What do you say to strangers?May 24 05:11
There’s nothing like hanging out at the mall minding your own business, when all of a sudden a complete stranger comes up to you and asks - “What happened to you?” How do you answer? Politely, rudely, are you funny, or do you have a speech memorized whenever you’re asked this question?
This jarring, out-of-the-blue question is commonplace when you have a disability. Everybody is curious and wants to know why you‘re the way you are, but it can be an uncomfortable, fickle situation to deal with, especially when you’re in your own world when they ask their question, not thinking about your disability in the least. “What’s wrong with me? Do I look sad? Oh wait, that’s right….the wheelchair.” Yeah, this happens to me a lot.
I’ve put forth all kinds of replies to this question over the years, trying to find the best answer or at least finally discover one that garnered the reaction I was looking for. And its always been a tough line to follow. I didn’t want to give an answer that made them project any pitiful feelings on me. Pity is the worst. I find it more offensive (at times) than blatant discrimination. It can be maddening when you find your life satisfying, but then find out the general public feels sorry for you.
I also wanted to make sure my answer wasn’t too full of technical terms that went over their heads. So instead of saying, “I have a complete C5-6 spinal cord injury,” I’ll just say, “I broke my neck in a diving accident.” The annoying part is that most people upon hearing this, about 9 times out of 10, will still say, “I’m sorry," and this is one of my biggest pet peeves. Over the years I never knew what to say to this except, “Don’t be sorry. Its not your fault,” but now, oh now, I have a much better response.
It just discovered it in fact, and man I wish I had figured it out sooner. When I was injured, I drowned and was dead for 4 minutes. I never used to mention that part of my accident story. I have no idea why, but I never did. So when the most recent, “I’m sorry,” string of words was said to me after a Indian guy asked me what was wrong while I was checking out at a store, I finally had enough, and amazingly, my brain formed the best response ever:
Don’t be sorry. I was dead for 4 minutes. I’m lucky to be here.
And in one fell swoop, my sentence transformed his pity into awe, and finally, I got the response I was looking for.
What are your favorite comebacks to questioning strangers?
Post a comment about this blog!
1. Tara | May 25 10:27
That's a good question. Tiffany, it depends on the situation. Most of the time I'm courteous and I just say I was in an accident . It's a lot easier than trying to explain cerebral palsy. That's a freaking nightmare. And when I was younger. If I was at a bar. I would make up stories, because I knew I wasn't going to ever see them again and depending on the guy. I changed the story a dancer almost an Olympian, rock climber swimmer whatever sounded really cool now when it comes to the elderly I stopped take my time and answer questions because they truly feel empathy for you because they're in the same boat now. I have a real problem with parents who drag their kids away after they've come over to get a hug or ask me a question like I have the plague, that really bothers me because their just curious and usually I don't mind. Never answer your personal questions. Have a real problem with people acting like it's a special day just because I'm out of the house.
2. Anton | May 25 02:12
I'm in a power chair and have a respirator. And when I'm out to eat, someone has to help me out by feeding me. Needless to say, I'm quite obvious. Talk about the elephant in the room! Lots of people will come up to me and ask questions but most of the time it's the old "you're such an inspiration" line. Actually, I don't mind. I know everyone sees me and is probably thinking all sorts of things too. I can remember before my injury seeing people in wheelchairs and being intimidated or scared of their disability. I figure by answering people, it breaks down the barriers, gets them used to seeing and relating to people in different kinds of disabilities. I know, a lot of people probably wish that I wouldn't because it puts them in the spot of being asked. I understand how socially obtrusive it really is. Can you imagine asking a fat person "why are you so fat"? So what do I tell people? I calmly tell them "an elephant sat on my back."
3. JLC | Jun 02 05:54
I always invent something completely outlandish, see what all they will swallow. "I asked this girl to dance at a club, and woke up in the hospital. Her jealous old man had hit me across the back with a chair. He's doing 8-10 in the pen for it. Bummer." Or " What, this wheelchair? I don't need one, just use it to help meet chicks." "The wheelchair? Just too lazy to walk." "This old thing. It's just a conversation starter. How do you walk in those 4" heels anyway?" It's none of their business, make them pay for being rude and asking.
4. Angela | Jun 06 09:06
Sex related injury usually shuts them up.
5. Anonymous | Jun 10 12:45
When people say, "I'm sorry" after you tell them what happened, they are expressing they are sorry about what happened to you. It's a nice thing; they are saying you are, or seem like, a good person and they are sorry something bad happened to you. It's similar to saying, "I'm sorry (for your loss)" to someone who has lost a loved one. You aren't pitying them or "feeling sorry" for them, you are sharing in their sadness that you, too, wish the death hadn't happened. Even strangers who say, "I'm sorry" after sharing your story are only trying to say, "I wish that hadn't happened to you."
6. Speedbump | Jul 05 08:37
Most often, when asked that most intrusive question, I give them a deadpan look and say,"Nothin', I'm just lazy". If they persist (and they usually do), I tell them that my stunt double didn't show up.
Disability buzz, travel, fashion and dating — fun things to amp up everyday wheeling life.
Tiffiny Carlson is freelance writer and writes the “SCI Life” column for New Mobility. She's also a C6 quad from a diving accident that occurred when she was 14 years old. A lifelong resident of Minneapolis, Tiffiny has been a writer in the disability community for over 10 years and writes for several publications and blogs, as well as her personal blog BeautyAbility. Her work has also appeared in mainstream publications such as Nerve.com and Playgirl.