Photo: Keith Bremner

“No offense, but why is your head so small?”

This is what a friend of mine, as a child, asked a boy who had just moved next door. I don’t think children mean any harm with their blunt comments, but a “No offense, but . . .” from an adult usually means that you are about to hear an insult masked as concern or caring.

The same applies to “Don’t take this personally, but . . .” or “I’m telling you this as a friend.”

Please. If you are being insulted personally, why shouldn’t you take it personally? And this “friend” is usually anything but. Euphemisms and other masked malice are meant to soften the message, but they still leave you smarting.

Would it be better to forget about the cushioning and say exactly what you mean? Hard to say.

A FEW DAYS AGO, I took the bus home from the movies. I was sitting near the front, and when you are sitting there, it feels natural to leave through the front door. Some drivers refuse to open the front door if there are no passengers coming aboard. I have often wondered why—and now I know.

“Listen,” the driver snapped, “there’s no one getting on. I will choke on the fumes here if I keep opening the front door just for lazy-ass people to get out!”

“Oh, I see,” I mumbled in confusion, and walked back to the middle door. I felt humiliated. Her reasoning was valid, but she could have shown a little more tact. She could even have started by saying “No offense, but . . .”

PEOPLE WHO SEEM the sweetest are often the meanest. Once I was walking behind a wonderful-looking family on the street: parents with three children. Then one of the parents said to the oldest child, “No more candy for you today. You’re fat”—smashing my illusion in an instant.

A colleague held a book launch party recently. For some reason, an older woman sitting opposite me decided that I needed to be educated.

We were discussing traveling. I told her that I loved Athens and that I was sad about what had happened to Greece. Traveling there was no longer an attractive option because of the state of the economy: crime had increased, and the general atmosphere felt unsafe.

“Well, I guess it can’t be helped if you let being a coward stop you from living your life,” she sniffed condescendingly.

“Why are you so aggressive?” I asked her.

“What do you mean?” she replied. “I think I’m entitled to my opinion.”

“I think I’m sensing bad vibes here,” said a male colleague.

Bad vibes? It was war. At some point I managed to retaliate, targeting one of her weak points with pretty fair accuracy, which made me feel much better.

I NEVER ATTACK, but if someone else does, I refuse to back down. However, the incident at the book launch left me feeling bad for several days. I feel threatened when someone attacks me verbally, even though I understand they can’t actually hurt me in any way.

To deal with malicious people, I have created a comforting mental image: a high stone wall separates me from them. If anyone snaps or yells at me, deliberately targets my sore spots, gives me backhanded compliments, or otherwise behaves inappropriately, I throw them over the wall. There they are, fighting among themselves, while I enjoy peace and quiet on the other side.

I can observe them through a tiny hole in the wall, but they cannot see me. Ha! I recommend this mental exercise to everyone.

By Anna-Leena Harkonen
Published with permission from Rights & Brands

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Fictional Events, True Emotions. Anna-Leena Harkonen is not afraid of tackling difficult topics.
In her novels, she draws on the highs and lows of her own life. The events may be fictional, but the emotions are always true.
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Sins of My Youth. A while ago, I thanked a colleague for writing one of her novels. “Oh, that sin of my youth?” she said with a laugh, sounding slightly apologetic. A sin of her youth? I wonder why authors are so merciless about their older works.
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