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Even if you're right, sometimes it's best to keep your mouth shut

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Even if you're right, sometimes it's best to keep your mouth shut

Rural D.C.: I sat next to a pregnant woman who was smoking a cigarette — during her third trimester.

Didn't know her. Thought about saying something to her. Ultimately didn't.

Now I feel like a chicken. It's not like I would have changed her mind or accomplished anything, but I feel like there is no virtue in keeping one's mouth shut. What she was doing was wrong. Period. And I let it slide. Any thoughts?

Carolyn: I'll get blasted for this, but it was none of your business.

Either she was already aware that smoking during pregnancy puts her baby at risk of health problems; or she hasn't gotten any prenatal care, which puts the baby into an even higher risk category, one your intervention couldn't have affected meaningfully; or the mother is so clueless that her baby has bigger worries than a host who smokes — which, again, a well-meaning/outraged/rescue-minded bystander couldn't do much to offset.

So your watching her smoke while very pregnant only satisfies one of the requirements for intervention: absolute knowledge that a bad decision is being made. You didn't satisfy the important other requirements: ability to make a difference, and knowledge of degree of harm. Was she a defiant chain-smoker, or soon-to-be ex-smoker who's weaning herself off the butts with a doctor's supervision? You have no idea.

So, you didn't "let it slide." You stayed out of a place you didn't belong. Sometimes there's no virtue in opening one's mouth.

There are ways to help roommate without meddling

New York: My roommate is the only child of two late-in-life parents, one deceased and the other very, very sick in a nursing facility in her home state. As far as I know, she has no living relatives who are looking out for her, and she's the sole executor of her parents' estate. She visits the living father occasionally, but never talks about it.

I have inferred that he's getting worse and that it's really weighing on my roommate, but she doesn't see a therapist or discuss it with the people close to her.

She seems to be self-medicating with alcohol (on occasion she is too hungover to visit her parent). I want to suggest that she consider a therapist, but because she NEVER DISCUSSES THIS and our relationship is pretty casual/jokey, I can't figure out how to give my 2 cents without making the situation worse.

I'm very worried for her. She has hurt herself badly on nights when she's been blackout drunk.

Carolyn: Find local hospice providers (, write down the contact information for the one or two nearest you, and hand them to your roommate. Just say, "I know this is your business" and then add "but I'm worried about you" or "but there's help out there if you need it." Whatever strikes the right balance of concern and respect for her privacy.

Approaching it as a grief (vs. alcohol) issue is less likely to trip her defenses, because grief has a lower shame profile than alcohol abuse. Blackout drunkenness is a serious problem, and that obligates you to intervene. You can't make her get help, but you can make it easier to get.

Even if you're right, sometimes it's best to keep your mouth shut 05/16/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 16, 2010 4:30am]
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