57. Queen of Stealth Insults

57. Queen of Stealth Insults

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Queen of Stealth Insults

Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.

~Eric Hoffer

My mother-in-law is the queen of stealth insults. I am constantly amazed by how I unwittingly set myself up for her jabs. I am not a dumb person; by golly, I even graduated from college. Nonetheless, I never see those insults coming.

My mother-in-law’s insults are not devastating, just irksome. They span the four to five range on the ten-scale. Not evil enough to condemn her, the jibes are just toxic enough to tax emotions. Never clearly straightforward, they are kind of right-flank-from-the-rear attacks. Often the insults are oblique enough to be misclassified as “general conversation.” Fundamentally, they are subtle taunts exposing my soft side and encouraging me to show my worst side.

To avoid being predictable and therefore vulnerable, my mother-in-law has a large repertoire of insult modes. One mode is the No-Witness mode. During one particular visit, our men had gone outside and I was prepping to follow. She offered me a bit of advice, “Shouldn’t you put a hat on? It’s cold outside.”

“Oh, my hair is thick enough for this weather,” I responded sweetly. It was fifty degrees outdoors.

“Yes, I need a hair cut too,” she said.

After twenty-two years, I have learned to view these unforeseen jibes as badges of honor and steps on a ladder. Each insult enables me to elevate my opinion of myself a bit higher. Not because I amuse myself by drawing fire, but rather because I feel a touch of pride in being able to raise myself above retaliation, however tempting that may be.

Hierarchy is crucial to my mother-in-law’s supreme reign. She insists her status be recognized so Position-Coup is another of her modes. Granted, the woman’s local community holds her in high esteem because of her benevolence and generosity. She inherently stakes claim to the superior position to which she feels entitled. When I married her son, I asked her by what name I should call her. She insisted on the significant name, “Mama.” Strangely, even though I am supposed to call her Mama, when she leaves a message for me on my answering machine she always says, “Hello, Gretchen, this is your mother-in-law.” I really do recognize her first name and even her voice. Her chosen words are subtle intimidations and elevations of position. If the Queen of England were to call me on the phone, I am sure she would say, “Hello, this is the Queen of England,” rather than “Hey, this is Liz.”

Sometimes Mama uses a combination of modes to put me in my place. The setup might include the Insignificance-Mode. Mama has never thanked me for any gift; au contraire, my feeble efforts of bestowing offerings are usually ignored. A lovely gift of premium scented bath soaps and lotions was once met with a grunt and a nod of the head. Initially I was ecstatic, as my gift was at least acknowledged. Thirty minutes later, when a group of her friends arrived, she showed me how I misinterpreted her gesture. She engaged the Protection-in-Numbers mode. I was duly admonished when Mama announced out of the blue to all her guests, “One gift I really can’t use is scented soaps and lotions. I am allergic to them.”

Was I supposed to be stupid enough to admit that I wasted a wad of money on a basket of useless smelly stuff? Or perhaps I was being taunted to say something unkind about Ms. Benevolence in front of her devotees. Maybe it was just her way of saying I was ignorant about her personage. Maybe the gift was too common. Who knows? Who cares?

Perhaps one of her most trifling modes is the You-Can’t-Have-It mode. This is a seasonal mode occurring around birthdays and Christmas. Some years we have lived a great distance apart and in-person visits are very infrequent. At holiday time her phone call may start with a question, “What size are you wearing now?”

Being a person who is particular about what I wear and possessing fashion tastes very different from Mama’s, I try to skirt the issue and explain that I am really hard to fit. Her persistence wears me down and I end up admitting MY TRUE SIZE, which of course is larger than it was twenty-two years ago.

After forcing my confession, her inevitable response is, “Well, I will probably get something else. What would you like?” This question runs in tandem with other conversations that have occurred throughout the years. When I compliment her on some material possession, she informs me that she may get me one for Christmas. Of course, I have never gotten anything I have ever said I liked or wanted.

Interspersed with her other surreptitious modes is her most frequently employed mode: You’re-Dismissed. Feigning interest, she asks a question, “Do you have to give your kitty medication?”

Imagining that she might actually be interested in one of my passions, I repeatedly fall for her trap and begin to explain, “She’s on a special diet. She has to have…”

I am promptly cut off and the subject is changed. I guess she is satisfied that she showed interest by asking the question. She really does not want to be bothered with my answer.

When I married, for some unknown reason I really did expect to have a good relationship with my mother-in-law. Maybe that is why I never see the insults coming. I keep expecting that she will like me and truly encourage me. I assure myself I am doing my part in maintaining peaceful family relations by redefining “standing up for myself,” as “throwing return insults is unacceptable conduct.” In other words, standing up for myself means learning to duck—or is that a bow to the queen?

~Gretchen Bauer

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