The average family size in America is around 2.5, and families with children average 2 children each. For parents with more children than that, it is common to hear comments and opinions from others about their family size. Most people are just curious, outspoken, or bored when they make comments about how busy a woman must be or how ignorant she must be to where babies come from. Sometimes they are trying to tease (although this is impossible to determine in a stranger) and other times they are being genuinely complimentary. Then there are people, such as restaurant or retail staff with whom one interacts many times in a setting, who keep bringing up the family’s size over and over again.
Recently when I took my family to a local restaurant, the hostess, whose only duty it is to walk patrons to a table and possibly fetch menus, crayons, or child seats, commented three times on how many children we have. Each time she said it she made eye contact with my husband and me as if to try to engage us in conversation (though she made statements, not asked questions) and each time became a little louder and more incredulous sounding. I am probably reading too much into it to say that I think she may have been trying to elicit some kind of reaction from us. If she was, I have no idea what it could have been: a discussion of why we felt the need to procreate so extensively? how we are paying for all of them? whether or not we feel guilty of contributing to overpopulation? Who knows. At any rate, I kept wishing I could respond in some way to let her know that I accepted and acknowledged her opinion, but that I did not feel it appropriate conversation between a restaurant hostess and her patrons. After all, we had chosen to take our business to that establishment for our rather large, hungry brood; in terms of dollars and cents, you would think a restaurant employee would appreciate that. But what was it about her behavior that was really bothering me?
I suppose it was merely the fact that she felt the need to comment on our family size at all; she did not comment on the family size of any other patrons, who were mostly sitting in groups of one to four, only ours. And later I thought of what I could have said: “Do you comment on all of your customers’ family sizes, or just the large ones?” I would have said it with a smile and wink, of course, so that she knew I took no offense. But hopefully she would have realized that there was simply no need for her to make repeated statements, as if she were baiting us, about something that we were already quite aware of. 😉
One of the biggest problems that comes from trying to live a well-mannered life is deciding how much of the impolite or just plain thoughtless society around us we ought to be influencing. I do not believe that I am responsible for others, nor that I am their teacher, but sometimes I wonder if people know how their words and actions come across. So my philosophy is that if something bothers me about someone else’s behavior, and if I can think of a polite, off-handed way to bring it to their attention without embarrassing anyone or judging them, I think it is appropriate. That has been the basis of my new “What to say when” series. I would love to hear any examples from my readers of reactions or responses they have had that they felt were more in line with how a well-behaved, proper woman would react, and also how you decide whether or not to react in a particular situation. (So I can steal all your ideas for my own life! Ha! Just kidding. However, iron does sharpen iron.)