When casual conversation turns controversial

The exterminator came today. (Why would I need an exterminator? Welcome, new reader! You can read of my woes here, here, here and here). As I followed him around with comments like, “Spray more there…more over there…” and, “Can you just unscrew the lid on that thing and start dumping chemicals everywhere?” we chit-chatted about various topics.

He mentioned that his brother and sister-in-law were 16 weeks pregnant with their first child. After I said congratulations, he continued on that they’re going to schedule an amniocentesis “to make sure there are no abnormalities or anything,” since that’s more accurate than a blood test and they want to be sure. I nodded and there was an uncomfortable silence, so he continued, “Because, you know, it wouldn’t be right to bring a child into this world who wouldn’t have a good quality of life.” He continued on to tell me the story of a child he knows who has Down’s Syndrome, and how the child’s parents have had a lot of stress because of it, and the child can’t even have a “normal” life. He strongly implied that it would be better if that child’s life had been ended in utero.

I took that opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to work through me and told him something so profound that he will surely change his heart on this matter. I said, “Uh-huh.”

He replied that he could see from our house that we were Catholic, and that he probably shouldn’t have said anything. (The fact that he could tell from our house that we were Catholic and that therefore he knew a lot of things about me was a very cool moment, and one I will probably discuss in a future post.) Seeing that he was waiting for me to say something, in a true testament to my social awkwardness and desire to avoid uncomfortable moments, I muttered, “Well, yeah, I understand that.”

Allow me to translate. When I said, “I understand that,” what I meant was: “I know where you’re coming from because I used to say things like that too but I’ve come to believe that that is wrong seeing as how it involves humans deciding whose life is worth living and the grisly killing of babies who are almost old enough to survive outside the womb and all but I’m just going to throw out something vague like ‘I understand’ because I don’t want it to feel all weird in here.”

Clearly any response other than the one I gave would be better…but what? I’m so incredibly non-confrontational that it’s hard for me to even think of what the right response would be. What are we supposed to do in situations like this? What is the right reaction when someone expresses a view that you find very disturbing as part of casual chit-chat? Do you keep the good vibes going and just let it slide? Do you make sure that your views are heard and risk seeming pushy or starting an argument?

I’ve had this sort of thing happen before and I never know what to do. Today, as is usually the case, I didn’t feel anger toward the exterminator and didn’t want him to think I thought he was a bad person or anything, but I did eagerly want to find some polite way to stand up for my beliefs. But, alas, as usual, I said nothing.

What do you do in these kinds of situations?

New here? Take a moment to introduce yourself, or say hi on Twitter at @conversiondiary.



Enter the Conversation...

21 Responses to “When casual conversation turns controversial”
  1. Jocelyne says:

    These things never seem to come up in conversation when you’re prepared, do they? Who’d have thought the exterminator would put you on the spot? I’d probably have said about the same things you said, in the same situation, and beat myself up about it for hours after. :-)

    Upon reflection however, I think the only truly effective thing that could be said in a case like this would be to say what your wn experience is. For example, I have a friend who has a little girl with Downs, and she is a darling and her whole family adores her. I also have a friend who works with Downs adults, and they really are delightful people. So I could talk about that, without making doctrinal pronouncements or judgements or anything.

    I think that sort of personal witness is the only way to go. Abstract arguments will never touch people, but personal experience might.

  2. steveK says:

    I agree with Jocelyne that a personal story is best if you have one because you’re just telling your story – nothing confrontational about that.

    If you don’t have a personal experience I usually resort to questions so I understand their point of view, “What do you mean by ‘a good quality of life’?”.

    One question leads to another, and then another. Before you know it you’re having an honest conversation, not an uncomfortable argument. Questions cause the other person to think through their personal beliefs/opinions, and the consequences that always come with them.

  3. Michelle says:

    I might have said something like, “Well, if you can see I’m Catholic, you’ll understand that I can’t believe God would create a life that wasn’t worth living.” I have a brother with Down’s, so this particular situation is easy for me. But every day, it seems, there comes a situation where I mutter “uh-huh” instead of saying what I really think. It just takes experience and time. Maybe next time someone says something like this, you’ll have memorized a charitable response. But then there will come a different comment, and you’ll walk away banging your head trying to think of a good retort for that one. I think by the time I’m ninety, I’ll have covered about 95% of possible rude comment scenarios, and for the remaining 5%, I’ll fall back on a “crabby old lady” excuse for yelling at some young whippersnapper.

  4. beez says:

    Unfortunately, we never know what to say until it’s too late. I haven’t had a recent opportunity to discuss my pro-life position with someone who is a casual acquaintence, but years ago (before I even returned to the Church) my sister (thrice divorced and with another man) told me that she was pregnant and, because she was 40, planned for an amnio before deciding what to do.

    My reply was this:

    Why would you need an amnio to decide what to do? You either keep it or give it up for adoption.

    She said:

    Well, if there is a problem, why have it? I mean, if it has a defect…

    I answered:

    And who are we to decide what is defective and what isn’t? If God creates a life, and that life is able to sustain itself, we have no say in the matter.

    It’s not the baby’s fault that it was conceived, and it isn’t his fault if he has Downs, or anything else. It’s a life, plain and simple, and destroying to because you are afraid that you’re life will be inconvenienced as a result is still murder.

    I guess, Jen, that’s ultimately my point. People who say that the baby “may not have a good quality of life” are really saying, “I may not like my life after it’s born.”

    Destroying an unborn child because it is “defective” is no different than destroying it because “I have a wedding to go to in five months and my bridesmaid dress won’t fit if I’m six months pregnant.”

  5. Karen E. says:

    Oh, Jen, we’ve all said, “Uh-huh.” :-)

    I agree with others that it’s easiest to respond when you have a personal story to share. I have a niece with Down’s and a friend who has two kids with Down’s, so I can talk about that. Or, if abortion “in the case of rape” comes up, I also have someone very close to me who had a baby in such “a case” and gave him up for adoption. These kinds of personal witnesses are powerful.

    But, in a case like this one, I’m thinking that your internal response of:

    “I know where you’re coming from because I used to say things like that too but I’ve come to believe that that is wrong seeing as how it involves humans deciding whose life is worth living and the grisly killing of babies who are almost old enough to survive outside the womb and all but I’m just going to throw out something vague like ‘I understand’ because I don’t want it to feel all weird in here.”

    can be reworded into something like:

    “I know what you mean. Before I was a Catholic I was actually an atheist [editor's note: at this point, eyebrows rise and interest is piqued, at least in my experience of mentioning my former atheism] and I thought that. But, I’ve come to rethink the whole thing for a lot of reasons.”

    Then, the other person may or may not ask about those reasons, and as Steve K. said, soon you’re having an honest conversation.

    Most of all, I would say that it takes practice. :-) And, this encounter with your exterminator was practice, i.e., a situation arises, I think about what I *wish* I’d said, and then next time, I’m much more prepared to say it.

    Blessings! And please, please, please let us know soon that the scorpions are gone!

  6. Anonymous says:

    I am outspoken. I know that. The Good Lord made me that way. So that’s where I’m coming from.

    When I feel the “moment” coming on, I silently say “Come Holy Spirit”. Then I unload. :)

    When people say things like that to you, they are (silently) asking for your response. They are interested in another point of view. That’s why the subject came up.

    If you pray first, the Holy Spirit will enlighten you. You have a duty to say the truth. It might not be what they want to hear, but they will think about it and remember it later. We are part of the Church Militant, and we must speak up.

    Last week I had a discussion with an animal rights activist who thought her boyfriend with terminal liver cancer should have been allowed to choose his own death. (of course, animals should not be put to sleep but humans should). I prayed, and just said to her, “It’s not your choice when to die, it’s God’s.” One sentence. Wham.

    When my more spiritually mature friends have given me a sentence, I don’t always like it, but it remains in my heart. Years later I can see the truth of their words.

    From your posts, sounds like you will have another chance to have him over. I live in Houston, and we have cockroaches, but no scorpions. I’m sorry you have to deal with those varmints.

    Also, thanks for your blog. Our Catholic study group has chosen “He Leadeth Me” for our summer reading book, based on your recommendations. I am reading it now, and it is unbelieveable and inspiring.

    Potamiaena

  7. mrsdarwin says:

    One of the reasons that you were so uncomfortable is probably that it was completely inappropriate of the exterminator to tell an obviously pregnant woman that some children really shouldn’t be born. So you were dealing with a worldview that completely contradicted your own, expressed by a person who has no conception of the bounds of polite conversation. That takes a lot of improvisational skills to handle on the fly in a graceful yet intelligent way. Don’t feel too bad about it.

  8. Amber says:

    Oh yeah, I’ve had that happen too. Once was at a dinner with some casual acquaintances from the local mom’s club where they all started trashing various Catholic beliefs. They had all grown up Catholic and more or less left the faith and I tried to defend some of the church’s teachings on contraception and celibate priests. It was very awkward, and I just got slammed down from all sides because they didn’t even want to listen to anything I had to say. I was shaking with frustration and indignation after that experience!

    Since then, I try to avoid group discussions like that. *grin* And when it does come up on a more one to one basis, I try to take a deep breath, ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit, and then say either something short or tell a personal story. And sometimes I just flub it and let the moment pass… but with experience that seems to happen less often.

    But don’t beat yourself up over it – it is a difficult situation and all you can do is try to do better next time!

  9. Kate says:

    I’m usually in the “uhuh” camp with strangers myself, despite being very outspoken with my family and friends. But a couple of moments ago I had a wonderful experience that confirmed for me the value of responding honestly, and personally, instead of just glossing over religious and philosophical differences.

    I was on a flight into Oregon (on my way to a wedding) and there was a pleasantly rumpled looking bearded man in the seat next to me. For some reason we struck up a conversation about what’s wrong with the world – pretty crunchy, small-is-beautiful stuff. Anyway, he threw out some dismissive, throw-away line about “institutional Christianity” – you know, how suffocating and unhealthy it is, etc.

    I had that panicky moment and almost (because, after all, he was pleasant and I was going to be stuck beside him for at least another hour and a half)glossed it all over with an “mmm-hmmm”. I considered changing the conversation, pretending to be sleepy and pulling the seat blanket over my face. What popped out of my mouth surprised me as much as him, I think.

    What I said was, “I should probably warn you, before you say anything else, that I’m Catholic, I mean, like *really* Catholic, and all of the rest of this stuff (referring to our conversation) really is deeply rooted in myt faith and in the tradition and teachings of the Church.

    I had the great pleasure of obviously and totally shaking up some assumptions about “Church Christians” (as well as leaving this chap pretty embarrassed by his comment). He admitted to having dismissed the value of spirituality as a young man, and being pretty ignorant, but now he was re-evaluating it. He asked me a lot of questions about the ins and out of living a life of faith and it became an entirely absorbing and rewarding conversation.

    So, say a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit, and see what comes when you are sympathetic and yet honest. It blew me away.

  10. Anonymous says:

    mrs. darwin really nailed it…not to mention this is the man you’ve been waiting for…the white knight with the juice.
    cordelia

  11. Sarahndipity says:

    I can relate – I’m also extremely non-confrontational. (At least in “real life” – online it’s a different story). :) I honestly don’t know what I would have said in that situation – probably the same thing you did. I agree with Mrs. Darwin that what he said was very inappropriate.

    The weird thing is, I love to discuss and debate issues with people, especially people who disagree with me, but it seems like so many people either A) don’t want to talk about such things because it makes them uncomfortable, so they talk about Grey’s Anatomy instead, or B) aren’t capable of disagreeing with someone without getting angry. (I find that A is often the case in real life and B is often the case online).

  12. Sarah says:

    Jen,

    Try not to be too hard on yourself. I think that something great can come out of this if you spend a little time reviewing the great comments you have received, and create a game plan for next time. I agree with the first commenter, “These things never come up in conversation when you’re prepared, do they?”.

    Your post reminded me of a breakdown I had last week, when I was at the immunizations clinic with my little set (this is a whole other story about *my* non-confrontationalism, since I’m not even comfortable with immunizations in the first place). Anyway, there was a lady there with her two grown handicapped daughters. I’m not sure if they were twins, because she didn’t say, but they were around the same age, and apparently had the same mental handicap. They were fascinated by my two perfect little ones, and I told their mom that they could play with them if it was OK with her. I held back a flood of tears as their faces lit up, and they made my baby boy laugh. I wasn’t emotional over them though, but as I looked into their mother’s tired, grateful eyes, it was all I could do to not leap out of my seat and throw my arms around her. I don’t pretend to understand things like why babies are born handicapped, but I do know that suffering produces gold in us, if we let it. I think that she was letting her daughters refine her.

    We don’t want to be refined though, therefore we run from suffering. There is no other reason why a person would rather destroy a life than be “stuck” caring for it. IMO.

    Jen, let me just take this chance to say, I LOVE your blog. I look so forward to reading it everyday! Keep up the good work.

    Sarah

  13. Jennifer F. says:

    Thank you all — every single comment has been helpful to me! You guys are the best!

  14. lyrl says:

    It happens even with people who aren’t strangers. The topic of late term abortion came up at my Bible study once – specifically, in the case of Tay-Sachs disease (no known treatment or cure, certain death by the age of four). The Rabbi was supportive of abortion in cases of diagnosed Tay-Sachs – I asked what he thought was the moral thing to do if a child was not diagnosed until after birth. He replied that situation was why everyone should be tested, to make sure no children are born with the disease!

    I was so shocked I just dropped the subject. I hope that if it ever comes up again I’ll be more brave and explore the issue with him by more questions as stevek suggested.

  15. Fr. Michael Bertrand says:

    That was a nasty situation, and it was quite possibly a no-winner. I commend you for keeping your cool and not snapping.

    A few months back I ended up in a heated argument with a carpenter we hired to do some work in our sanctuary. Turns out he was a semi-militant atheist and he wanted to pick a fight with me. I was very unprepared for the argument (Figured he knew who we were and what we believed). The argument ended with my inviting him to church so he could see what we’re all about. He hasn’t come, but he does know that he’s welcome.

    Hindsight is always 20/20, but in the moment it’s hard to know what to say and how to say it. As others have said, don’t beat yourself up. It would have been really easy to blow up and beat the guy up with words.

  16. P says:

    In answer to your question, “what are we supposed to do in situations like this?” the correct answer is, “sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15)

    So, objectively, you did the wrong thing. That’s what I usually do, too :(

    I believe it was Ovid who said, “I know of the better way, and approve of it; I follow the worse.”

    I can really sympathize with your plight, though. I have two major problems in those situations: one, I am a coward, and two, I fight really, really dirty.

    So not only do I not want to say anything, I know that if I do, I will probably do it wrong. It is just that I hate error and illogic, and attack them ruthlessly. Sometimes there is “collateral damage” when I am dealing with people who don’t know me really well and how analytical I am. :(

    I honestly don’t dislike people for being murderers, but most people assume that if you call them a murderer you don’t like them, and I just don’t know what else to call people who deliberately kill innocent people.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Actually, I think you did a great job! His own testimony damned himself, and he knew that. You didn’t have to say anything.

    whimsy

  18. melanieb says:

    I tend to be of the “uh-huh” school myself.

    I always thing of the clever thing to say about ten minutes after the opportunity has passed (if I think of it at all.) I’m terribly shy around strangers even if the subject of conversation is non-confrontational.

    Knowing that about myself, after these sorts of encounters, I follow the advice of many of your respondents and memorize a good response. Then, naturally, that guarantees the subject will never come up again in such a way that the response will be useful.

    I’m always amazed at people who can speak up boldly for the truth and always have a good response. My husband for example, when an acquaintance told him he’d had a vasectomy, my husband said: “I’m sorry,” and left it at that. Short and to the point.

    I like the idea of asking the Holy Spirit for help. I try to remember to do so ever since the first time I saw that bit of good advice. But I’m usually so flummoxed I forget to even do that until it’s too late.

  19. Maria says:

    Our parish preist told us a story at our mom’s group recently about this very topic. Before he entered seminary and was still in high school (he is a very young priest), he was doing some pro-life work somewhere. He struck up a conversation with a militant pro-abortionist. He did a really, really bad job at presenting the pro-life case. He said he worried about it for months and was so embarrassed he never wanted to talk to anyone about controversial issues again.

    A year later, he randomly ran into this woman elsewhere. She told him that his youth and earnestness had really stuck with her, even though he hadn’t said much intelligently and how she was now reading about the Catholic faith.

    You just never know how the Lord is going to use you. This man obviously knew that the Catholic pregnant woman with two small children probably disagreed with him. Maybe your polite, non-aggressive response will speak to him.

  20. Leticia says:

    Jocelyne, you’ve hit upon my approach! As the mother of a child with Down syndrome, I just wait for those opportunities to come up, and since Christina(age 5) is always with me, there is no shortage of them! I usually don’t have to say much, her sweet, active, and loving presence says it all.
    She is the reason I blog, to share the joy she has brought into my life, in hopes that lives will be spared.
    If someone responds that they couldn’t possibly raise a child like her I would say, “I thought the same thing, till I had her, and God has been with me every step of the way!”

  21. Caren MacMurchy says:

    Jesus asked questions. Something like, “Since we have no crystal ball to predict the outcome of an unborn child’s life, wouldn’t it be best to trust the Lord in the birth and life of this child?” Throws the ball back in the exterminator’s court, so to speak. Funny, his extermination even goes to the unborn.

    Ask questions. It puts the impetus on the aggressor to defend his position without direct in-your-face confrontation. The questions Jesus asked were usually counter-intuitive from conventional ‘wisdom’ and caused his hearers to say, “Hmmmm, never thought of that.” Get ‘em thinking.