This is Etiquette Monster, Jezebel’s advice column where senior writer Madeleine Davies gets worked up and starts screaming about manners. Have a question about etiquette? Email Madeleine at your own risk.
Today, we’re talking about scars—the physical ones, not the emotional ones.
How do I stop this sauna monster from asking about my scar?
Last year, I was involved in a near fatal car accident and, among other things, broke my right leg in such a way that I have a foot-long scar across my knee to show for it. It’s fairly prominent, and we think of it as my Harry Potter scar.
Recently, my husband and I have discovered a local sauna near us, which has been a real benefit to my rehabilitation. We go fairly regularly, and we have gotten to know the regulars. I was really nervous about going at first, as I was convinced that people would stare at my leg and make comments, but thankfully almost everyone has been really polite, and have only asked us what the story is once I have gotten to know them.
All except for one person. There is one woman who I dread seeing, as she is desperate to talk to me about my injury, and I really, really don’t want to do so. The first time I “met” her, she inflicted herself by sitting down next to me, and announcing in a loud voice, “Wow! That scar looks terrible! What happened?” I was stunned, stammered through an answer, and later left almost in tears.
Now, she comes at least once a month or so when I am there, comes straight over, and insists on asking me if my scar is painful and how my accident happened exactly. She is not a nurse and doesn’t have any kind of medical background as far as I can tell. She is just nosy. Attempts by me to change the subject to anything else don’t work, as she will start talking to me again about the scar.
I don’t want to stop going to the sauna, and I don’t want to humiliate or badly upset this woman, as I feel she is just not very sensitive, and also the regulars at the sauna are a nice group of people. I just need a phrase or something I can say that will shut down the conversation with her, firmly and politely, without seeming rude.
Well, Harriet, first things first, I want to tell you that you truly have the patience of a saint. This sauna bog demon who keeps asking you about your scar is being so rude and inconsiderate that I’m tempted to say, fuck manners—and advise you to tell her, under no uncertain terms, that it’s time she shuts her goddamn mouth.
But that’s not you, and while I love talking a big game, it’s not me either. Yes, there are people who certainly deserve a good telling off, but sometimes confrontation, especially when you’re not up for it, can only make you feel worse. Like you said, there’s a chance (a teeny tiny chance) that this woman is just hapless or socially inept and maybe there’s a way to get her to stop asking about your scar without making her (or you) cry. We’ll try to find that way, because that’s the kind thing to do. (Just please keep in mind: Making her cry is most certainly an option here.)
So what should you—The Girl Who Lived—do the next time you see her? I would suggest telling her, as directly and clearly as humanly possible, that her questions about your scar and accident make you feel uncomfortable. “I appreciate your concern,” you can say (being very generous), “but my accident was a traumatic incident for me and I do not want to talk about it.” If she asks why, remind her that your accident and your injuries aren’t talking points or the fun kind of stories that you swap at the sauna. You almost fucking died. It’s a real thing that happened to a real you, and talking about it makes you feel worse and more self-conscious than not talking about it. None of these things are unreasonable or impolite to point out, and this adult woman should know better than to keep asking you about it.
If she continues to bother you about your scar, I’m sorry to say that you’re probably going to have to get harsh with her. (Or you could throw a hot sauna coal at her, but that—even though it’s completely justifiable—is still illegal.) Tell her to mind her own business and if that doesn’t work, report her to the manager of the sauna. She is acting inappropriately. You are not. Anyone reasonable can see that.
Regardless of what you decide to do, I hope more than anything that you will not let this rude woman keep you away from the sauna. It sounds like it has been massively therapeutic to you and that the community, overall, has been warm and welcoming. Why let that sweat troll steal that from you?
And now some advice for everyone: If you see someone who is recovering from an obvious injury, shut the fuck up about it. They know they got hurt. They know they’re in a wheelchair or have an obvious scar or missing arm or whatever their ailment is. They know. And if they want to talk with you about it, they will. If their injury leaves them physically disadvantaged, offer to help (by holding a door open, carrying something for them, and so on), but do not harass them with questions or what’s sure to be your insanely astute observations about their condition.
You never know what happened to someone. It could be traumatic or hard to talk about. They could have PTSD. It could be that they’re sick of talking about it. While—tragically—this means that you might never find out how this person got hurt, that’s fine. Your unsatisfied curiosity is worth less than the importance of minding your own goddamn business and respecting another individual’s right to privacy.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
Art by Tara Jacoby.