A reader writes:
Recently (as in within the past five weeks or so), I’ve developed a rather painful foot condition and started using a cane to help keep from over-stressing the injured foot. I’m still young — mid-20s — and I’ve found that a lot of distant coworkers, people I have never spoken to before or only greeted in passing, have started to be very rude in the guise of expressing concern! They’ll say things like, “Oh, what did you do to yourself?” or “Uh oh, what did you do?” in a tone that suggests that I’m some kind of a naughty child who broke something or tracked mud in the house, instead of an adult who happens to be dealing with a health challenge.
I’m already struggling with self-consciousness over the use of the cane, and every time someone else I don’t know from Adam (or, more often, Eve — it seems to be women, especially older women, who are bringing this up the most) opens a conversation by implying that I did something wrong that has me using the it, I get more and more unhappy about having to use it at all.
Is there a good way to shut down these conversations? I don’t want to discuss my health with the entire (very large) office, to the point where even just saying, “I hurt my foot” over and over feels like unwarranted oversharing. I do not want to discuss my health, I do not want to discuss my body, I would like these people to just go back to saying “Good morning,” to me as we pass in the hall and leave it at that. Unfortunately, the only responses I can think of that would stop the conversation, something like “I’d rather not discuss it” or “Please don’t talk about this,” seem to me like they would be very brusque — or come off that way given how irritated I am over the repeated questioning! As a young person new to this part of the building, I don’t want to develop a reputation for being cold or unfriendly — it’s already bad enough that I tend not to socialize very much with people. It also seems like declining to talk about it would possibly spark gossip and speculation, which is the last thing I want!
Hopefully the condition won’t go on long enough for the cane to become a regular fixture of mine, but in the meantime, I’m feeling defensive and extremely self-conscious at work about a mobility aid that I’ve finally been convinced I need.
I’m sorry about your foot! You’ve come to the right place for foot-related empathy, believe me.
Here’s the thing though: The comments that you’re interpreting as infantilizing or scolding almost certainly aren’t intended that way — they’re intended as a sincere expression of concern, even camaraderie. These are people being warm toward you.
And yes, perhaps they’re not being as thoughtful as they should. Few people, after all, want to go into the details of their health conditions with near-strangers, especially not multiple times per day. But when your coworkers are used to seeing you without a cane and suddenly they’re seeing you with one, they’re almost certainly assuming you have a minor injury and maybe even an amusing story to go with it.
This isn’t right, but it’s understandable. You may have even done it yourself in the past, when asking someone about the cast on their arm or their sudden use of crutches. (In fact, some people would find it rude and uncaring not to ask about, say, a cast and crutches. A cane is different — or can be — but I suspect a similar principle applies for people who saw that you weren’t using it a few weeks ago.)
To be clear, I’m not arguing that you’re obligated to answer their queries or that we shouldn’t all be more thoughtful about this stuff. We should be. But I do think you’ll be better served by understanding where people are coming from and that they’re not chastising you; they’re expressing concern and warmth.
As for what to say in response … Try just saying “It’s a long story” in a friendly tone and continuing to walk (or changing the subject if you’re in conversation). To all but the rudest, that will communicate “I don’t want to get into details about this” without seeming overly brusque. If someone does continue to ask, you can say, “It’s a difficult topic and I’d rather not talk about it.” Anyone who continues to ask after that is a boor and may be legitimately ignored.
I hope this helps, and I hope your foot heals soon!