Former Washington Savings Bank President and Chairman John Hogan once gave me sound advice that I’ve tried to adhere to years later.
“Read the obituaries every day,” said Hogan, who had just watched me embarrass myself by asking a woman I knew how her husband was. The woman’s husband had died about a month earlier. Sensing my embarrassment, John pulled me aside after the woman left.
“If you deal with the public, and even if you don’t, you should make it a point to read the obituaries every day,” he said.
That was in 1988, and I’ve made it a point to read the obituaries almost every day since. I must have missed the week of June 2, 2005, however, because I ran into a friend the other day and blithely asked, “how’s your mom?”
Her mother, she graciously told me, died five years ago at the age of 92. At this point I was trying to crawl under the parking lot pavement. My friend was very gracious and understanding. She told me not to think twice about the faux pas. I’m sure we’ve all done it, she said.
Have you ever asked a woman how far along she was only to discover that no, she was not pregnant? I’ve done it more than once, but I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t care if the woman is 13 months pregnant, on a stretcher and headed into the delivery room. I’m not asking.
A woman who attends my church showed up one day with another woman who bore a striking resemblance to her, but older. Obviously a family member. “Hi, is this your mother?” It was the woman’s sister. Oops. Neither women has been particularly nice to me since. Now, I err on the side of caution. If I see two women who look alike except for the fact that they are separated by about 50 years, I’ll ask, “are you two sisters?”
That usually elicits a response like, “oh, aren’t you the charmer. Aren’t you sweet.” Hey, I’ve learned my lesson, over and over.
As a young adult, I had a friend, Joe, who stuttered. I don’t know how many times I would open my mouth to see if my foot fit. At a gathering one day, somebody was tickling a baby that was lying on a blanket on the floor. I piped in, “hey, don’t you know that if you tickle a baby, he’ll grow up stuttering?” I immediately felt a sharp pain in my shoulder, brought on by one of Joe’s punches. “Jerk,” he said.
Another time, when my wife Diane was pregnant (I didn’t have to ask about that one), we were out with a group of friends, and the conversation turned to baby names. Joe was there with his wife. Someone said we should give the baby a good Irish name like Sean.
“Sean Shaughnessey,” I said. “Yeah, that’s good. The poor kid will grow up stuttering.”
I got punched again. Joe, by the way, is an incredible singer.
Bill Cosby tells a great story about visiting Ray Charles. He rings the doorbell and Ray says, “come on in.” Cosby walks in. The house is dark. Ray says, “I’ll be out in a minute. I’m shaving.” Bill says, “how can you shave with the lights out?” Again, graciousness was in order. “I always shave with the lights out,” said Ray.
Like my friend whose mom died five years ago and my friend who stutters, we need to cut each other some slack. We’re only human. We all have our socially awkward moments, but it doesn’t mean we need professional help. And for someone who speaks as much as I do, I’m bound to step in it once in a while.
Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail is email@example.com.