Geeks Vs Loneliness: random acts of unkindness

A few words on how thoughtless or unkind remarks can stick around a lot longer than might be expected...

Welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our weekly slot where we try and natter about things that may be affecting some of us. Not every article applies to every person, and nobody has a magic wand. But hopefully, in the 50 or so pieces we’ve done so far, there’s been something of use to you.

Most of the articles that we’ve penned as part of our Geeks Vs Loneliness series have primarily been intended to offer positive advice, or at least to open up topics of discussion that otherwise are tricky to bring up.

I’ve ummed and ahhhed about the article that’s going to follow for a little bit though, as it’s a little more negative than I’d usually like. However, I also wanted to say something about how one simple sentence said to someone can have lasting ramifications. Not necessarily major ones, but even to still have an impact long after the person who uttered the words has forgotten about them.

My plea is this: if you’re ever tempted – and let’s face it, the vast majority of us are – to say something unkind, think twice. Don’t assume that that person can’t hear you. Don’t assume that once you’re away from a crowd of friends there won’t be consequences to what’s been said.

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In my case, a few very small examples. But they’re notable ones for me.

I was always a (very) overweight child, and I’ve written about weight loss before on this site. But I did love swimming. When I was around 13 years old, I went swimming with some friends, and stepped out of the water at the end of it. A bunch of people at the side of the pool – boys, slightly younger than me – suddenly burst out laughing, and pointed at my stomach. As if they’d never seen a fat kid before.

The personal ramification of this? It took five years for me to go swimming again. Even on holiday, I’d insist on keeping a T-shirt on.

I managed to shift a lot of weight by the time I was 19, and braved – for the first time in my life – a pair of shorts on a sweltering day. As I was walking along the road, a car took the trouble to slow down, and the driver yelled out the window “I wouldn’t wear shorts if I had legs like yours”, laughed, and drove off.

The personal ramification of that was I’ve never worn shorts out again since.

One more. I’d put weight on again by my mid-20s, and was determined to shift it. A friend of mine thus agreed to a game of tennis, and we booked a court in a local public park. Full disclosure: I’m terrible at tennis, but was determined to get out and exercise. Sadly, though, as many of us have found out, it’s one thing for a bully to tease you about your weight. But when you’re doing something to try and shift it, and they intensify their attacks? It’s shattering. I used to question just which way bullies want it, but then I realised they didn’t care about me. They cared about the quickest and most hurtful put-down. As such, my friend and I abandoned our game of tennis when two passers-by sat down just outside the courts and proceeded to tear us – verbally – to shreds.

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The personal ramification of that? Yep: I’ve never played tennis in public since. It just hurt too much.

Have I overreacted to all of these? Almost certainly. Is it daft that I still have these hang-ups a decade or two down the road? Yep. I’d cop to that. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t still scar.

Danny Wallace’s excellent book, Random Acts Of Kindness, is a welcome shot in the arm if you ever doubt just how wonderful people can be. But also, there’s a flip side. Sometimes, just to come up with the funniest line, people can say something that stops an otherwise fairly confident middle-aged man from wearing shorts many years down the line.

The obvious moral of my story? Please think twice. Appreciating that there are only so many eggshells that anyone can stand on, if a potentially unkind comment can be stopped just before it leaves your mouth, then it may be a far more positive thing than you realise.

Thanks, as always, for reading.