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A journalist’s list about what-not-to-say lists

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer

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“How to Talk to Artists at Art Festivals – The Do’s and Don’ts (Warning: You’ve probably been guilty of at least one of the don’ts…)” 

This article popped up in my News Feed over the weekend and reminded me of the hundreds of other “What Not to Say to a (fill in the blank)” lists on the internet. The general tone of most of them is snarky, but it’s snark veiled as an informative piece to educate people about proper etiquette.

Here are a few examples if you’re not familiar:

•From the “How to Talk to Artists at Art Festivals” list of what not to ask:

How did you make that? 

“There is a fine line with this one,” the author responds, “as it’s all about the context. Often, this question is asked with the intention of, ‘I’ll go home and make one just like it!’ Which is obviously not good for the artist. Inquiring about the artist’s process (i.e.: ‘Tell me about your process.’) is ok.”

•From “15 Worst Things You Could Say to Your Bartender” list:

I don’t like the taste of alcohol. I don’t want anything fruity. I don’t like beer. I’m allergic to wine. What do you suggest?

“Water. They sell it by the bottle at the gas station. Go outside, to the left, and keep walking.”

In light of this popular but frustrating online genre, I thought I’d come up with my own list to see how it feels. I’ll include plenty of snark and a few smug suggestions for the full effect.

Things You Should Never Say to a Journalist.

#1 - “Can I read the article before it goes to print?” 

No, you can’t read it. It’s against company policy and if you read it you’ll want to change all your comments, probably the good ones, and it’ll take me twice as long to finish. Try instead: I can’t wait to see it when it’s printed.  

#2 - You don’t have to tell me something is “off the record” if we’re talking about what you had for dinner last night. I’m not going to write a story about your pot roast.  

#3 - Did you get all that? Can you remember all that?

  Yes, I got it. Actually, wait. I’ll probably forget it by the time I get to the office and write something you’ll be embarrassed about.    

See. My list makes me sound like a jerk and the truth is those things don’t really bother me. It’s part of the job. Shouldn’t adults be able to handle people not being Emily Post in every situation? 

As for people not “understanding me as a writer” - like people may not understand the plight of the artist or bartender – I typically assume this is the case. I assume people don’t know how many hours I spend at meetings or doing research to get one 600-word story, because why would they?   

My suspicion is that these lists are like trade magazines and are read primarily by members of the niche group (artist, bartender) more than they are by the intended audience. But if I’m wrong, instead of keeping insensitive, obtuse comments at bay they create an atmosphere of fear. 

Instead of saying something insensitive, which may very well have been unintentional, people might decide not to communicate at all because they don’t want to offend. The last thing I want, especially as a journalist, is for people to be afraid to talk to me openly.  

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good list (grocery lists, to-do lists, playlists), and study after study shows that the brain responds well to them. 

Umberto Eco told The Atlantic the list “has an irresistible magic” and in cultural history has “prevailed over and over again.” Agreed. 

The problem with these “What Not to Say” lists is that people who write them try to make the world conform to them, rather than that person coping with the complex cast of characters in their daily lives - which includes jerks who say thoughtless things and who probably wouldn’t read their list anyway.