Carolyn Hax: Advice

Using the ‘idiot’ word is bad either way

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn: Is there a difference between being called an idiot (for example) and someone saying you’re acting like an idiot? Supposedly, one is less offensive than the other, according to a certain significant person in my life.

Matter of semantics?

I think there’s a huge difference, but that doesn’t matter. Your significant person thinks so, and that’s what matters, right? And you apparently don’t agree, which of course also matters.

So: (a) Stop calling this or any person an idiot, and instead say he or she is acting like one; even better, find a nicer way to make your point altogether.

And: (b) When he or she asks you to stop acting like an idiot, resist the urge to react and instead consider the context:

▪  Did you do something thoughtless and this is just your significant person’s rather rough way of saying, “Please stop doing that”?

▪  Does that phrase bother you, and when you say so are you looking for a simple apology but instead getting shut down with lawyerly semantics?

▪  Does even your slightest misstep bring down the hammer, however it’s worded, and no matter of semantics can disguise the fact that you may have granted this person more significance than is deserved?

For what it’s worth, calling someone an idiot diminishes the whole person while “acting like an idiot” addresses only the behavior. That’s the difference.

Neither one is a field of daisies, but certainly the latter is a lot easier to sell as something that could be said with affection, if both of you comfortably talk that way. A stretch, but possible.

It’s a big topic in child-rearing, too. You don’t tell a kid, “You’re a bad boy,” you say, “You made a bad choice.”

If someone’s outright calling you an idiot, then I hope it’s your old teammate from the 2004 Red Sox.

Hi, Carolyn: A few months back, my husband was asked to be a groomsman in a friend’s wedding. This is a very recent friend and he was surprised at the request. However, he was flattered and, at the time, thought it sounded like fun. The wedding is a destination wedding that will require him/us to travel 500 miles away.

Since he agreed, we’ve both realized what an inconvenience in time and money this trip would be, and he’s no longer keen. Is there any way to take back his decision to be in the wedding?

Bowing Out

There’s no way that isn’t a slap to the face, not unless you have the out that etiquette always leaves: when you’re forced to back out for a reason that’s much less pleasant than the wedding. So, getting sick, getting injured, getting laid off, having a close relative get sick, having your house flood from a burst pipe the day you’re supposed to leave, etc. Should you be so fortunate not to have these to excuse you, you go.

Re: Groomsman: If he knew it was a destination wedding when asked, then yes. But if the destination part was decided later I think you have an out. Unless the bridal couple is paying your way.


Ah – there’s that, thanks. Call it the bait-and-switch exception.

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