Learn to Say What is Appropriate

question-markSo what is appropriate?

A man visits his friend in the hospital. His friend has just undergone heart surgery. The man begins telling his friend, who is barely out of recovery, about other friends of his who died within weeks after having the same surgery. Is this really appropriate?

A woman confides in her co-worker regarding her marital problems. The co-worker takes it upon herself to call her friend’s husband and tell him about that conversation. Is this appropriate?

A student is angry with one of her teachers over a failing grade. Late one evening, she drives to her teacher’s home, sees that all the lights are off and lets the air out of the tires of each vehicle in the driveway. Is that appropriate?

A guy in his early 30s is known as quite a flirt at work. (He is married with two small children.) One day he begins to tease one of his customers. He and the customer begin telling each other jokes that started out fairly mild but ended up being very raunchy. Is this appropriate?

A minister is preparing his message for Sunday. His congregation is located in a university community. This is the first Sunday of the semester, and many students and their parents will be in the assembly before the parents return home that afternoon. For some reason, this minister has decided that on this particular Sunday he will preach on the “Qualifications of Elders.” Really? Is this appropriate with so many guests present for the first time?

People who wish to speak and act in appropriate ways are willing to learn. After all, no one knows what is appropriate in every instance.

So what does a person do in order to say and do what is appropriate?

1. Be humble. Ask whether or not a particular story, joke, or action is appropriate. Learn to think like a missionary in another culture. Could it be that using a phrase in this culture is no big deal but in another culture it is a big deal?

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People who desire to say and do the appropriate must learn humility. In humility, one can finally learn what is most appropriate.

2. Consider how a comment or story might be perceived by others. For example, suppose you were asked to speak to a group of parents of high school students. You thought you might begin with a “funny” story you know about a couple of drunk college students. You ask your spouse and she suggests that you not tell this particular story. After all, she says, there are several of our students who have already been in an addiction facility. Then there is the family whose son was killed by a drunk driver. Then she reminds you that a couple of the parents are recovering alcoholics and will be coming from their AA meetings. After she tells you these facts regarding your hearers, you decide that the story is not that appropriate.

3. Take the time to question the wisdom of what you are about to say. Remember that developing a reputation for doing or saying what is appropriate tells others that you are a person with good judgement. You have a sense for what is wise and what is not.


What has been helpful to you in discerning whether or not a word, story, or action is appropriate for a particular situation, whether it be a conversation, speech or sermon?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • darrylrlewis

    remembering times when I’ve had to apologize for saying/doing something inappropriate

    • Jim Martin

      I suspect most of us have, on one level or another. Thanks Darryl.

  • Cary

    Great post. Reminds me of the preacher who spoke at the funeral of a young person tragically killed in an automobile accident, and he decided it was appropriate to make jokes about the deceased’s penchant for speeding. True story. I was mortified for the family.

    • Jim Martin

      Thank you Cary. Yes, that is pretty sad.

  • http://southernhillscoc.org/blog2011/ Bob Mathews

    Good thoughts Jim. It’s really easy for me to say the wrong thing, so another consideration I’ve learned to use is does this really need to be said? The answer to that question could come from several different directions…

    • Will it build up or encourage, rather than tear down or discourage?
    • Is there a situation in the hearer’s life that may affect his perception of my message?
    • Yes, there’s a bit of selfishness here too — how will it make me look?

    Sometimes that last one takes on more importance than it ought, but it’s something I struggle with. Actually the benefit of all this thought about what to say and when to say it can even have the benefit of me spending so much time thinking about it that I don’t say anything. That, too, can be sometimes good, sometimes bad.

  • Jim Martin

    Bob, your first question alone is huge! I’ve also asked myself, “If the person whom I am talking about learned what I had said would they be shocked? Would they be deeply hurt?”

  • http://actionlearningandleadershipdevelopment.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/true-leaders/ Action learning and leadership development experts

    Really good read for me to learn what is appropriate to say and do at different moments specially i liked this point “A student is angry with one of her teacher” :)