Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

How to Talk to Normal People: A Guide for the Rest of Us

A lot of us don’t know how to approach normal people. It’s not our fault. We don’t have a lot of exposure to them. They’re not really suited for the kinds of work and leisure activities we enjoy, and they have enormous difficulty relating to other people. Interactions with them tend to be awkward.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of not reaching out across the divide. Sometimes, when I see normal people coming down the sidewalk, I will cross the street. It’s not that I feel unfriendly toward them, exactly. It’s just that they’re so unpredictable. Will they be determined to overcome their challenges and give me a smile? Or will they give me a blank stare in response to my friendly hello? I’m ashamed to say that I’ve often taken the path of least resistance and simply avoided normal people altogether.

But however lost they are in their own worlds, they are part of our world, and it behooves us all to reach past our discomfort and welcome them as God’s angels here on earth. After all, we can’t consign them to endless rounds of small talk and cocktail parties, right? I know that they say they enjoy watching football every Sunday and trying out the latest local microbrew, but really, it’s just their normalcy talking. They don’t know how spare, how empty, how narrow their lives really are.

So it’s up to us to bring them out of their shells. I’ve walked among the normals and entered their world. And now I’m here to share some wisdom about how we can help them feel more included.

1. Breaking the ice

One of the easiest ways to get to know a normal is to simply walk right up to one and show how much you care. Don’t hesitate. The next time you’re walking across the parking lot at the supermarket and you see a normal getting out of his car, go right up to the person and show interest in his life.

I know what you’re thinking: How do I even begin? Start with the basics. Be straightforward. Ask him whether he was born normal.

Now, be prepared. It’s not uncommon for a normal person to respond to this question as though you’re nuts, but don’t be put off. Normal people aren’t used to others taking an interest. So be persistent. Ask a series of probing questions. I suggest the following:

Have you always been normal, or were you in some sort of terrible accident?

Did you mother take some sort of medication while she was pregnant?

Do you think your normalcy is environmental, genetic, or some combination of both?

Have you been vaccinated? Was your mother vaccinated?

Are you able to father children?

Now, if you’re talking to a well-adjusted normal person, he’ll be very appreciative of your questions, and he’ll have quite a lot to teach you about the experiences of real normal people — things you can’t learn in any book by any expert, I assure you. And he’ll give you all this information for free, so you won’t need to pay big bucks to go to a conference. After all, he has nothing better to do with his life, and he knows it.

But some normals don’t feel grateful for the attention. These sorts of normals are what we call Bitter Normals. They are angry at their normalcy and they will take it out on you. They do not care about your good intentions. They just want to make you feel as badly as they do. These are the kind of people who tell you to fuck off when you’re just being friendly. If you run into this sort of normal and you’re feeling particularly generous, you might want to end the conversation gracefully by saying, God bless you. I’ll pray for you. But if you’re not in that kind of mood, it would not be unreasonable to simply mutter asshole under your breath and walk away. After all, you’re only human.

2. Being helpful

Because normal people aren’t capable of governing their own lives — or even knowing their own minds — it’s up to the rest of us to be of the utmost assistance.

I know what’s going through your head right now: How can I possibly give these poor souls the help they need? And you’re right. The problems are wide and deep, and as a lay person, you shouldn’t be trying to make major decisions for these people. Where they live, what they do for work, and who they spend their time with are decisions best left to their caseworkers. But if you look closely, you will find a plethora of opportunities to be of service.

For example, suppose you are in the supermarket, and you see a normal woman in the produce section, trying to decide what kinds of apples to buy. Under no circumstances should you say to her, You know, I can never decide between Macintoshes and Granny Smiths myself. What do you think? How do you decide? A normal person is ill-equipped for that kind of conversation. It’s far too complicated and demanding. Instead, you must be proactive and take it upon yourself to choose the apples for her, based on your own best judgment. Do her teeth seem solid enough for Granny Smiths, or would she be better of with the softer Macs? Can she afford the Granny Smiths, or should she economize? Once you’ve made your decision, simply put a nice bag of apples in the woman’s shopping cart, give her a friendly pat on the shoulder, and be on your way. It will be a story she’ll tell for years to come.

3. Showing appreciation

A lot of us work with normal people, and good working relationships require mutual respect and expressions of support. Sometimes, we can feel a bit shy about expressing how inspired we feel by the ways in which normal people carry on with their lives, but we need to overcome our reticence. We need to express just how much normal people mean to us.

It’s not difficult in a work situation to express this sort of appreciation because, in contradistinction to the Bitter Normals who just want to drag us down into their misery, workplaces are full of people known as Super Normals. These are the people who have worked their asses off to overcome their normal deficits. They seem almost exactly like you and me. In fact, until you really get to know them (or read their ground-breaking and courageous books), you can’t even tell that some of them are normal at all.

These people make it easy. Choose from among the following expressions of goodwill:

If you hadn’t told me you were normal, I never would have guessed!

The way you walk across the office on your way to the coffee machine is so graceful! How do you do that?

Way to work that copier, dude! You’re an inspiration!

I’m sorry that your parents died in that terrible normalizing accident, but you’re a credit to their memory.

4. Welcoming your child’s normal friends

It’s inevitable. With normalcy approaching epidemic proportions, your child is going to have normal classmates, and these normal classmates will want play dates with your child. I know that your tendency will be to try to protect your child from being held back by some of the habits and behaviors of the normals, but embrace this opportunity. It has the potential for deep personal and spiritual growth for yourself and for your child.

Arrange a play date around the needs of the normal child. Your child may want to stay home and read a book, and he may not understand why little Johnny wants to play outside and pretend that every object he finds is a pretend gun, but use this experience as a teachable moment. Explain to your child that people are different, that little Johnny can’t help who he is, and that we must be accepting. You might even consider having the play date at a family-style restaurant at which little Johnny can be disruptive and draw the ire of the other patrons. When confronted, you can calmly explain that little Johnny is not your son, but that you are trying to broaden his horizons and give him the opportunity to circulate amongst regular people. The other patrons will either be ashamed of their own selfishness or think you an utter fool, but either way, you’ll be laying up treasures in heaven.

5. Sharing your knowledge

It goes without saying that normalcy is a tragic and pitiful state, but science is making new breakthroughs every day. While we don’t know the causes of normalcy and there is no cure, a number of excellent treatments are available.

Keep an eye out for news stories that mention the latest science, and make certain to send links to all of them to all of your normal friends. The proper form is to always use the subject header Did you see this? I thought it might help you! It doesn’t matter that multiple family members and friends will send the same links about the same junk science to the exact same people. What matters is that you show that you care.

Because this is what normal people want — to know that they’re not alone, to know that we want to help, and to know that we are thinking of them.

Just don’t let it take over your life.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


  1. 1/28/2013 | 10:34 pm Permalink

    Why aren’t there more comments on this?! This is one of the most accurate, most scathing, and funniest articles on treating people with disabilities I’ve ever read! It reminded me of “How to Write About Africa,” and I hope that “How to Talk to Normal People” will become as widely read. Cheers from an Aspie!

    • 1/30/2013 | 2:23 pm Permalink

      1. The comment thinger was messed up when I was trying to comment when this was first posted.
      B. It’s so dang brilliant and HILARIOUS, what is there to say??? BRAVA, R.C-R. Love you.

      • 2/22/2014 | 12:43 pm Permalink

        Loved it, Rachel!! Laughed hard and frequently. And it’s a helpful guide if I ever have to have a conversation with one of those people!

  2. 1/29/2013 | 7:51 am Permalink

    Freakin’ Fabulous!! This is perfect! Thank you, Rachel!

  3. 1/29/2013 | 9:53 am Permalink

    Absolutely wonderful! Thanks for the belly laugh!

  4. 1/29/2013 | 11:41 am Permalink

    This mae me laugh.

  5. 1/29/2013 | 5:33 pm Permalink

    I would add, to the section on approaching normal people, begin the intersection, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” or “I don’t want to be offensive but…”

    nice work!

    • 2/15/2014 | 8:57 pm Permalink

      That was one of my favorite parts, too. Nice touch.

  6. 1/29/2013 | 9:54 pm Permalink

    If I couldn’t square numbers in my head I would bored out of my skull all the time all day long. I don’t know how normal people cope! I really feel sorry for them. It is good they have special interventions like nightclubs to help them with their boredom.

  7. 1/30/2013 | 2:26 pm Permalink

    Why, I “layed up some treasures in heaven” just yesterday while E read a book on a playdate while two other “normal” boys buzzed around him…

  8. 1/31/2013 | 5:01 am Permalink

    This was awesome, Rachel.

  9. 2/24/2013 | 11:26 am Permalink


  10. 3/15/2013 | 4:00 pm Permalink

    It took me a minute. Then I was confused. Then I started thinking how did I miss this? Then I got it. and then it was like wow, great stuff!

  11. 4/6/2013 | 6:41 am Permalink

    Absolutely BRILLIANT!! This is one of thebest articles I’ve read in a while. Bookmarking and sharing. Good work, Rachel!

  12. 2/15/2014 | 5:31 am Permalink

    This is absolutely brilliant – and I say that as one of the unlucky ‘normals’ LOL. Luckily I have some disabled friends who are kind enough not to treat me as if I’m different!! :-)

  13. 2/15/2014 | 7:26 am Permalink

    I don’t understand why this hasn’t gone viral! This is amazing! I’ve experienced all of this in the very short time I’ve had my son.
    Thanks for making it funny.

  14. 2/15/2014 | 8:13 am Permalink

    Adding my applause. My friend and I often talk about how shocking it would be if someone expressed amazement at the way an overweight person managed to fit into a booth or turn down a dessert, though it is supposed to be perfectly acceptable to marvel at how a blind person walks across the room without breaking a hip or destroying the place. I shared it with my boss and with my family on facebook. I hope they all get it. I’m glad to see no negative comments from offended normals as I had feared. Maybe they just haven’t found it yet. To clarify my point, it is neither acceptable to comment on a person’s weight or their disability in a way which singles them out, even if the comment is posed in a manor which the commenter thinks is encouraging or kind and compassionate..


  15. 2/15/2014 | 10:33 am Permalink

    This is great! Love your writings, you gotta laugh!

    Thank you!

  16. 2/15/2014 | 12:16 pm Permalink

    First of all, I like your use of the term normal.As a normal person who uses a wheelchair, I use the term differently abled or people with various abilities.

    I take offense to some of what you wrote. Although you say the word normal, your suggestions are not entirely respectable. You cannot assume that you know what is best for someone.Take choosing an Apple as an example. Engage a person in an Apple conversation rather than choosing for them. I cannot tell you the number of times people assume that I am not able to do something or know what I need and do it for me. It takes my individual ability away. Making choices is one of the precious gifts of being human. I take pride in being able to do something myself such as eating even though I drop half of it in my lap. Witness me and become comfortable in your discomfort.Due to my different cognitive abilities I am slower in speaking and so considered “Dumb” or am spoken over rather than given the patience of silent listening.Some normal people have not learned to advocate for themselves. This is a life learning process. Another suggestion, if someone is using a wheelchair and you are standing, pull up a chair, squat or sit on the ground so you can be at eye level.

    May I suggest to you, show respect first before assuming you know what is needed for anyone beyond yourself. Be kind to everyone without exception. Address your fears regarding people that are different from you, as you seem to be doing. That you suggest asking personal questions about someone’s particular normalsy is not a kindness to them. It is intrusive and only makes you feel more comfortable. Asking a total stranger to tell you about a significant aspect of their life that they may or may not have embraced themselves, is not respectable. It is respectful and welcomed,to me,if you are a personal friend. Engaging with all people, giving eye contact, asking if you can be of assistance and listening to what they say, is always appropriate!

    I appreciate that you are beginning this conversation.

    • 2/15/2014 | 12:42 pm Permalink

      okay, on second read, this must be a joke otherwise it utterly offensive…

  17. 2/15/2014 | 12:35 pm Permalink

    Brilliant, thank you!

  18. 2/15/2014 | 12:46 pm Permalink

    Oh boy, clearly this is just a taster of what’s to come for me… I’m going Deaf and I already deal with friends and colleagues, “you’re so amazing, I find you such an inspiration, you’re doing so well!”… Um, thanks, just trying to live my life, just like you…

    I find it really inspiring that normals can hold a conversation in a nightclub. It must be way easier than just using your hands to communicate….

  19. 2/15/2014 | 2:06 pm Permalink

    The. Most. Brilliant. Satire. Ever. I do satire films on inspiration porn, and I can only aspire to be as ludicrously amazing at it as this. Well played!

  20. 2/15/2014 | 7:23 pm Permalink

    As a mother of a 7 year “normal” I have indeed come up against a lot of these scenarios and enjoy the humour you bring to this.

  21. 2/16/2014 | 10:25 am Permalink

    I love the way you hold up a mirror to reality there, that’s really good humour :)

  22. 2/16/2014 | 11:16 am Permalink

    Love this! Great way to present the information.

  23. 2/16/2014 | 1:03 pm Permalink

    You forgot something that happens all the time. If we were to reflect such behavior it would go this way:
    When seeing a normal person, and someone that you think needs to be reminded of this; one should go talk to another person about this normal person so that the normal person can hear it, although you aren’t talking to him or her.
    “That’s a normal person,” you could say.
    And if the normal person seems to be someone who isn’t open to this:
    “That’s a dangerously normal person,” you should say, just to make sure they know that you know of them, and they need to not forget it, just in case they are opposed to your knowledge of their condition.

  24. 2/17/2014 | 6:11 am Permalink

    You are so amazingly awesome. <3 <3 <3

  25. 2/17/2014 | 9:23 am Permalink

    This is fantastic! Well done! I especially appreciated that last item, which happens to me far too often. I keep trying to explain to people that if there’s a legitimate medical breakthrough, I. Will. Know. About. It. And yet, I keep getting emails from well-meaning folks.

    Keep up the great writing!

  26. 2/18/2014 | 3:51 pm Permalink

    Brilliant! Razor sharp! Devastatingly true!

  27. 2/20/2014 | 8:31 pm Permalink

    Thank you for articulating this in such a light hearted way!

  28. 2/21/2014 | 12:22 pm Permalink

    Brava!! I haven’t laughed that hard in ages- thank you! I’m currently job hunting and am dreading walking into interviews on my forearm crutches or rolling in in a wheelchair. Thanks for the enjoyment this piece has provided- if I encounter The Stupid, I’ll just smile, nod, and start running this through the back of my mind to keep the smile in place.

  29. 2/21/2014 | 10:13 pm Permalink

    I love this post so very much; thank you for the laugh-out-loud!

    I would also love to share it with students in a social justice workshop in March, if you don’t mind – is it okay if I print it for them with your name & blog address below the text?

    • 2/22/2014 | 10:41 am Permalink

      Absolutely, Jessamyn. I’d be honored.

      • 2/22/2014 | 1:22 pm Permalink

        Terrific, thank you!

        (So glad to have found your blog.)

  30. 3/5/2014 | 2:44 pm Permalink

    Thank you for helping me understand the depth of my prejudice. Frankly, I am embarrassed at how much I didn’t realize the extent to which I was being insulting and condescending I was being. Wow.

    As a fat person, I encounter prejudice myself, including terrifically helpful comments in the grocery store and restaurants about what I should / shouldn’t be eating, and what an inspiration I am when I’m at the gym. I wondered why it bothered me, when here they were being so nice and all. Now I see it: “I am so different that you must make sure _ I _ know that _ you_ register and understand my differentness, show me how actively you accommodate it, and let me know that some of your best friends are fat.” All in the guise of “showing me how OK you are with my being fat.”

    Thank you so much for this post!!


  31. 3/7/2014 | 12:14 pm Permalink

    Hello! As someone who has just begun to become involved in disability rights activism, I wanted to thank you for having such meaningful and thought-provoking content on your blog.
    Currently, I am a sophomore in college, and I am working with my college’s disability services department to give a presentation to help make my college more inclusive to disabled people. Part of the presentation will be in a comedy sketch format, and I was hoping you might give me permission to adapt this post into a scene to be performed. I would really appreciate it, but if not, I totally understand. You would be given written credit for the piece in the performance, of course.
    Thanks again!

    • 3/8/2014 | 5:53 pm Permalink

      Hi Reid,

      This sounds like an interesting idea. Send me an email at rachel (at) disabilityandrepresentation (dot) com and we can discuss. Thanks!

  32. 3/24/2014 | 1:29 pm Permalink

    I teach disability studies and would love to use this piece in a course I am teaching the fall. Is that ok?

    • 3/24/2014 | 2:53 pm Permalink

      Deborah, I’d be honored. Please provide full attribution and a link back to the blog. Thanks!

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