Every month there is a new list of health awareness events and observations designed to educate and inform us. April is no exception. National Child Abuse Prevention Month, National Minority Health Month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, National Autism Awareness Month and National Infertility Awareness Week are all observed in April, with public health organizations and health communicators and health blogs—including HealthComU—writing articles and blogs in an effort to raise awareness. But beyond these being important public health issues, what do they have in common? It is easy to make assumptions, and rely on widely-held stigmas to give us information. In doing so, etiquette in these very sensitive situations may be forgotten. But for all of these issues, careful tact must be taken.
We probably all know people who are directly impacted by these sensitive issues. We encounter them in many walks of life. It is in our human nature to be inquisitive. There is nothing wrong with wanting to learn more, or attempting to help someone. But sometimes, our good intentions are misinterpreted, or the comment or question is inappropriate. Regardless of the motive, such communication may leave the person feeling vulnerable and attacked.
For example, when it comes to infertility, there may not be visible cues that tell you something is wrong. More than 7 million people of childbearing age in the United States experience infertility. Maybe the couple avoids the topic when it is mentioned. You may have chosen to start a family, but you notice a friend that hasn’t yet. Maybe you want to joke, but little do you know that that playful comment is hurtful because of the things you don’t see. Resolve, the National Infertility Association has published tips for offering support to friends or family members experiencing infertility.
The list reminds people that it is not helpful to tell a couple experiencing infertility issues to, “just relax and it will happen,” that the couple should just “enjoy being able to sleep late, and travel the world,” or that “things could be worse.” These comments do not offer comfort. Instead, it is seen as minimizing the problem. What’s far more helpful is to express to them that you care and are willing to help (if you can).
Meanwhile, parents of children with disabilities may also encounter questions and comments that may seem insensitive or threatening. Dr. Darla Clayton, Psy.D. has written numerous articles about what not to say, and “17 things you can to say to a parent of a child with special needs without sounding like a jerk.” Clayton points out that in some circumstances a question with good intent coming from a friend at an appropriate time will likely be answered without distress. However, if you are the stranger in the grocery store approaching a mother of a child with special needs, your comment that you “know what it’s like because your cousin’s cousin has a child with special needs” may not be well received. Additionally, it may not be appropriate to ask questions or offer suggestions if the child is around. These parents are just like any others. They want their child to be valued for who they are rather than told that, “your child is a good singer even though they have a disability”.
Think before you speak. Communication is not just about having the ability to speak, but being thoughtful in the things you say, as well as the unspoken non-verbal expressions you display.