Miss manners

Is it OK to correct my boyfriend when he's crude?

Published July 15, 2004 7:46PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been in a relationship with a man for a year and a half. It's been great -- he's a person I love spending time with, we respect each other and communicate well for the most part. We are also very different people personality-wise; I think in a lot of ways we complement each other this way.

However, it is just these differences that are beginning to concern me. I am polite (perhaps sometimes to a fault) and more on the shy side; he is more outspoken than I, and can sometimes be crude or crass in how he expresses himself. This does not happen often, and when it does, it bothers me. I have begun to say things like, "Hey, you shouldn't say that" when he comes out with some comment about a woman he thinks is a "ho." Recently we had a talk where he said he was offended when I tried to correct him like this, and it made him feel like a child. I saw his point, felt bad and apologized.

On the one hand I think that this is just a case of "boys will be boys"; on the other hand I'm afraid of being with someone who needs to communicate in an immature and disrespectful way. Is this the kind of man I someday would like to marry and raise children with? Am I just making too much of a big deal about this?

When Words Get in the Way

Dear Words Get in the Way,

Try this: The next time he says something like that, just for the sake of argument, entertain the possibility that what he says is true. If he says he thinks some woman is a "ho," ask him what makes him think so. Did he see her take money for performing a sex act? Has she been standing under a freeway overpass in a tight black skirt, talking to the drivers of slow-moving cars?

That way, you're engaging him in a principled way, while also being playful. You're having a conversation. You're not reprimanding him like a child.

He probably doesn't mean she's literally a prostitute. "Ho" is a term of derision for a loose, easy woman, or a woman who is not respected in her community, who has gotten some bad breaks or made some bad choices, or who doesn't stand up for herself and lets herself be taken advantage of, or who dresses too provocatively or in bad taste. A man who uses it often may feel contempt or superiority toward such women, or fail to understand the political and economic difficulties women face in trying to live independently. Or he may just be kidding around.

I'm not suggesting you get in a big debate with him. It really isn't important whether she's a "ho" or not. What's important is that you not ridicule him, but try to find out what he does feel.

If the term embarrasses you, you might ask why that is so. There may be other issues of class, gender and status involved. Like kids, men enjoy saying forbidden words. He might be doing it partly to indicate that he doesn't feel comfortable in overly polite society. It can be stifling to be among people who are too proper. Maybe he's trying to loosen you up, or clear the air. And maybe that's part of what you like about him -- that he's real and down-to-earth.

So instead of saying, "Hey, you shouldn't say that," how about saying, "Why do you say she's a ho? To me, she seems like a nice woman!"

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By Cary Tennis

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