It hadn’t happened for almost a week, but this morning a woman, a friend, approached me in church and said, “Bill, do you know your purse doesn’t match your shoes?”

Usually, the kidder is a man, but carrying a woman’s shoulder purse is an equal opportunity occasion for humor. At least this morning’s humorist is someone who knows that my wife, Karen, has COPD and gets winded easily. The purse, large and bright red, is heavy, and I’m happy to relieve her of its weight so she can walk and breathe more easily.

I’ve learned not to be irritated by the comments, and have even devised a few responses: “Yes, I’m saving up to buy matching shoes,” or “Yes, but red is just my accent color.” But I do wonder sometimes about the commenters. Why did the total stranger, male, at Kroger’s last week feel impelled to make the standard remark as he wheeled his grocery cart past me? I let Captain Obvious go on without a reply.

But still I wonder. Are some people so starved for humor that they think the comment is original and funny? Early on, I occasionally replied, “Wow! You’re the first person who’s ever said that to me!” But I quickly realized that my try at sarcasm was going straight over the questioner’s head.

Women seldom make the remark, and when they do Karen occasionally replies for me: “Isn’t he a wonderful husband? Most men wouldn’t do this for their wives.”
Happy as it makes me, that comment is itself a bit sexist. I’d like to think there are countless loving husbands who would be happy to help their wives tote heavy purses. It’s the male stranger’s comment that I think most about. To be sure, it was probably just a thoughtless if tired effort at a joke. But why did he feel impelled to say it to a stranger? However, it’s not important—many worse things are said.

None of us are very good at listening to how our own words sound to others. Just recently, one of the kindest women I know asked me seriously to explain why a beloved story of her childhood is considered racist today. I tried earnestly to explain, but I’m not sure the explanation got through. I grew up on the same story, hearing it from my father who usually added a bit of scriptural exegesis to the ending with the main character’s heroic ingestion of 169 pancakes: “And then he died.” I love pop for that line, but the story as a whole no longer passes muster.

Times change. We need to change with them. And to think with respect about the feelings of those who hear our words.