10 things not to say to someone who has an unusual appearance
1. What’s wrong with your nose (or whatever)?
If a person wants to speak to you about their face, hair, skin, hands or any other aspect of their body, they will. If they haven’t mentioned it, the chances are that they don’t want to talk about it. This could be because it makes them feel embarrassed, anxious, sad, depressed…or maybe they just have other things to talk about. You may well be curious but be sensitive and wait for them to mention it first, if at all.
2. Is it a contagious disease?
Not only is the answer to this almost always “no”, this is a question which will only make a person feel more self-conscious and alienated. For example, a congenital condition such as Treacher Collins Syndrome is hereditary but is in no way contagious.
3. Do you look like that because you live an unhealthy lifestyle?
No. Never “blame” a person for the way that they look. Aside from the (most important) fact that there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking different, having a visible difference such as a cleft palate or eczema is something that is out of a person’s control.
4. Have you tried changing your diet? Or taking steroids? Or having an operation?
However well-intentioned your advice is, the person just does not need it. They probably have a doctor for that. Your job is to react to them in the same way as you would to anyone else; with kindness and respect.
5. I’m sure it will get better soon.
You’re not sure. So don’t say it. An empty platitude for someone with a chronic health condition which causes them to have an unusual appearance, such as cerebral palsy, is distinctly frustrating, irritating and unhelpful. Also, for some people, there is actually nothing to “get better”. An unusually shaped ear or a birthmark on the cheek is a visible difference but does not necessarily impact on a person’s health.
6. I know how you feel-I have an awful spot on my chin.
Trying to comfort someone by telling them that you know how they feel can actually isolate them further. The comparison shows that you don’t actually understand and are underestimating what they are going through. Also, calling your spot “awful” will make the other person wonder what on earth you are thinking about their own unusual physical feature.
7. You’re so brave and inspirational.
Having a unique appearance does not make a person brave and inspirational. They may well be a brave and inspirational person but they would be whether they looked different or not. A visible difference does not put a person in a different category to everyone else.
8. Oh you look different? I didn’t notice.
You mean well but the other person will know you are being dishonest. If someone has an unusual appearance, they are aware that other people can see it. If you say you didn’t notice that they look different, it can make a person feel patronised and unsupported.
9. At least it’s just the way you look, it could be much worse.
Please don’t try and measure another person’s feelings. Looking different can be difficult at times. It is not “just” appearance. Unfortunately, in today’s society, people are judged and treated differently on the basis of how they look. A survey by Changing Faces found that 9 out of 10 people unwittingly judge people who have disfigurements to be less attractive, less likely to succeed and less easy to work with. In many cases, living with an unusual appearance can have a significant psychological impact on a person and their family too. And anyway, being told “it could be much worse” is not exactly the most uplifting thing to hear.
10. I’m sorry. Yes, living with a visible difference can be a challenge but it is not a life sentence.
The person does not need your condolence or pity. Instead, just as you would do with any other friend, make sure they know that you are there for them if they ever want to talk.
So, what are you going to do when you next meet someone who looks different to you and probably to most of your friends too? Hopefully you’ll treat them like you would anyone else.