“Open mouth, insert foot”


‘Questions my mother taught me just not to ask’

Back when I was an Advertising Upstart in Kansas City, I was appointed one of a panel of judges for a creative show. A “creative show”, for those of you not familiar with the Ad Biz, is where Ad People get together to award each other prizes for their work; the “work” being the ads that they come up with for their clients.

Now, I don’t know if agencies still do this sort of thing, but back then these were not only occasions for self-congratulation, they were opportunities for a whole hell of a lot of partying. Sigh. Those were the days.

Me, back when I was judging creative shows and sampling my own feet

Anyway. There I was, a freshly-minted Advertising Judge, on my way to the judging venue, which was some hotel in, I think, Omaha. I get on the elevator where I see a woman about my age dressed in slacks and a sort of tent-shaped top. So I say to her (just being polite, you know), “When is your baby due?” Well. If looks could kill, I’d have been dead for more than thirty years now. “I am not pregnant,” she spit through clenched teeth, then swirled her tent-topped self and turned to face the elevator doors. I swear I could see smoke coming out of her ears.

Back when Tentlike Tops meant One Thing, and One Thing only. Mom and Me, with future Oldest Younger Brother Scott in there somewhere

Well. After what felt like the longest elevator ride in history, we finally reached my floor. The doors open, she steps out ahead of me — and proceeds to walk down the hall to the very room where I’m headed. Yes, you guessed it. She was also an Advertising Judge. And, as the panel consisted of only five of us, it turned out to be three very long days of judging.

I had broken one of my mother’s cardinal rules. Which is don’t assume anything. Do not ask Certain Questions unless you are absolutely sure of the answer. Unless that be-tented woman is lying on that elevator floor timing her contractions and panting it is best not to ask “When is your baby due?” And maybe not even then.

Which of these women is preggers? You can guess, but never ever assume

Another example, speaking of babies, is if you see one accompanied by a Woman Of A Certain Age. Do not assume said baby is her grandchild. Do not make well-meaning remarks about the pleasure of grandkids and how you can play with them and just hand them back when they poop. If you do, even if that Woman looks older than dirt, it could very well turn out that she’s the mother — and she won’t be pleased. (This happens a lot in New York, where Older Mothers, of which I am one, abound.) If you absolutely must say something, ask “What’s your baby’s name?” If it’s the mom, you’re fine. If it’s the grandmother, you’ve made a friend for life.

Grandma? Or Mom? Trust me, in New York City you wouldn’t want to guess

I have firsthand experience of how an Open Mouth can get stuffed. Once I took the about-seven-year-old Child to a podiatrist for some reason I can’t recall. What I do recall is the look on The Child’s face when she was asked while being escorted to the exam room, “Do you want your Gramma to come in with you?”

Is that a Gramma? In the good old days, it was easier to tell. But you still wouldn’t want to guess wrong, now would you?

I don’t think I have to tell you not to ask people’s ages. (I certainly hope not, anyway.) One time, when I was on (a very long) line at the Brazilian embassy to get a visa, an official-looking gentleman approached and asked, “How old are you, Ma’am?” When I recovered and coughed up the number, he told me that my answer got me punted to the front of the line. But, unless you work for the Brazilian embassy, I’m telling you: don’t go there.

What I look like when someone asks me how old I am

And while I’m on this topic, don’t — repeat don’t — ask anyone if they “want the Senior Discount”. Trust me. If someone wants the Senior Discount, he or she will ask for the Senior Discount. Are you listening, Movie Ticket Seller Girl?

Before I wrap this up, let me tell you about another foot-in-mouth pitfall that looms now that I’m in the age group that gets asked about the Senior Discount. Say you run into the female half of a couple you’ve seen off and on socially over the years. Don’t — just don’t — ask “How is your husband?” Because, more likely than not, she’ll answer, “He died.”

And remember, when in doubt, just repeat to yourself the immortal words of my marvelous mom, “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”

My Mom, who is wise beyond her years. Don’t ask — she’ll jolly well tell you if she wants the Senior Discount. Or the cat

New York City. November 2018


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20 thoughts on ““Open mouth, insert foot”

  1. josypheen

    My Grandma must have forgotten this rule. She knew one of my sister’s bridesmaids was pregnant with twins…so she went to give her congratulations (she’d had twins herself, so she was excited to meet a future twin-mum…)

    Only, she gave her congratulations to the wrong bridesmaid. The poor lady was just quite large. When she told Grandma she wasn’t the preggo one, Grandma said “oops” and literally ran away! I had to giggle into my flowers and pretend I hadn’t heard.

  2. Well life’s got it’s moments, isn’t it ? :):)……the best thing is to be a good listener and pay respect, rather than trying to act extra smart all the times……loved your post, Alice …:)

  3. Hilarious…all good intentions, but disastrous nonetheless….reminds me of the scene in “Something’s Gotta Give” when Keanu Reeves plays a Doctor treating Jack Nicholson, who is dating a young woman. He turns to her and says “is he your Father?” The Actress says “NO!” “Your Grandfather?” Keanu adds next….

    • OMG! I love that movie (in fact, I own it) yet had completely forgotten about that hilariously embarrassing line. Thanks for the reminder; now I’m gonna go for a re-watch xoxo

  4. Deborah

    Sometimes it doesn’t have to be a question. I know a former television news commentator who was sitting with a woman she was about to interview on camera, she leaned over to pick off a piece of lint on the interviewee’s face. It turned out to be a thick, white, curly chin hair. The news commentator says that was the most excruciating moment of her career.

  5. One of my little boys went through a stage where he would ask my women friends how old they were and how much they weighed. Really, he just liked numbers, but it was mortifying. He’s lucky he was a cute 4 year old!

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