How to speak to someone living with diabetes, without being rude.

Today is World Diabetes Day – a day acknowledged by the United Nations to raise awareness about the global epidemic that is diabetes.

The two most common types are (the most innovatively named) type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

In super simple terms, type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition, which means that for some reason, the body attacks the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. People with type 1 diabetes need to give themselves insulin (either by injection or via pump) each day. Type 1 diabetes often occurs in children and young adults but it can be diagnosed at any age.

The blood glucose test strips are a major part of managing Type 2 Diabetes. (Image via iStock)

Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic condition where the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin and/or the insulin doesn’t work effectively to do what the body needs it to.

(And for extra credit, gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy, but usually goes away once the baby is delivered. Women diagnosed with gestational diabetes are at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes later in life.)

Diabetes is in the press a lot. Unfortunately what you see is, for the most part, not particularly accurate. And that misinformation results in people saying a lot of rather infuriating things about the health condition with which I’ve lived for almost two decades.

Renza is here to set the record straight.

In fact, one of the frustrating things about living with diabetes is dealing with the myths, misconceptions and down-right annoying things people say. I genuinely believe that people come from a place of wanting to be helpful and supportive, but unfortunately, because of the misrepresentation of diabetes in the media, a lot of the time they get it wrong.

So, here are some ideas of what you may like to say to someone with diabetes (instead of the things that many people do say!):

Instead of saying: ‘You don’t look sick’. (Or ‘You don’t look like you have diabetes.’):

Say: ‘It’s actually quite incredible how you live with a chronic health condition and still manage to do so much. And rock that MAC Russian Red lippy every single day!’
Why? Because diabetes is an ‘invisible illness’. I don’t really consider myself ‘sick’ but there is an undeniable effort that goes into being an overall healthy person. (And yes – the MAC Russian Red lippy I wear every single day helps with that!)

Diabetes is an ‘invisible illness’. (Image supplied)

Instead of saying: ‘Do you have the bad kind of diabetes?’:

Say: ‘I know there are different types of diabetes. Would you mind explaining the differences – and tell me about the one you have.’
Why? Because there is no such thing as a good or bad type of diabetes. All diabetes sucks. That’s just the reality of it!

Instead of saying: ‘You have to inject yourself/your child? Every day? I could never do that!’:

Say: ‘I really admire what you do to manage your/your child’s diabetes. It can’t be easy having to do that all the time.’
Why? Because if we need to take insulin for our diabetes, we need to take insulin! There is no ‘I couldn’t do that’ about it! (Every single person with type 1 diabetes needs insulin and many people with type 2 diabetes will require insulin.) If you needed to do it, you could too!

Instead of saying: ‘I know someone who had diabetes. They died – after their limbs were cut off and their kidneys failed. And they went blind.’:

Say: ‘I bet there are some really interesting advances in diabetes management/technology to help you live a long and healthy life. What are they?’
Why? Because, really, I don’t want to know that diabetes killed someone you know. I know how serious diabetes is – I know this and think about it every single day. And, I’m doing everything possible to minimise the risks of those things happening to me. You reminding me of the horrible complications and untimely death a loved one experienced is not making me feel particularly great about anything!

Please don't tell me what I should and shouldn't be eating. (Image supplied.)

Instead of saying: ‘Diabetes? You must have been a fat kid/But you’re not fat!’:

Say: Nothing. Nothing at all!
Why? Because seriously – that’s just plain rude and bad manners. Diabetes is an incredibly complex collection of health conditions. There is no one single contributing factor that resulted in diabetes. Being overweight has nothing to do with developing type 1 diabetes. As for type 2 diabetes, while being overweight may be a risk factor, there is a lot more involved. There are a lot of of healthy weight people with type 2 diabetes and not every overweight person gets type 2 diabetes. As I said – it’s complicated!


Instead of saying: Oh – I saw on the news last night that there is a cure for diabetes. Did you know that you just need to: drink more coffee/eat more yoghurt/sleep naked/eat cinnamon/go to bed earlier/quite sugar/eat paleo/not nap in the afternoon/drink more alcohol/drink less alcohol…?

Say: Where is diabetes research going these days?
Why? Because there is no cure for diabetes. That’s the bottom line! Some people with type 2 diabetes are able to stop the meds they are on by managing their weight and increasing their activity levels, but that’s still not a cure. Also – I’ve probably heard it all before. Each and everyone one of the things I listed above has been said to ‘cure’ diabetes in recent times. They are all baloney! BUT! There are some really super exciting areas of research.

I just need to eat more yogurt, right? (Image via iStock)

Instead of saying: ‘Don’t you have diabetes? You shouldn’t be eating that!’

Say: Nothing. No really. Just do not comment at all.
Why? Firstly, it’s rude. It’s absolutely none of your business what I choose to eat. I know how to manage my insulin doses based on what I am eating, so just let me have the doughnut without being Judgey McJudgeface about it!

The people around me are often my greatest support and I honestly couldn’t do without them. I’m also really happy to speak about diabetes and share my experiences with others. (Not everyone is though, so before launching into a discussion about diabetes, it’s always good to check the person you are speaking with is ready or happy to chat about their health.)

And remember, it all comes down to manners and respect. Being interested in someone’s health is lovely; just try to do it in a considerate and kind way. Happy World Diabetes Day to you all!

Want more? Check out the Diabetes Australia website.

Renza Scibilia is a Melbourne woman who writes a blog about real life with diabetes. She is a diabetes consumer advocate, activist and spokesperson and has lived with type 1 diabetes for eighteen and a half years. She lives with her musician husband, almost-12-year-old daughter and a menagerie of pets in a house with too many books, guitars and boots. Right now, she is probably drinking coffee, tweeting, wearing stripes and planning her next trip to New York.