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damage control

The question

My brother-in-law hadn’t seen my son for some time. He asked him how much he weighed. My son politely answered, but my brother-in-law argued with him, saying, “No way, you couldn’t possibly weigh that,” etc. My son has put on some weight lately and is self-conscious about it, so he was upset. Later, my brother-in-law and his wife came over again – and he did it again, in front of everyone! My son answered him a second time. This time my husband told his brother to “cool it.” My brother-in-law smugly said we’re both too sensitive, it’s just guy talk, and added that everyone feels uncomfortable in our home. And he’s known our son has had problems for a while now. No apology for making his nephew feel bad. We probably should have let our son speak for himself, but he’s very polite when it comes to family and didn’t want to address the insult directly.

The answer

That makes my blood boil. Unsolicited observations about other people’s appearance are to be avoided in general.

Even so-called “compliments.” I got a Damage Control question once from a woman who had lost some weight but was getting way too many compliments about it, especially from one friend who, she said, “focuses on ... how much ‘better’ I look, to the point I want to slap her.”

I call this the “insultiment.” (Insult + compliment = insultiment.)

Another example: I have a son who is very tall (6 foot 8). People constantly come up to him and say: “Oooh, you’re so tall.” They mean well, but he’s self-conscious about it and is tired of hearing this “observation.”

He knows he’s tall. Reach for something else, people.

(I, too, got almost-daily “how’s the weather up there” type comments growing up, as did my brother. His responses were blunt. Other person: “Wow you’re tall, do you play basketball?” Him: “No, are you a jockey?”)

So, to recap: stay away from commenting on other people’s appearance, even if it’s a “compliment.”

But unsolicited observations that are unflattering and insulting are obviously completely offside. It’s amusing, to me, all the little passive-aggressive ways people slip them into social discourse.

We’ve discussed the “insultiment.” Then there’s the “questionsult,” passive-aggressive little questions like one a fairly new acquaintance said while looking at some fixtures in our house: “Were those your first choice?”

But what’s particularly irksome to me is your brother-in-law hiding behind the human shield of “guy talk.”

It’s true men like to “bust each other’s chops.” If I have a poker game at our house, my wife will often comment, “Phew, you guys seem to insult each other a lot.”

And I’ve often said it’s when your male friends stop busting your chops that you know you have a real problem. But we also know the difference between in-good-fun camaraderie and someone trying to stick in the shiv and hurt you.

Your brother-in-law strikes me as a straight-up bully. And what do we do when confronted with a bully? We push back, hard.

Sounds like you’ve pushed back a little. But you mentioned politeness a couple of times. Forget politeness. With his behaviour, he has stepped outside the circle of polite society.

He is attacking your offspring! Time for your nostrils to flare and for you to rear up on your hind legs and enter into a state of high dudgeon.

Also a good time for your son to learn a bit about standing up for himself and say to his insulting uncle, “I don’t appreciate your comments, it’s none of your business, and p.s., there’s plenty I could say about you.”

(Always is, about everybody.)

If he refuses to cease and desist, stop inviting him over. After all (you could say to him, hoisting him on his own petard/shiv), you wouldn’t want him to feel “uncomfortable.”

Explain why to his wife. She’s collateral damage, a bit, but I likely only for a while. She will almost certainly start putting the pressure on him. That might be what gets him to straighten up and fly right.

But basically, you don’t need someone like this boorish brother-in-law in your life. You need people who love your son and lift him up, not those who would insult him and hurt him and undermine his self-esteem.

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