Musings + Essays

The Five Second Rule.

By: Jen Shoop

At some point over the past year, I came across some essay or post on how to react to prickly or inappropriate questions (say, for example, about when you’re going to have your next baby), and the expert advised a response along the lines of: “I am surprised you feel comfortable asking me that.” A clever comeback, I thought, in that it both declines to answer the question and makes clear that the query was unwelcome. Only I am positive that I would not be able to get this out without sweaty fluster, and a tongue trip over the word “comfortable.” Though I am in agreement with its gesture, I know myself well enough to intuit that it would feel far too aggressive for me to trot out in a moment already piqued by hurt or shock or irritation.

What, then, to say?

I remember an incident awhile back where a guest in my new home asked “And what are you going to do with this?” as she gestured to our kitchen and family room. Do with this? The words hung out there for a minute before I realized she was insinuating that it was not to her (our?) taste and needed “work” in order to bring it up to par. (For context, we had not been discussing home design or renovation — she simply threw it out there, as though it was clear as day that something needed to be done in that space. She had, by contrast, complimented the back porch, which made the question feel particularly pointed.) In the moment, I said I was going to “dream something up” with our decorator and then changed the subject. Later, I felt angry. The comment had been, I think, rude, but I was mainly upset with myself for not having the backbone to say something like: “Oh, we love it as it is!” Which is the truth. We are currently making modest changes to it but it’s a perfect layout for us and I wouldn’t change a thing about its structure, flow, appliances, shape, etc. I am proud of it. It is certainly the nicest home I have ever lived in, and the kitchen is its heart. Instead of singing its due praises, I had immediately felt the need to agree with her assessment and implicitly malign our new and much-loved home.

This is a pattern with me: intense esprit de l’escalier after I politely agree with someone else to keep feathers from ruffling rather than speaking my own mind. I know, as I relive that moment, that I could never have managed a slick reply like: “I’m surprised you feel comfortable asking me that.” I lack even the stomach to go the “feign ignorance to draw out her intentions” route by saying something like: “…What do you mean by that?” It’s, simply, too cruel. I hate to see people squirm. And as I type this, I find myself fashioning her defense: she probably didn’t mean anything by it. Maybe she was generally asking about how we might decorate it. Maybe she was just making conversation and it came out weird. I have certainly asked inappropriate or untoward questions in my time, whether out of nervousness or ignorance or for the sake of making chatter. The more I type, the more I realize that it is better, for so many reasons, to just let things go. For one thing, it is more in line with my recurring intention: to live with more grace. To give people the benefit of the doubt. To let things slick off my back. Mr. Magpie often asks me, when I am upset about something and debating whether to make my point known or just let it go: “Is this the hill you want to die on?” Usually, it is not. Usually, it is better to just unclip and move on. Of course, there is a stark difference between letting a casual question about my home go and, say, sublimating some deep emotional hurt. For the latter — I must work through it and must figure out a way to communicate how I feel. But for the more frivolous barbs, what to do?

After some reflection, I have devised a narrow strategy for dealing with similar instances in the future. I try to force myself to wait five full seconds before replying. Sometimes I even pinch my hand during that time as if a mnemonic for reminding myself to stay quiet. During those five seconds (which is, by the way, a long time in casual conversation), I aim to give myself the space to assess my knee jerk instinct to agree and contemplate a more truthful response.

The end goal is this: the quiet conviction to say, “You know, I love it as it is.” And just leave it at that.

How do you deal with these scenarios?


+To the athlete at the start line.

+I love my husband.

+On focusing on what’s immediately ahead of us.

Shopping Break.

+A good, inexpensive pair of shorts that come in tons of colors for my hiking habit this summer.

+A clever way to keep a closet smelling fresh. I think this will be my new go-to hostess gift.

+Diptyque now has some home cleaning products, including counter spray and dishwashing liquid. I am sure they smell heavenly! I do want to mention that for 1/4th of the price, you can get this excellent-smelling counter spray (in the Rose Driftwood scent), which smells like something from Jo Malone.

+Breeze white summer dress. I’d feel like a Greek goddess in this.

+Adore this chic woven dress. I have a category of “after 5 pm dresses” — the kind of thing I change into after work/writing/errands/daytime, before pajamas are appropriate. Nap dresses score highly, as do caftans. I shared my favorite house dresses last year here. I feel like this long woven style would be a welcome addition to the lineup.

+This swimsuit has been a best-seller this season, and now available in a fun nautical stripe.

+These ice cube molds are adorable — I use them a lot for activities/projects with the kids, including making “fizzy cubes” (look up the recipe from Mother Could!) and jello shapes.

+Let’s get this party started.

+Obsessed with this oyster-shaped clutch (under $100!)

+Guys, I have had a whole saga about the bunks we bought for our upstairs room. We specifically bought this one from C&B because it said in February (and still says now) “in stock and ready to ship.” Perfect, because we wanted it in place before my niece and nephew visited for ten days in June, and everywhere else we looked had a delay until July or September. (My top pick was this one from Room and Board, which wouldn’t have shipped until September.) However, once purchased, we kept getting delay emails. Finally, it came to be mid-May and no bunk bed was in sight! I reached out and they confirmed that the bunk was on indefinite backorder because a specific panel had not come in yet. I know the furniture industry is struggling because of the pandemic and so there’s no use getting angry about it. It just is what it is. Anyhow, I decided to cancel that order. Coincidentally, then, a family member offered up a bunk bed they no longer needed, and I was ecstatic! Attractive, free, and easy to pick up locally. But then that fell through because they ended up needing to keep it. So then at the last minute we panic ordered this one from Target, which is I think one of the only bunk beds available for delivery within a few days in the entire world — we are now anxiously awaiting for it to be delivered. Will report back on quality once assembled!

+Our star-print bedding did arrive — it is SO cute!

+My favorite sneaky-easy but chic dessert: a scoop of sorbet with a float of champagne over the top, served in coupes like these.

+These keychains/bag charms are so adorable. Fun gift!

+Punchy embroidered tunic.

+My best friend during the summer months. So easy to apply to children, too!

+This jumpsuit is FUN.

+This float vest for children is so fun. More beach/pool gear for littles here and here. I will note that this puddle jumper cover is always very popular when I feature it, but I also invariably receive notes about children who have drowned because of them. My children still use them, but you might want to consider / read up on that before buying to make an informed decision.

+This little gingham suit for a little lady is adorable.

+These shorts remind me of something by Pucci! Would be fun to dress these up for dinner out.

+Speaking of Pucci: meow.

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22 thoughts on “The Five Second Rule.

  1. Crate & Barrel is SO bad for that. We had a custom couch that we ordered for our new home that was delivered 6 months after the initial date (all while we made do with no couch and one chair in an effort at frugality until it arrived – I was too optimistic at the delivery I think).

    I also ordered two pint glasses to replace some that had broken and have been waiting over a year for them. I keep forgetting that I ordered them and then get an email letting me know they are delayed again. I should just cancel the order, but now I kind of just want to wait it out and see if I ever get them – LOL!

    But yeah, while it is bad in that industry now, in my experience so far… C&B is the absolute worst (or I just have bad luck with them).

    1. Yikes!!! That’s horrible! I’m glad then that I canceled the order after all. I feel like we might have been waiting years for it.


  2. I am a big fan of the ‘what do you mean by that?’ I see that question giving the speaker the opportunity to clearly state his or her opinion and intention, rather than me connecting perhaps nonexistent dots

  3. I want to add that when I am successful at responding to unsettling comments, it’s often my sense of humor that helps me say something. A woman I worked with said that she hated my hair color, knowing that it was my natural dark brown color. Why would you say this to someone you are having lunch with? What do you say in return? I laughed out of shock & said “I wondered how I was going to tell you that I don’t like your hair color.” She bristled but she got the message.

    1. So clever – I wish I had your quick footedness in crafting a good reply like this! Thanks for sharing this — agree that humor can be a very effective tool at communicating a point with a light touch.


  4. I aim for grace. Yet, I hate when I ruminate over something said that unsettles me. Sometimes, I have to backtrack & have a difficult conversation with someone because too many unsettling things have been said. Sometimes, I let it go by deciding how I want to handle such a situation next time. Manners & grace are important to me.

    1. I agree with this — if I find myself stewing, I really need to figure out a way to work through it with the other person, even if it’s weeks after the fact.


  5. Ah, I’m right there with you. What I’ve realized is that, yes, it’s very valuable to let certain things go. (DNE! As you said, which I love.)

    But if I am agreeable to a fault, especially with people I’m in relationships with, the result is often that I am not being honest, and thus, on some inner level, I am self-sacrificing. I am taking on emotional pain from a situation/relationship in order to allegedly “keep the peace.” But I am keeping the (external) peace by experiencing (internal) turmoil — and self-sacrifice almost always breeds resentment.

    So I guess my long winded point is I actually believe what Brené Brown said, “Clear is kind.” Honesty IS kind. It might cause in-the-moment discomfort, but in the long run, healthy relationships thrive when both parties are honest. On the one hand, I believe this, on the other, I find it very hard to implement. I think the 5 second pause is a great place for me to start!

    1. Hi Joyce – I appreciate this added nuance. I so agree that in personal relationships that matter to me, I really need to work on addressing the issues as they come up versus just brushing them aside to “keep the peace.” I recently worked up the courage to do this — a close friend said something that hurt / took me by surprise, and I did not have the immediate wherewithal to respond, but instead excused myself to the bathroom, gathered some thoughts, and then returned and said: “You know, I just have to say something –” and came out with it. It was such a relief to address the issue the same night it happened versus harboring it for an eternity. A work in progress for me, too. But just a note that sometimes if we don’t have the ability/words to address something RIGHT away, it can still be handled the same evening or ten minutes later or whatever.


  6. Ah, what a great topic. As I round into my third trimester (!!), I recently had the new *pleasure* of having a gentleman I had just met at a work event make an awkward/inappropriate/all of the things comment about my body in a large group of all men. I somehow had the wherewithal to pause silently, cock my head, and blink at him a few times, during which he clearly realized how problematic his comment was and apologized. I then gently affirmed, yes I was indeed pregnant (his comment was along the lines of “big lunch, huh? haha” and a slow elevator up & down scan of my body), and delicately informed him that perhaps he shouldn’t comment on women’s bodies in the future. Honestly, fairly proud of how I handled it.

    However, in most cases, I usually do the awkward-automatic-nervous-female-laugh response and then kick myself afterwards (agh!). As I get older and more confident in myself, especially in situations with professional or more senior family members, I try for a noticeable silence/a pause as a default, which, as you mentioned, allow people to reflect on what they just said.

    A work in progress!

    1. Wow – that would be a huge achievement for me — I’m so impressed with how you responded to that / handled that! I like the idea of a noticeable silence (accompanied, if I am bold enough, by your slow and performative blink), not only to invite self-reflection on the other party’s side, but to remind myself to just keep my lips zipped to let the moment breathe for a second before jumping into the nervous laugh / brush-it-off type response. Definitely a work in progress. Thank you! Encouraging!


  7. Thank you for this! I am very similar to you and the ladies above. Definitely something to keep pocketed and learn how to do.

    I wanted to comment about your hiking shorts. I am not an avid hiker but my husband is and he recommends you always wear pants. Granted he goes on 30 mile bikes BUT I get the gist. You never know what you might run into (say poison ivy) so wanted to throw it out there. We usually wear lightweight pants in the summer like these:

  8. I really identify with your thoughts here, and often find myself in a similar situation. Thanks for articulating this quandary so well!

  9. My daughter is adopted and of another race so as a family we’ve been asked all sorts of inappropriate questions. Many times people are curious and sometimes their tone or body language give hints to this and to those people we have tried to give honest answers in hope that they are willing to learn something. But to the people in the grocery store who come right over and ask something inappropriate a simple “Why do you ask?” usually quiets them. My daughter is now 18 and quit adept at handling these questions!

    1. Oh my goodness – it is astounding that people feel comfortable asking these things! I like the question you’ve kept at the ready. Thanks for sharing this.


  10. This post really hit home or me. I am the exact same as you and loathe the fact that I have NEVER been able to respond to people’s rude inquiries the way I would like. I, like you, just always let it pass by with a level of acquiescence which makes me feel weak and disappointed in myself. It has been a life-long struggle. Someone once suggested that when someone asks something that one believes is rude or none of their business one should reply, “Why do you ask?” This is a good way to ferret out the motivation or intention behind the question. Unfortunately, I have not been able to do this yet. However, your 5 second rule may in fact allow me to gather myself in the moment to do it. Thank you for this post. It is reassuring to know I am not the only one.

    1. You are so not alone – this is such a struggle for me! I hate to ruffle feathers or introduce any kind of discomfort/awkwardness to a situation. I like the question “Why do you ask?” or “What do you mean?” I feel like these things buy time / encourage the asker to reflect on what he or she has asked. Thank you for sharing this.


  11. Love that clever retort , but I too would be unable to muster the words without sweaty fluster. The 5 second rule is a good practice to try! I’ve also found responding with a question to help. Once had an extended relative remark that my daughter had gained some recent weight and I needed to have her lose it. Responded back asking how does someone get someone to lose weight because if she knew it may help a lot of people.

    1. Hi Anne – What a great way to respond to such a rude question! Thank you for sharing that. I really love how you and several other Magpies have helped me think about asking a question in return in order to sort of deflect and encourage reflection on the part of the asker. Thanks for sharing this tactic!


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