One of the chief delights of being a writer or cartoonist is that because you control the story, or the speech bubbles, it looks like you can think of a brilliant comeback at precisely the right moment. In real life there have been many times when somebody said something so outrageous my brain went into immediate melt-down and I was left so gobsmacked I could only stand there and gape like a particularly dim goldfish.
Most often I didn’t think of the perfect retort until hours later – the French have a beautiful-sounding phrase for this, which is "l'esprit d'escalier" – in other words, the perfect witticism you think of too late, when you’re on your way out down the stairs.
I think my own experiences led me to always include relevant suggestions in my books, such as Girl Stuff and Women’s Stuff. I always offer little “scripts”, handy one-liners and retorts to have ready for when people say something breathtakingly insulting or rude. Otherwise, in my case, I find I can end up just spluttering, or blurting out something not entirely grown up, such as “Shut up, you are”, “Oh get rooted, Aunty Pat, you interfering old walrus”, or just a weak and squeaky, “Pardon?”
In my survey for the book Women’s Stuff, of more than 7000 women, lots of ladies told me the extraordinary things that “friends”, relatives, even lovers had said to them – from years of “Hello, Fatty” to “No wonder you’re still single”, “Are you trying to get pregnant?”, “Why don’t you give me your car and buy yourself a better one?” “You won’t lose your looks when you’re old because you were never pretty anyway” and “Are you black, or from overseas or what?”
Here are some of the things people have said to my face: “You’re not as ugly as I thought you’d be,” “Does your husband really write your books?” and “I paid for what your daughter’s wearing, so you should thank me.” This last one was completely baffling – had I overlooked a mix up at the Target check out? – until the woman explained, “Yes, I bought one of your books so you should thank me for the money”. I said the first thing that came into my head, which was an honest response, “Erm, okay, thanks for the $3”. “Is that all you get from the cover price of a book?” she said, making a bored face. “I don’t know why you bother”. (Okay, then I went goldfishy.)
In a similar bizarre display of rudeness, another woman sneered to my daughter when she was 7, in front of me: “Well. Your Mummy’s made lots of money off of you, hasn’t she?” Again this was based on the idea that instead of marrying a Russian oligarch to get rich, one should get pregnant – it makes for so much free time in which to write and promote books, and of course people just deliver bags of emeralds to your door while you are doing all that sleeping.
As I was still fumbling about for an appropriate response, mentally flicking through and rejecting “How very dare you!?”, “Madam, you are full of piffle,” my daughter just looked at the woman with her head on the side and said kindly, “You know, it wasn’t really me in the book. In the book Mum has a baby called Eddy, but I’m a girl. Do you see?”. Ha.
Sadly, we can’t stop people from being rude, supremely stupid, or busybodies. Washington Post problem columnist Carolyn Hax recommends the all-purpose “Wow” for mean or horrible questions and comments. Her colleague Miss Manners suggests the cunning “Thank you for your kind interest,” before not actually answering the question.
In my books I have lists of possible come backs and all manner of ways to say “no”, which comes in handy for lots of us, from teenage girls not interested in sex yet, through to busy women being pushed into way too many favours and commitments, and those of us who want to say no to a martini without being accused of being pregnant, a downer, or a recovering alcoholic.
Because when it comes to impertinent questions and mean comments, I reckon we could all do with a little something we prepared earlier. Or, in a pinch, we can just come out with: “Oh, get away from me, you giant poo head”. Okay, it’s not sophisticated, but on occasion, it is going to be incredibly satisfying.
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