Wednesday, March 20, 2013

No more fake-quoting Maya Angelou!

There is a quote floating around out there which makes my skin crawl with annoyance whenever I hear it or see it.

"When you know better, you do better." -- Maya Angelou

The main reason I despise this quote is ... well, for one thing, it's not even the full quote! The above statement is actually the abridged (or rather, maimed) version of something like this:


Oprah Winfrey attributes it to Maya Angelou in this video (where even she abbreviates the quote!) and you can hear her relaying the full quote at time stamp 2:27.

Good to know, right? Because the first one, while at first glance appears to be a pretty congruent abbreviation of the second, actually conveys a rather self-righteous and condescending tone when examined more closely. In fact, I've noticed that it's often conveniently used as a passive-aggressive dig from one mom toward another on the World Wide Web. You may have seen it on message boards, blogs, Facebook and elsewhere. It appears to be the go-to quote whenever a mom is trying to win a perceived argument about what's best for her family.

Let's look at a few hypothetical examples. Any similarities to real-life conversations are purely coincidental, by the way.
Scenario #1:
Mom A: I only feed my family organic, free-range food grown/raised right in my backyard (or in someone else's).

Mom B: I always load up on tons of produce when I go to the store, but I'll admit we sometimes (ok, once a week) pick up a Hot-n-Ready for dinner. And I regularly feed my kids Goldfish crackers to placate them during church.

Mom A: Well, you know what they say ... "When you know better, you do better."

Scenario #2:

Mom A: I formula-fed my first baby, but I got smart and exclusively breast-fed the next two.

Mom B: I tried breastfeeding but it never seemed to work out for one reason or another, so my kids got formula. They've turned out pretty great, anyway!

Mom A: That's all fine and dandy, but ... "When you know better, you do better."

Scenario #3:

Mom A: My kids get all their shots. I strongly believe that immunizations are important and feel it's my responsibility to make sure my kids' shots are up-to-date.

Mom B: I feel uneasy about vaccinations. There are quite a few instances of autism in our family so we don't immunize our children. It was a difficult decision to make, but we feel it's the right one for our family.

Mom A:
Have you done any research on this topic? I recommend you do, because "When you know better, you do better." Maya Angelou, in yo' FACE!

See? In each case, Mom A's use of the truncated quote implies that Mom A "knows better" and Mom B is a total uneducated moron who knows nothing because if she did, she'd make the same choices as Mom A! Each mom's statements are rather innocuous on their own, but then you add in that blasted quote and suddenly, it's an all-out Mommy War.

Stupid quote ... It's just smug and hoighty-toighty and I don't like it one bit.

Now, the long quote? Let's look at it again.

"I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better."

This quote is completely different. For one, it's personal -- Maya Angelou is using it in reference to herself and no one else.
Granted, Maya Angelou is a total rock star and we can all learn something from her example. But to manipulate her quote to serve our own devices? Not cool. Definitely not Maya-approved.

Also, the first "quote" rarely rings true. Plenty of people (aka ALL OF US) know better but still choose regularly to do ... worse. Like when I should be cleaning my house but I'm on Facebook.Or, when I have a choice between eating an apple or a handful of Cadbury Mini Eggs and I pick the latter (ok, so that was a bad example -- Cadbury Mini Eggs always win).

So, the moral of this post is, when you feel pressed to use a Maya Angelou quote to prove a point, choose the unabridged version and be nice about it. Remember that we're all doing the best we can and life's not a competition. When someone shares about a personal choice they've made, don't shut down the conversation with a closed mind. Foster it with openness and acceptance. And if you flat-out don't agree with them? Say nothing and move the heck ON. It's more fun to talk about other things, anyway. Like Cadbury Mini Eggs. RIGHT?


  1. I found dark chocolate Cadbury mini eggs. *BLISS*

    And you are awesome.

    1. I saw those, Jeanne! But then I couldn't find them again afterward. I'm on a mission.

  2. I think it was originally misquoted by Oprah. I can't remember what it was on (whether it be on the Oprah Show or something on OWN) but she said that she was "talking to {her} friend Maya Angelou and..." Maybe that's how it got started? Who knows... there are a bajillion misquotes on the interwebs and it bugs me when people take them all as literal, factual quotes. I'm with ya on this one!

    1. I think you're right about that! I remember Oprah saying that on her show.


    3. But what is the source of the quote you post as original? Could this be something she said often in different ways? Or is it from one or her books?

  3. I like it when your blog builds me up. Thanks, I needed this.

  4. Seriously, do people say crap like that? That's awful. And yes, definitely not Maya approved I'm sure!

  5. Thanks for sharing this message!

  6. Thanks for sharing this message!

  7. I'm trying to track down the original source of this quote. Did Maya Angelou speak this out loud in an interview or conversation or is it in a book? Anyone know?

    1. She allegedly said it to Oprah originally. Oprah talks about it in this video. Even Oprah misquotes her by abridging the quote several times. However, the oldest clip of Oprah attributing the quote to Maya Angelou has her saying it in its fullness. It's at 2:27.

  8. Hillary, I'm with you on this. That clip only shows Oprah talking about the quote. Is there no original source for Maya actually writing/saying it? It's driving me mad trying to figure this out!!

  9. You answered the question I googled perfectly! I was going to use the 'misquote' in a book I'm writing and your post now helps me make the point much more effectively. Not to mention honoring Maya Angelou more honestly. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  10. Loved the approach: very insightful and able-to-discerne the fineries of language, as well as of human behavior. Very well written, also, like a formal essay in its structure of arguments. Also, very humane criticism of what we all do or say as mothers and citizens of the world. However you are, MomtheIntern, thank you for a very balanced and educational post! Luciana


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