Two Things I'll Never Say

You'll never hear me say, or see me write, either of these: "I'm sorry for your loss" to someone whose friend or relative has just died, or "Thank you for your service" to someone in the military. These utterances are anodyne, clichéd, and timid. Every TV homicide detective says "I'm sorry for your loss" to the victim's loved ones before asking them where they were when it happened. Every member of our military hears "Thank you for your service" when they're in uniform in public.

Instead, how about "I was so sorry to hear about your father's death?" or "It must have taken a lot of sacrifices to go to Iraq and Afghanistan?" You know, something specific. Vagueness is recognized immediately for what it is: the fear of giving offense that, paradoxically, does offend because it treats the recipient as a commodity. They are treated as one of the "bereaved" or a "soldier, sailor, or airman" rather than an individual. I'd go so far, at least concerning "sorry for your loss," as to maintain it's better to say nothing at all.

I can't say how a member of the military might feel about "thank you for your service," but I've read that that they hear it so frequently as to be bewildered about how to respond meaningfully. It must feel very good to hear the phrase the first time, just as every beer bought for you in an airport terminal on your way to an assignment must taste good no matter how many times a civilian picks up the tab. In the latter case, though, at least the civilian made a sacrifice. In the former instance, they made themselves feel better at the cost of putting the service member on the spot. I can't know for sure, but I think a smile and a nod might be more welcome.


Lynn said…
I can't always speak for others, but I can assure you I am not alone in that I can't stand being thanked for my service. It is especially uncomfortable for me because I am not a veteran. I have not been called up to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. So there is nothing to thank me for, I am little better than someone who plays dress up one weekend a month. It feel very awkward to be thanked for that.
Dan Rogers said…
Thank you for your weekend service :-) All kidding aside, it seems you understood what I was talking about. You can't really even reply by saying "you're welcome" and leave it at that, can you? I heard a firefighter once say that the only heroic thing he ever did was take his oath of office, and all the rest was just doing his job. So, thanks for taking that oath -- now back to work!
~Jan said…
As a combat veteran, it is still incredibly awkward for me to be thanked. One of my crusty old salts told me once when I presented my quandry to him, to thank the civilian for their support. In an age where military members are called "baby killers", "murderers", etc. it is easy to feel unappreciated. So, when I'm approached by a civilian or another veteran of the old breed, I remember that they ar simply trying to express their gratitude, and I thank them for their support.

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