The Journal of Best Practices

Marriage, Asperger's, and being a better husband

A Case for Saying Stupid Things

What I learned when I called my wife crabby.

I was in my office attempting to stick my leg behind my head when Kristen called me, which was strange. Though I call Kristen no fewer than a dozen times a day to check in and chat about whatever I’m working on or thinking about, she normally doesn’t call me unless she really needs something.

It was lunchtime and she was on her way home from the store. “Seriously?” she said into the phone as soon as I answered, “How long does it take to slice a turkey?” I admitted that I didn't know, and she continued. “The kids and I were just at the deli counter for fifteen minutes waiting for a pound of turkey. There was one other person in line ahead of us. One person! I mean, what the heck?”

“That sucks,” I said.

In our relationship I’m always the one who’s losing sight of the big picture and flipping out over little things, so it was weirdly engrossing to hear Kristen so worked up over what she would normally consider to be, at worst, a minor inconvenience.

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“And then I didn’t have my grocery list,” she continued, “so I didn’t even know what else I had to buy, and I really don’t want to go back to the store this afternoon because I have so many other things to do today.” It seemed the deli counter was just the tip of the iceberg. Earlier in the morning she had taken the kids to the library only to learn that I had accrued a substantial amount of unpaid fines. Oops. When she went to pay the fines, she discovered she’d left her wallet at home so she had to drive all the way back to get it, which meant she wouldn’t have time to swing by the shoe store to find shoes for the kids as she had planned. Her entire morning, she said, had been wasted.

Besides apologizing for the library fines, I wasn’t sure what to say. Kristen openly complains maybe once or twice a year on average, so I’m always a little unsure how to proceed when she does. Does she want a solution? I wonder. Does she want me to act annoyed for her?

I was about to comfort her with another “That sucks” when the kids piped up from the back of the minivan and she abruptly got off the phone to deal with them. I should have let the matter go as I typically do, but I wanted to be helpful. So a few minutes later I made a risky move, texting her: “I think I know why you’re crabby.”

Funny how seven little words can make or break a guy’s chances of sleeping in his own bed that night.

I set my phone down and waited. A minute or two later I got a response: “This oughtta be good. Tell me.”

Under normal circumstances I would not have sent Kristen such a potentially inflammatory message. Past experience has taught me that it’s generally okay for Kristen to call me out when I’m being a grouch, but it rarely goes well when I do it. I’ll probably never understand why that is, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that I know it’s best not to go there, that it’s best to clam up—unless I’m feeling courageous enough to follow through with whatever conversation the remark may invite. I was fairly certain I could offer Kristen some insight, so I went for it. No guts, no glory.

I called her and related my theory, which as it turned out couldn’t have been more off base. My guess was that she had been feeling anxious about her weekly schedule being thrown out of whack with our kids being home on summer break, and that getting back to her normal routine would make her feel better. Seemed like a plausible theory. But that, Kristen explained, was not the case. “It was just an annoying start to my day,” she said. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

She got quiet for a moment and I worried that my daring maneuver had backfired, that I had angered her even more by calling her crabby. But then she thanked me for thinking about her, and told me how the word crabby had actually made her laugh. "That is the perfect word for how I feel right now," she said, laughing. "I admire your guts."

Against all odds, I had brightened Kristen's day by calling her out. What’s more, I had somehow invited a dialog that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise: With a surprising lilt in her voice she asked me how my day was going, I lied by saying nothing of my leg experiment, and just like that, the frustrations of the morning were behind her.

I dunno. There’s a lot to be said for knowing when to clam up, but maybe it’s good to know when to say something incredibly stupid, too. 

David Finch is a New York Times best-selling humorist, essayist, and public speaker.

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