How To Respond Badly

Sharing problems is hard to do. Our society values being “drama-free” over dealing maturely when drama–as it inevitably does–happens. We’re supposed to fix it ourselves, or just ignore it. Because that’s what you do, right? (If I ever meet whomever made up the stupid rules of society, we are going to have Words.) As a result, we somehow manage to avoid talking about how to respond helpfully to someone with capital ‘B’ Bad News. We’re self-indulgent creatures, after all, and we’ll do all sorts of mental gymnastics to avoid staring a situation in the face and recognizing that it’s just rotten. It’s less bad than you think it is! It’s fixable! You’re going to be fine!


Some things are terrible, and all you can do is sit with them and look at how horrible they are. People hurt and die and damage each other for no discernible reason.
It’s just true.
It just happens.
Want to make it hurt less? When someone tells you something rough in their life, don’t do any of these:

Explain how you totally don’t have that problem.

Please, take a few seconds to picture this conversation for me:

Jane: I just got hit by a car! Can you come to the ER so I can have someone there to listen and hold my hand and make sure everything goes okay?

Jeff: Oh, that sucks! I totally look both ways when I cross the street, and I had a near miss last week with this awful driver, but Sally pulled me out of the way. In fact, I’ve never been seriously injured. I never want to be in that much pain or dealing with doctors, and I’ve heard that getting bones set is just miserable!

This is unlikely to the point of hilarity, right?


A lot of human interaction is trying to relate to each other, and when you simply cannot understand why someone has to deal with That Awful Thing that makes no sense, it’s quite easy to shift gears from sympathy to “but that’s never happened to me!”.

I catch myself in it all the time. One second I’m agreeing how awful it is when professors play favorites, and then suddenly I’m talking about the way my sociology professor always learns everyone’s names. That is the conversational equivalent of ignoring the bleeding person in front of you while you make sure you haven’t broken a nail.

Make an only-slightly-related joke to diffuse tension!

Disclaimer: this could actually, maybe, possibly work for people with a radically different sense of humor and conversational skills than me. I just haven’t met anyone like that. Ever. So factor that into your strategic deployment of humorous non-sequitors. 

When I’ve geared myself up to disclose something, it’s an emotional experience. I often practice before, write down important things, talk it over with trusted friends, and then stress, stress, stress. Sometimes that last step is so overwhelming it inhibits me entirely. So when I say something that makes me feel like I’ve been tangled up in knots, it’s a big deal.  Trying to rearrange my face into a pleasant laugh is so far down on the list of appealing activities it’s spending time with the penguins of Antarctica.

Give me advice I didn’t ask for.

I have to pause here, dear readers and tell you about one very well meaning acquaintance, who, upon hearing me off-hand mention that I was recovering from anorexic tendencies, looked very distraught. They stopped in their tracks and said, with a deadly serious expression, “That’s really bad! You should really try to eat more!” 

Luckily, they caught me on a very good day, and I burst into hysterical laughter instead of uncontrolled sarcasm. Eating more! As a solution to starving myself? Could it be?!

We’d all like to think we’re offering The Best Advice You’ve Never Heard Before. It’s going to fix every problem and cure cancer. Nope! By the time you’ve nerved yourself up to share something that leaves you vulnerable, you’ve probably…you know…thought about fixing it some.

We live in an individualistic society, and being strong and independent is valued. (If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they didn’t want to seek help for a medical or psychological condition because they were going to figure it out/push through it….I’d have really saggy pants.) Commit some variation of this phrase to memory:

That sounds [synonym for bad]! I’m really sorry. Do you want to talk more about it, or be distracted, or are you looking for suggestions for dealing with it?

The subtext: I heard you, I care about you, and I care so much that I’m going to do exactly what you think would be most helpful. And if that advice is completely new or original and you just cannot stand to let it go unsaid, begin here:

I think I might have an idea that could help. Do you want advice?

And then, if they say no, please, please, for the love of cheesecake and chocolate, please keep it to yourself. It’s not about you. It’s about your friend who hurts and needs you to listen to them and their needs. Your need to say some words is trumped by their need to be heard.

How To Respond Badly

18 thoughts on “How To Respond Badly

  1. 2

    I’ve had a few people offer helpful advice on how to improve my concentration. When they find out I’ve had too many concussions and have difficulty concentrating. Try to avoid distractions? Now why didn’t I think of that!? So I don’t know where the best spot is between transparency and taciturnity.

    1. 2.1

      I’d suggest (if you’re looking for advice) an adaptation from this post at Captain Awkward along the lines of…
      1) Sorry to interrupt, but you’re not my doctor, and advice is just awkward
      2) Since you don’t have the whole story, I’d rather not talk about it
      3) Some other variation of “wow, I’m going to be slightly polite and ignore how much you’re presuming and prying”

      1. Those are good answers. Now I’m really glad I don’t have T1D. Not only because it would suck but because of advice-givers.

        But I feel it’s important to be open about medical problems, so others with similar issues won’t feel alone. We shouldn’t have to hide. And I want to believe in the good intentions of advice-givers, but it is difficult. Sometimes it feels like “you wouldn’t have this problem if you had it all together like I do”.

  2. 742

    i think youre overlooking the purpose these ‘stupid’ rules play in society. if we didnt have so much social pressure for people to do things that hurt them, or just to avoid seeking help, then what would the worlds bad writers have to do? wait tables? no. a few billion lives lived (and millions ended) in that fucked up twisted agony you get when youre tearing yourself apart inside, then on top of it trying to hide it and feeling guilty/faily about not being okay is a small price to pay for lending that sense of realism to sloppy, poorly thought out nattatives.

  3. 5

    I have to say a word in defense of ‘drama-free’: I agree with you in the sense that there is real and unavoidable drama that comes with life, and that people must be sensitive to those suffering from it. One problem that I feel you disregard is the self-inflicted drama many people create out of a desire for attention & sympathy. People like this who abuse the system make it difficult for everyone.

    I regards to genuine drama, you’re right; good advice (we can’t be reminded too much).

  4. 6

    I think I might have an idea that could help. Do you want advice?

    And then, if they say no, please, please, for the love of cheesecake and chocolate, please keep it to yourself.

    Oh I wish I had had this advice a decade ago. Could have saved a valuable friendship.

    Alas, I had to learn the hard way.

  5. 8

    Fun story:

    I was, in fact, hit by a car once. I came out of it in surprisingly good shape. Worst result was a broken collarbone, which seems to me like a high score coming out of a squishy bipedal bag of meat vs. several tons of metal at high speed competition. So I was well enough to try and catch up with things a bit the next day.

    I was in undergrad at the time, and the college had apparently sent around an email announcing the accident, as per policy. There was also an unmoderated and unaffiliated message board for the school, where I found a long string of posts about how whoever that idiot was who got hit should have looked both ways and remembered that that crosswalk is dangerous and so on and so forth. It sounds unbelievably sociopathic and I’m sure you can blame it on the internet, but the hyperbolic illustration there actually happened.

    For the record, once I threw up a post to the effect of “hi, guys, yeah, I totally should have been careful, why didn’t I think of that,” the thread stopped.

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