are you due?

Why: Almost everyone has made this mistake at some point: asked a woman who is not pregnant when her baby is due. Some women have a belly that might be mistaken for a baby bump. One of my former coworkers was asked this question a few months after she had given birth. She replied, “Four months ago. My baby’s with her dad over there.” Or, a woman might be wearing a shirt that looks like maternity clothing. In any case, it will make the woman you asked feel terrible and cause your skin to burn with embarrassment. Almost worse, the woman may be pregnant but not ready to tell anyone yet.

What to say instead: Even if the woman looks like she’s 11 months pregnant, say NOTHING.

Don't ask a woman if she is pregnant. Ever.

Don’t ask a woman if she is pregnant. Ever. (Photo credit: vadimphoto1@gmail.com, Depositphotos.com)

9. Smile! (Or, even worse, you’d look prettier if you smiled!)

Why: Men tell women to smile as a form of control. Women do not exist to look pretty and happy for men. She may have just gotten some horrible news or may be feeling sick. This is the ultimate condescending man move.

What to say instead: Nothing.

Hey guys - don't tell women to smile!

Hey guys – don’t tell women to smile! (Photo credit: TatyanaGl, Depositphotos.com)

What Not to Say About Marriage and Relationships

10. When will you start trying (to have kids)?

Why: This question opens the door to someone else’s bedroom. Their sex life is none of your business.

What to say instead: Nothing. Just. Don’t.

Other people's sex lives are none of your business

Other people’s sex lives are none of your business (Photo credit: Maridav, Depositphotos.com)

11. Is this your first marriage?

Why: It implies that there’s something wrong with getting married at a specific age, or worse, that there is something deficient about the person who’s getting married later in life. Plus, it takes away from the specialness of the new engagement or marriage. The focus should be on the current love of that person’s life, not a past partner.

What to say instead: “Congratulations on your upcoming (or recent) nuptials!”

Middle aged bride and groom

Celebrate the happy couple (Photo credit: Kryzhov, Depositphotos.com)

12. How did you not know? (About a cheating or gay partner)

Why: This person is dealing with a traumatic life event. What they need is support, not blame. This question suggests the person is foolish for not seeing clues or warning signs.

What to say instead: “It’s so hard to discover something like this. Do you want to talk about it?”

Woman telling a woman a secret

Learning a secret about a romantic partner is hard enough without blame from others (Photo credit: Wavebreakmedia, Depositphotos.com)

13. Are you going to convert?

Why: I was raised Christian and when my Jewish husband and I first got engaged, many of his friends asked me if I was planning to convert to his religion. (Strangely, no one ever asked him this same question. I’m not sure if that’s due to sexism or cultural expectation.) In any case, I found this highly annoying. One’s faith is a very personal choice. If a person wants to convert to another religion, then they’ll let you know when they’re ready.

What to say instead: “Congratulations on your engagement (or marriage)!”

Couples with different religious backgrounds don't need pressure from outsiders to convert

Couples with different religious backgrounds don’t need pressure from outsiders to convert (Photo credit: photovs, Depositphotos.com)

14. Who is the man or woman in your relationship?

Why: Oh, this question is such an irritating example of straight people trying to put gay people into a straight box. Masculinity and femininity exist on a spectrum.

What to say instead: “Tell me more about your partner.”

Gay male couple laughing

Gay people don’t necessarily fit into hetero-norms (Photo credit: oneinchpunch, Depositphotos.com)

What Not Say During an Argument

14. Calm down!

Why: It never works. Telling someone to calm down is a sure way to send their agitation to a whole new level.

What to say instead: “I understand that you’re very upset about X. What can I do to help?”

Telling someone to calm down usually has the opposite effect

Telling someone to calm down usually has the opposite effect (Photo credit: SolidPhotos, Depositphotos.com)

15. I’m sorry you feel that way.

Why: This is condescension wrapped up like an apology. You’re not sorry that you did something wrong. Rather, you’re upset that the other person is silly enough to be offended.

What to say instead: “I’m sorry that I did X. That was wrong of me because Y. Next time, I’ll do Z instead.”

Don't give fake apologies

Don’t give fake apologies (Photo credit: monkeybusiness, Depositphotos.com)

What Not to Say About Parenthood

16. Why don’t you have children?

Why: If kids were desired, then this may be a painful topic. Some people don’t find the right partner, or they have experienced fertility issues, and they probably don’t want to discuss such things with a stranger or casual acquaintance. On the other hand, if the person has chosen not to have children, then they could feel judged by your question and no one likes feeling judged! Some people don’t want to have kids, and that’s a perfectly valid choice.

What to say instead: “Do you have any siblings or nieces and nephews?”

Other people's fertility journey and choices are none of your business

Other people’s fertility journey and choices are private issues (Photo credit: Wavebreakmedia, Depositphotos.com)

17. Were you hoping for a boy (or girl)?

Why: This question is typically asked of parents who already have one or more child of the opposite sex. It implies that the child they got is not the one they wanted. Worse yet is, “Aww! You didn’t get your girl (or boy)!”

What to say instead: “Congratulations on the new addition to your family!”

Parents with four girls

A baby is a blessing, no matter its gender (Photo credit: Kzenon, Depositphotos.com)

18. You sure have your hands full!

Why: This is something people usually say to a parent as they struggle to accomplish some task or calm a child in public. It’s not helpful and it sounds judgmental. Plus, when someone’s hands are full, the last thing they need is to make chitchat with some onlooker.

What to say instead: “Can I open that door for you?” Or, nothing.

This dad's hands are full. And he knows it. You don't need to tell him.

This dad’s hands are full. And he knows it. You don’t need to tell him. (Photo credit: svitlana10, Depositphotos.com)

19. Are your twins identical?

Why: This one is probably alright to ask of parents with children who are the same gender. But a boy and a girl cannot be genetically identical for obvious reasons. Also, this question implies that identical siblings are superior to fraternal multiples. This is often punctuated by the noticeably disappointed response of the asker.

What to do instead: Notice whether the children are the same gender before making this faux pas (not that people need to dress their kids according to sex!). Be sure to exclaim joy at the response, either way.

Umm...boys and girls CANNOT be identical!

Umm…boys and girls CANNOT be identical! (Photo credit: katrinaelena, Depositphotos.com)

20. Are your triplets natural? (Or did you conceive your multiples naturally?)

Why: This question suggests that using fertility treatments or IVF creates “unnatural” children. It’s also none of your business how anyone conceived their children.

What to say instead: “Do multiples run in your family?” Better yet, say nothing.

Triplets are a miracle regardless of how they were conceived!

Triplets are a miracle regardless of how they were conceived! (Photo credit: Pirotehnik, Depositphotos.com)

What Not to Say About Adoption

21. Have you ever met your real mom or dad?

Why: One of my best friends is adopted. People often refer to the parents who raised her as her “adoptive” parents and her birth parents as her “real” parents. Her mom and dad raised her. As an adult, she has developed a relationship with her birth mother and birth father. She never, ever refers to her parents as her “adoptive” family. And none of her parents is more “real” than the others.

What to say instead: “Have you ever met your birth (or biological) parents?”

Adoptive families are real families

Adoptive families are real families (Photo credit: william87, Depositphotos.com)

22. Why did you adopt instead of having your own kids?

Why: Parents love their adopted children just as much as parents love their biological children, so saying “your own” kids feels hurtful and ignorant. And again, this digs into fertility issues that people may not be comfortable discussing.

What to say instead: “Did you always know you wanted to adopt?” My husband and I had planned to adopt but it never panned out for us. Therefore, I am always interested to hear people’s adoption stories, if they’re willing to share.

Happy family with baby

Adoption is a private matter (Photo credit: HayDmitriy, Depositphotos.com)

23. Are your adopted children real siblings?

Why: This question implies that people who are not blood relatives are not truly family members. Family is based on love, not necessarily on blood relations.

What to say instead: “Your children are adorable!”

Sibling love between two young sisters

Siblings are siblings are siblings (Photo credit: svitlana10, Depositphotos.com)

What Not to Say about Education and Careers

24. Why didn’t you go to college?

Why: There are a myriad of reasons people choose not to go to college, and none of them is your business. This question can make people feel like they’re not measuring up to your standards, and that’s not fair. Getting a college degree is not the only way to achieve success. In fact, only one in three American adults has a bachelor’s degree. As Matt Damon’s character said in Good Will Hunting, “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f**in’ education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”

What to say instead: “Where did you grow up?”

Stack of books

College isn’t the only way to get an education (Photo credit: vnstudio, Depositphotos.com)

25. How’s your French (philosophy, history, poetry, etc.) degree working out for you?

Why: I am often asked this question when people discover I majored in French in college. It’s always said with a laugh and the intention is clear: to let me know they think my degree is stupid. Putting other people down does nothing but cause pain, even if you’re “just joking.” And, my French degree is actually working out quite nicely for me, merci beaucoup. As a professional writer my many years of reading, writing and speaking French has helped me to understand my own language much better. Plus, I spent a year in France during college, which set me up perfectly for my career as a travel blogger (even though there was no such line of work when I graduated)!

What to say instead: “How did you choose your major?”

College graduates

A degree is a degree (Photo credit: belchonock, Depositphotos.com)

26. What do (or did) you really want to do?

Why: This question is sometimes asked of people with unconventional career paths, those who have jobs that earn a lower income, or parents who put their careers on hold to raise their kids. It suggests that their career choice is the wrong one and that they should be doing something “better.” Money isn’t everything, honey.

What to say instead: Nothing.

Don't let anyone judge your life choices

Don’t let anyone judge your life choices (Photo credit: michaeljung, Depositphotos.com)

27. What do you do for a living?

Why: Americans are obsessed with other people’s jobs. But this really is a classist question. We’re trying to put people into a box: white collar, blue collar, educated, uneducated, rich, poor. This question places ourselves above or below that person. This is something that is rarely asked in many other countries.

What to say instead: “Have you read any good books or watched any interesting movies lately? Where’s the last place you traveled? What hobbies do you like to do in your free time?”

Talk about hobbies, not jobs

Talk about hobbies, not jobs (Photo credit: diego_cervo, Depositphotos.com)

28. Can’t anyone do your job?

Why: When people find out I’m a travel blogger, they sometimes ask me this question. I suppose it is true. Anyone can be a blogger. But the same is true of most careers. With some hard work and talent — they just might achieve success! People also ask me how I make money as a blogger, which I don’t mind, but I know it bothers some of my cohorts. (Answer: advertising, sponsored campaigns, book sales, and affiliate links.)

What to say instead: “How did you get into that field?”

Hard work and talent are required to achieve success in any field

Hard work and talent are required to achieve success in any field (Photo credit: maximleshkovich, Depositphotos.com)

29. When are you going to retire?

Why: Asking a person when they’re going to retire suggest three things. 1) They’re old. 2) They no longer have something valuable to offer the workforce. 3) They should have enough money to stop working.

What to say instead: “Do you have any exciting plans on the horizon?”

Some people continue to work because they want to, not because they have to

Some people continue to work because they want to, not because they have to (Photo credit: NatashaFedorova, Depositphotos.com)

What Not to Say to Military Families

30. Have you ever killed someone?

Why: PTSD is real, people. Unless you are very close to someone who has served in the military, this question is beyond inappropriate. Combat is not a video game or movie. Military service is not to be taken lightly, whether or not the service member has ever used their weapon.

What to say instead: “Thank you for your service!”

Thank military members for their service

Thank military members for their service (Photo credit: scukrov, Depositphotos.com)

31. Aren’t you afraid your parent/spouse/child will be shot?

Why: Yes, they are.

What to say instead: “You must be so proud of your parent/spouse/child. I am so thankful to people like them, and to their family members like you!”

Military service is a sacrifice for the whole family

Military service is a sacrifice for the whole family (Photo credit: ArturVerkhovetskiy, Depositphotos.com)

What Not to Say About Other Sensitive Topics

32. All lives matter.

Why: Of course, all lives matter. Duh. Black people are NOT saying their lives matter more than anyone else’s. Otherwise, the phrase would be, “Black lives matter more than yours.” Black lives matter is a pretty unobtrusive statement, actually. As Comedian Michael Che said, “What the f*** is less than matters? Black lives exist. Can we say that? Is that controversial?”

What to say instead: “Black lives matter.”

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter (Photo credit: creatista, Depositphotos.com)

33. I know you’ll be fine.

Why: Whether they’re experiencing a financial, health or mental crisis — people need to feel supported and heard, not patronized. You don’t have a crystal ball, either. You don’t know if everything will turn out alright. It may seem like a reassuring thing to say, but it actually can make the person feel unsupported and stupid for worrying. When I had a cancer scare a few years ago, my well-intentioned friends and family kept telling me I’d be fine and that made me feel so alone in my worry.

What to say instead: “This is a really tough time for you. I know you’re worried. I’m here for you.”

Telling people everything will be okay can feel dismissive and isolating

Telling people everything will be okay can feel dismissive and isolating (Photo credit: Syda_Productions, Depositphotos.com)

34. It just wasn’t meant to be. You can always have another one.

Why: Well-meaning friends say these things to people who have suffered a miscarriage. Instead of helping, though, these words can downplay the deep pain of this death.

What to say instead: “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m here for you.”

Don't minimize the loss from miscarriage

Don’t minimize the loss from miscarriage (Photo credit: monkeybusiness, Depositphotos.com)

35. They’re in a better place now.

Why: The person who experienced the loss of a loved one may not share your thoughts about afterlife and could find this offensive. Additionally, grief is a sorrow caused by missing someone — not necessarily worrying about where that person is. If your friend got divorced, then you wouldn’t say, “But now your ex is so much happier with someone new!”

What to say instead: “I wish I had the right words to say, but just know that I care.”

It's so hard to know what to say when someone dies

It’s so hard to know what to say when someone dies (Photo credit: Kzenon, Depositphotos.com)

Learn More About What You Should and Should Not Say

As Maya Angelou said, when you know better, you do better. Now you know better!

This is by no means an all-encompassing list of all the stupid things we sometimes say to other people. For additional help on what to say and what not to say, take a look at the following resources.

Online Resources


Helpful Books

If you liked this story, then I bet you’ll enjoy our quiz: Are You Rude? Discover How You Rank on the Politeness Scale!

What Not to Say to Other People, Even if You Mean Well

Save this List of Things Not to Say

For future reference, be sure to save this list of what not to say to other people. Simply pin the image above to Pinterest. I hope you’ll follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

What are some other things you think we should not to say to other people? Please share in the comments below!

About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments
  1. Words of wisdom. I’m guilty of most of these…now I know better!

  2. This is SUCH an important post for everyone to read. We say things all the time that are so offensive, and we never even realize we’re doing it. This is such a huge help.

  3. the joyous living says

    these are some great suggestions. as a disabled individual i appreciate your suggestion about not asking about jobs/careers.

    • Colleen Lanin says

      I’m sorry to hear you get annoying questions about your job/career! Glad to provide some awareness and help, though!

  4. Gervin Khan says

    Nice post and you are definitely given us a great guide to avoid being offended to others from the words we said. Thank you!

  5. Sometimes we say something that the other people may interpret another meaning. Thanks for this post

  6. A lot of these questions that people ask are often small minded and insensitive. It is possible to talk to people and get to know them without ignorant questions.

    • Colleen Lanin says

      Nkem – I think most of the time we don’t mean to offend other people, but it’s good to know what not to say and why!

  7. Marie Phillips says

    These are all on point! I could say something about all of them! The couple that stand out to me are the tall/basketball comments. Not only are they implying that tall people should require the skill to play, or even be interested, but also it almost implies that that is all they’re good for. And I love that Matt Damon quote. So true. With or without that degree, lifelong learning is a must and doesn’t need to be done in a formal setting. There are so many great educational resources out there.

  8. Kuntala Bhattacharya says

    Good observations and nice tips. In fact we face this so often as what to speak and what not. Most of the times we do not want to hurt but our words are taken otherwise.

    • Colleen Lanin says

      Exactly! I’ve said many of these things over the years and my intention was never to offend someone else. <3

  9. Emman Damian says

    These are all accurate. It’s good to be reminded sometimes. I’ll share these tips to my friends.

  10. katrina Kroeplin says

    so true about adoption. i’m adopted and my siblings ar my siblings and not my adopted siblings. big difference.

  11. khoingn | The Broad Life says

    Wow these are all the deep tips and thoughts. Thank you a lot for sharing! I will note this.

  12. Ntensibe Edgar Michael says

    What is your eye colour? That is truly a strange one!

    • Colleen Lanin says

      Ha! It’s more about asking what’s your REAL eye color. If someone is using colored contact lenses, they probably don’t want us pointing it out!

  13. I asked a person how old her daughters were (their pictures were freshly on the wall of a relative’s home). I could tell I asked the wrong question by the look on her face. Later, I realized she is sensitive about it because her kids are the age of her man, lolol. I didn’t mean any harm, surely. We do have to be careful what we say.

    • Colleen Lanin says

      Yes, it can be so hard to navigate always saying the right things. I’m sure most people wouldn’t mind that question, but you never know if something is going to be a trigger!

  14. AMY KAUR says

    These are on point. Everyone must be aware of what they are talking about and try not to be mean sometimes.

    • Colleen Lanin says

      For the most part, I don’t think people are trying to be mean — they just aren’t thinking through how their words might be interpreted!

  15. Elizabeth O says

    These are some great things we should know. Before we speak, talk, or ask questions to others. we must always be careful about what we say and should take the lead in whether or not we should ask or say. and these lists are so helpful and now I am aware of it.

  16. All of these seem like it is common sense but I guess it is not. Thanks for the great detail list on this and yes All Lives Matter shouldnt be brought up.

    • Colleen Lanin says

      What seems like common sense to some of us might be something another person never even considered to be offensive. Hopefully some of these were helpful to some readers!

  17. Candy Rachelle says

    You are so on-point with these and I think we are all guilty of saying some of these without thinking. We’ve gotta be mindful of what we say and how we say it.

    Candy Rachelle
    Keeping Up With Candy

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