He looked like Mr. Burns. Except shorter. © Fox

Back in the day when I was doing some diversity training, I liked to share some wisdom I’d been taught about Native Americans, who are sometimes perceived as unintelligent, antisocial or disrespectful because of the way they communicate. Fact is, this is a culture that understands the power of words; that understands that once words are spoken, they cannot be taken back. Therefore, they have no use for small talk, and you might have to wait a few beats for an answer to a question, but it’s likely that each word of that answer has been chosen with care.

These are the thoughts that were going through my head as I was practically biting my tongue in half this morning at the gym. Oh, if I had said what I’d been thinking, there would have been some feelings hurt and perhaps some stereotypes affirmed.

THE SCENE: Me, working out on the pectoral fly/rear deltoid machine. Him, ambling past on his way to some “Silver Sneakers” class. Yes, this guy was elderly. He looked about 90, was stooped and walked with a cane, and he stopped right in front of me, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Trying to lose weight? Yeah? Is it working?”

I let a few beats pass before answering, because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why on God’s green earth this relic was talking to me in the first place. “Yes,” I replied. “I’m doing well.” I had to say the second phrase twice because he had tipped his head, indicating I needed to speak into his hearing aid.

Then he gave me gummy grin and said, “And you also just need to stay away from the refrigerator, right?” And cackled. And waited – I guess for me to agree with him and share his mirth.

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I knew I had choices. The end of his cane was just a few inches from my right foot. So very tempting. My water bottle was also within reach. But I waited. One beat: Inhale, exhale. Two beats: He probably stopped in front of me to rest. Three beats: He’s still looking at me, waiting for an answer. Does he even have eyelids?

I let the lower half of my face smile. Just the lips; no teeth showing. His blue eyes were surprisingly bright as well as greatly magnified by his thick specs. He’s old, not stupid; he accurately read my expression. Then he briefly placed a bony, liver-spotted hand on my forearm before tottering off.

His hand was warm and soft. Not sure why I was surprised by that.

I shrugged it off. This is what happens in the South. No one is a stranger, and will strike up a conversation with you anytime, anyplace. I patted myself on the back for being mature, grateful for both his sake and mine I wasn’t ovulating.

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I had cleared two more machines before I noticed him finally entering the fitness room. There must have been at least a dozen older people heading for that class, some moving pretty fast and normal, others a bit slower, depending on what issues they had.

When I was pregnant, I couldn’t figure out why strangers felt a need to touch my belly. Granted, in months eight and nine it was a sight to behold. Maybe its size extended beyond my personal space into the public domain, and therefore people felt entitled to touch it.

I’m guessing being overweight is viewed kinda like that. Anyone who exceeds the boundaries of acceptable weight has somehow lost all right to privacy and therefore open to public comment. Except I don’t see women with supersized breasts having this problem. Or men, with supersized . . .

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But I digress. If there’s a point in this, it’s that I look forward to the day when what I wear, what I do when exercising, what I put in my grocery cart and what I order in restaurants doesn’t spark public discourse. I don’t have to deal with it as much as much larger people do, but I have had my share.

Though I’ve learned how to deal with it – mostly by pausing a few beats before reacting – it’s always a bit disheartening. That brief exchange happened hours ago, just before 10 a.m. today, and yet it still lives with me at this moment.

We’d all do well to respect and appreciate the power of words.

Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or evil.  ~   Buddha

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Leslie J. Ansley is an award-winning journalist and entrepreneur who blogs daily for TheRoot. She lives in Raleigh, NC.