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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

What do you say when you don’t know what to say?

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

reflecting on what to say

Tragic news: A stillbirth. A suicide. A devastating diagnosis. A senseless killing. Social injustice.

Does anyone else ever feel speechless?

What do you say when you don’t know what to say?

At times, silence is best. When comforting a grieving friend, being silent yet present can be just what is needed. Instead of saying anything – be present, listen, demonstrate empathy and concern – speak through actions rather than words.

Other times, silence may be interpreted as not caring, or worse, it may imply agreement that the horrific news was acceptable. At those times, speaking up is called for. But, what do you say? Begin with being present and listening. Say, “I am here.” Say, “This is wrong.” Say, “I stand with you to make this right.”

It's time to speak up about injustice

Collectively, we have witnessed a horrific crime. We have been reminded that “liberty and justice for all” have not been fully realized in these supposedly united United States.

Profiling black men as criminals and perpetuating violence or unmerited incarceration of black men is wrong. Those of us who are not black, or for that matter, not men, have been silent too long. We can no longer say, “It’s not my problem.” It is our problem. It’s everyone’s problem.

We judge others based on their appearance

Profiling someone based on their outward appearance is all too common… A person’s color, age, weight, gender, dress, tattoos and piercings, disabilities, and overall appearance can prompt snap judgments, incorrect assumptions, and negative outcomes:

They’re fat… they must be lazy.

They’re so skinny… they must be anorexic.

They’re poor… they probably shoplift.

They’re rich… they’re probably a snob.

They’re disabled… and therefore entitled.

They’re old… and senile.

They’re young… and inexperienced.

They look Middle Eastern… possibly a terrorist.

They’re a black man… probably dangerous.

They’re a cop… possibly a bad cop.

They’re _____________________... so they’re ___________________________.

These opinions stem from implicit biases, developed over a lifetime and residing deep within our subconscious. We all have them. Good news: These biases can be unlearned. It’s time to unlearn them.

How can we unlearn our implicit biases?

If you’re white like me, you may be hearing the words “white privilege” and wondering, “Do I need to apologize for being white?” No. Being white is not something to apologize for. Instead, recognize that “white privilege” means our skin color gives us an advantage based on biases and nothing we did to earn privileged status.

Conversely, anyone who is not white is all too often judged by the color of their skin. Most of us can remember being told, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and yet, that’s just what we do. Anyone who doesn’t look like us can make us uncomfortable.

The solution? It’s time to get to know others who are different from us. Different colors, backgrounds, beliefs, faiths, politics, accents, interests, and abilities.

What do we say when we don’t know what to say?

Open a conversation to create greater understanding: “Help me understand what it’s like to be you.”

Then listen. Listen to their stories. Learn what their beliefs, fears, and dreams are. Treat them with respect. Speak up for them.

Realize how much we all share in common. We are much more the same than we are different.

In 2020 we are fighting more than a deadly virus. We are also up against a virus of evil, fear, anger, and hatred. How will we fight this virus? It will be fought with listening, learning, and loving our neighbors. Don’t worry about what to say – just show up and listen.

“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” ~ Dean Jackson

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