A friend commented to me the other day that she'd seen someone she knew in town who looked like he'd lost weight, but my friend was embarrassed to ask about any weight loss because she didn't want the guy to feel uncomfortable. Obviously, my friend is socially inept.
Who wouldn't want to be asked if they've lost weight? Because "Hey, have you lost weight?" sounds a lot like "You look hot, babe." Even if they say no, they've gained weight, you could say: "Well, you must be putting it on in all the right places." And that's hot, too.
Really, the only way you can mess up this question is if you totally word it incorrectly: "Good grief, you're skinny. Have you recently contracted a fatal illness?" Yeah, that'd do it. Or if your tone was completely wrong and you asked skeptically: "Have you, uh, lost? Y'know, weight?" But you'd almost have to be trying to make your tone strike a sour note.
On the other hand, "Is that your kid I read about in the court report?" is pretty straight forward but, perhaps, a bit tricky to tackle socially.
An inquiry about someone's child's budding criminal career may not be a question you want to blurt out at, say, the office Christmas party or the next family reunion. Unless, of course, you know the answer is yes, and you actually do wish to sabotage that person publicly. Then by all means, awesome, ask away.
It's not like the question: "What's that smell?" which is wide open to interpretation.
Smell is one of those neutral words whose meaning can be altered drastically with tone. Maybe you're saying it like you've caught a whiff of the most delicious scent since grandma's cookies and you wish to bottle it to be enjoyed again later. Maybe you're saying it like the stench in the air is making you want to wretch your lunch onto your favorite shoes. It's a tricky sentence to negotiate, despite its three-word simplicity.
My husband often gets some version of "How did you lose your arm?" If he detects a tone that's less than sincere and sympathetic, the asker gets some version of "A grizzly bear/mountain lion/escaped tiger at the zoo/herd of rabid squirrels ate it." Or "Lost? Oh, crap, I forgot it at home." Or my personal favorite: "One time I went up to this guy and asked him what happened to his arm. Then he took out a big pocket knife and cut my arm off. I lost my knife this morning. Guess this is your lucky day."
He always tells kids the truth. It's a rule — though for the snotty ones the truth is: "It's none of your business."
Sometimes he'll wax prosaic about his one-armedness to the kids, then end with the moral: "And that's why you should always be careful." Making him the only person in the world who can make amputation boring. Ironically, the kids who suffer through that moralizing are probably the ones who'll never ask a question like that again.
Me? I always get questions like: "How many of those have you eaten?" Whatever.
But it does lead me to the one question that just can't be handled delicately: "Have you gained some weight?" No goodwill can come of that question. You might as well just state your mind straight out: "Gads! You're getting fat."
One time my sweet grandpa asked me if I had gained weight. I admitted I had, and he said: "It looks really good on you. You look great, hon."
And I know you're thinking, awww, that does sound pretty sweet, like the only time in the history of the world when a person could feel OK about getting chubby.
I might be willing to go along with that sentiment if I didn't know that macular degeneration has left my grandpa with less than 5 percent of his vision.
So, yeah, that means I'd gained so much weight that a legally blind man could see it, but I shouldn't worry because, hey, the blind guy thinks I "look" fabulous. Awesome.
It's not making me feel so much better.
(The question: "Would you like a custard filled doughnut, or two?" might make me all right with it, though, at http://viewnorth40.wordpress.com.)