Stop Telling People They Look Tired

Seriously, stop it. It’s rude.

I am, for no specific medical reason I’ve ever been able to discern, chronically fatigued. I’m almost always tired. I sleep a solid 7-8 hours a night, stay fairly active, eat fairly well, and don’t have an especially demanding daily schedule, but I’m always tired all the same. I was always tired in middle school. I was always tired in high school. I was always tired during school breaks. I was always tired in college. I was always tired in grad school. I continue to be always tired now that I’m employed full-time. I was always tired before puberty. I was always tired during puberty. I was always tired after puberty. I was always tired without birth control and with periods; I was always tired with birth control and without periods. I was always tired when I exercised almost every day, when I exercised several times a week, and when I scarcely exercised at all. I was always tired when I ate good home-cooked food my mom made, and I was always tired when I ate ramen and Easy Mac in college, and I was always tired when I started cooking real food for myself. I was always tired when I slept on a shitty dorm room mattress and when I slept on a nice memory foam mattress. I was always tired when I used my phone or laptop right before bed, and I was always tired back before I had any phones or laptops to use. I was always tired when the morning light came through the window at 6 AM, and I was always tired when I used special curtains and sleep masks. I was always tired when I took vitamin B and vitamin D and vitamin C and probably other vitamins too, and I was always tired when I didn’t.  I was always tired before my depression started, and I was always tired during my depression, and I’m always tired now that I’m mostly not symptomatic. I was always tired during stressful times and I was always tired during careless, stress-free times. I was even tired on vacation.

I expect things will continue in this way, because I’ve lived with all sorts of schedules and lifestyles and mental states during this time and the one constant was always, always, always wishing I could just lie down and close my eyes.

(A meta-note here: the reason I included that huge paragraph is because people literally will not take me seriously about this topic until they’ve audited me to make sure that I really have Tried Everything to “cure” my fatigue, even though that doesn’t actually matter for what I’m about to say.)

(I’m not interested in any advice or input about managing fatigue. I really do mean it.)

I’m not actually here to talk about my fatigue, because it really doesn’t matter for the substance of my argument. I’ve done pretty much everything I can afford at this point to try to make it better, so anyone who is so disturbed at the sight of my tired face will just have to deal with it.

What I wish is that it were generally considered rude to comment on people’s bodies unless you are quite certain that the comment will be appreciated, or that there is some other pressing need to do it. (I can’t imagine right now a situation in which someone doesn’t want to hear your opinion about their body but the harm of stating it is outweighed by some greater good, but I’m hesitant to make absolute statements and I know that if I don’t include that caveat, the comments will fill up with fantastical examples of extreme situations in which that is indeed the case. “Yes but imagine if an evil wizard threatens to curse you and your entire family unless you tell your random coworker that they look tired…”)

“Do not comment on people’s bodies unless you are quite certain that the comment will be appreciated.” Such a general rule would mean no physical compliments unless you have that kind of relationship, no asking strangers when the baby is due, no expressing your unsolicited negative opinion about someone’s tattoos, and no awkward “You look tired” comments.

And sure, there are probably situations in which “You look tired” is appropriate. “You look tired” with a knowing grin the morning after a shared night out on the town (or in the bedroom). “You look tired” along with an offer to help carry something. “You look tired” in acknowledgement of a difficult task well done.

Everything is contextual with human interaction, so I don’t claim to offer absolute rules.

Most of the time, though, “You look tired” either communicates something that’s better kept to yourself or something that would be better communicated some other way.

Instead of saying “You look tired” out of concern for someone’s well-being, ask them how they’re doing. Leave their physical appearance out of it and say something like, “You seem overwhelmed lately. How are you? Can I help?”

Instead of saying “You look tired” because someone looks bad and it’s bothering you so you feel like you need to say something, deal with that discomfort on your own. We’re all adults here. Fatigue and stress and sleep deprivation are things that happen.

Instead of saying “You look tired” because you’re concerned about someone’s ability to do something safely, say so directly. “Do you want me to drive for a while? I’m worried that you’re getting tired.” “Why don’t you take the rest of your shift off and get some sleep? You almost dropped that equipment.” Again, the problem isn’t how they look; the problem is how they probably feel based on a variety of cues that you’re picking up on.

Instead of saying “You look tired” because you’re hoping they’ll tell you why they’re so tired, ask them how they’re feeling today. I don’t treat “You look tired” as an invitation to tell you how I actually feel, because it’s awkward and I’m not sure what it’s meant to communicate. I get the sense that some people say it because they’re genuinely curious about how I feel, but who knows?

Instead of saying “You look tired” because nobody’s talking and silence makes you feel awkward, either deal with that discomfort (there’s nothing wrong with some silence) or think of something to say that doesn’t force them to defend or explain their physical appearance.

Ask yourself what sort of response you’re hoping for when you say “You look tired” to someone. “Uh, I guess”? “Yup”? “Not really, just bored/sad/depressed/worried/stressed”? Because I really don’t know what I’m supposed to say in response, whether I’m actually tired or not. Maybe they expect me to launch into some wild story about dancing at the club till 5 AM or spending the whole night chasing my runaway cat through the city, but no, the answer is that I went to sleep at 11 PM after reading for a bit, and woke up at 7 AM feeling like total garbage, and here I am at 1 PM still feeling like total garbage, because that’s how my body is.

If I merely found this rude and weird, I probably wouldn’t be writing a blog post about it, but it does harm me in a very real way. Basically, the only reason I’m able to continue to be a human and do things despite my crushing fatigue is by keeping myself busy and engaged enough that I can ignore it. That takes effort. For instance, it’s why I’m almost never just “doing nothing.” If I’m on public transportation or waiting in line for something or I arrived five minutes earlier to the restaurant than my friend did, I’m reading. If I’m eating, I’m reading. If I’m driving, then I’m listening to music or an audiobook or making conversation with a passenger. Smartphones are an essential coping tool for me, and I don’t give a fuck if that makes me a Millennial Stereotype.

So what happens when someone pointlessly blurts out “You look tired”? All of that is sort of ruined. I’m forced, if temporarily, to pay attention to the physical state of my body, and it feels awful. In attempting to assemble a response to this awkward statement, I have to actually contemplate my own tiredness, which I try as much as possible to avoid doing. (Writing this constitutes an exception.)

And to what end? What is gained by someone telling me that I look tired? What do they learn about me? What do I learn about them, except that they’re sort of rude? How does either of us benefit?

Generally, when someone looks unusual or “bad” in a way they can’t control, such as fatigue or disability or scarring, I think it’s best to give them the dignity of letting it pass unremarked unless you have that kind of relationship or unless they invite comment on it themselves. When someone looks unusual or “bad” in a way they can control, the dynamics are a little different, but it’s still useful to keep in mind that 1) nobody asked for your opinion and 2) giving your opinion uninvited is unlikely to accomplish anything useful for either of you. In fact, it will probably hurt the person and your relationship with them, however passing it might be. Exceptions include letting someone know that they’ve got something stuck in their teeth or that there’s a tear in their clothing they probably can’t see. It’s just like I said before: do you honestly think they’ll appreciate what you’re going to say? If so, then it’s okay.

This wonderful bit of advice from Captain Awkward is about pregnancy, but towards the end it applies to all sorts of body stuff:

Readers, if you did not know, the only time to notice or talk about someone’s pregnancy is when they tell you, in words, that they are pregnant. And the thing to say to a pregnant person about their appearance is “Well, you look very nice today, that color suits you/your hair is pretty/I am glad to see you” and to NOT comment on anything about how their body looks, and then you let them take the lead on bringing up the subject of body stuff. If you need a cautionary tale to drive this home, let me tell you about the time I was in mall food court with a friend who had just miscarried at 5 months and how a stranger came up to tell her that she was “absolutely glowing” and “obviously meant to be a mother” and how “that precious baby didn’t know how lucky it was to have such a beautiful mommy!” and how “the way you’re carrying, it looks like a boy. Do you know the sex yet?” and we both froze like deer. My friend excused herself to go to the restroom because she’d forgotten to wear purple shorts under her pants today and didn’t want to Hulk out or cry in public, and after she left I babbled something at the lady like “I’m sure you meant well, but she just lost her baby, not that it’s any of her business, but pregnant strangers and their bodies are also not your business” and she fell all over herself apologizing and unfortunately science still doesn’t let you wish people into the cornfield. Moral of the story: You DON’T know what’s going on inside other people’s bodies, you DON’T know how they feel about it, so DON’T comment on their bodies.

No, I don’t think my chronic fatigue is “as bad” as miscarrying at 5 months, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty bad for me, and it’s something I’ve had to carry with me (it really feels like a burden to carry) for about 12 years and it’s probably not going away soon. Why remind me of that? Why force me to awkwardly stammer something about how I’m always tired, don’t worry about it, that’s just how I always look?

Why should I have to defend or explain my chronic condition to anyone?

I have to wonder how much of these comments that I get are being made on some level because I fail to present as enthusiastic and energetic and peppy as we expect young women to be. When my face and eyes look physically tired, it seems to almost offend some people, as though I should’ve been considerate enough to cover all that unpleasantness up with makeup or at least force a disgusting cup of coffee down my throat so that nobody has to see me so tired. (I hate coffee, truly.) My exhaustion becomes about their discomfort and worry and irritation at my appearance.

I don’t know what to tell you. If I can drag myself out of bed every day and stay busy from sunrise to sunset (and sometimes much later), you can deal with the sight of my tired face without making it my problem.


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Stop Telling People They Look Tired

16 thoughts on “Stop Telling People They Look Tired

  1. 1

    I met a friend who looked particularly hassled and tired. We’d both been under a lot of pressure from a similar work-related situation, and I knew the pressure on my friend was long-term. In an effort to show some empathy I said “You’re looking how I’m feeling.”
    I meant it well.
    My friend was momentarily upset but brushed it off (for my benefit).
    It’s not the most insensitive thing I have ever said in my life, but it’s definitely in the top ten. I still regret how rude I was that day.

  2. 2

    Yes. This. I have also spent far too much of my life feeling tired (to say the least), and it really, really sucks. Having it pointed out does not help. Do they think you haven’t noticed or something? “You look tired.” Oh, wow, thanks – I totally hadn’t noticed, but now that you mention it, I realise that I’m absolutely fucking exhausted. I’ll get on fixing that right away…

    (And no, I’m not looking for any “helpful” suggestions from anybody either, thanks.)

    You have my sympathy, for what it’s worth.

  3. 3

    Another aspect is that for me as a woman this often has to do with wearing make up.
    I like make up, I usually wear make up whenever I do more than grovcey shopping. I also have those dark shades under the eyes that easily give off a sad panda vibe and I’m very pale. That’S me being healthy and not bothering with make up because actually I’m just dropping off the kids and getting some milk before I go home to take a shower.
    And that’s somehow read as being tired or even being sick…

  4. 5

    This is a pretty gendered thing in my experience… I’m pretty much always mildly tired, but I’m a dude and never get told I look tired (perhaps if I’m unmistakably fatigued). Meanwhile a woman wears less makeup, or more makeup, or even just different makeup and she “looks tired”.

    1. 5.1

      Good lord, I’ve just remembered… This is the exact technique the tenth Doctor used to bring down Harriet Jones: “Doesn’t she look tired?” That seems significant somehow. Would it have worked if it had been Harry Jones instead of Harriet? Somehow I doubt it…

  5. 6

    Just so y’all know, I delete all comments that are basically just “oh so I can’t say ANYTHING” and “well I guess we should never speak to anyone ever again.” First of all, it’s empirically inaccurate and adds nothing to the conversation. Second, it silences people like me and other commenters who are trying to talk about something that hurts us. Third, it’s juvenile and annoying. You sound like a teenager who got grounded for one evening and is now whining that their parents NEVER want them to have fun again EVER.

  6. 7

    Miri, thanks for writing this post. I’m the kind of person who could say something like that (though I don’t think I ever did, I used to use variations of that phrase), because of genuine concern for a person. I know from my own experience that not everyone is well aware of how to spot nasty symptoms in themselves.

    But! I’m not arguing with you point. On the contrary. Comments on someone’s appearance never ever help, precisely because we as a culture are taught to promote the appearance of well being over actual well being. “You look X” is always taken to mean “you fail to measure up to some standard of beauty/enthusiasm”. The answer to “how do you feel?” is always “great!”, even when the person is literally on their deathbed.
    The only thing that counts is whether we appear to conform with society’s expectation of behavior/appearance or not, which becomes a mortal danger when a doctor holds those views. Speaking of which…

    Aceso Under Glass #4

    Could we please also ban “you’re too young to have this problem [I just diagnosed you with].”?

    I once read a paper (can’t find it now) which revealed that doctors are less likely to pay notice to complaints from women and younger men. Those patients were much more likely to be labeled as hypochondriacs and dismissed without proper tests.

  7. 8

    On the contrary. Comments on someone’s appearance never ever help, precisely because we as a culture are taught to promote the appearance of well being over actual well being. […] The only thing that counts is whether we appear to conform with society’s expectation of behavior/appearance or not, which becomes a mortal danger when a doctor holds those views.

    That reminded me of this comic by Quino.

  8. 10

    Re: Dunc– telling a middle-aged woman in the workplace that she looks tired could be considered a weapon. A passive-aggressive, microaggression-laden weapon designed to knock her off her game, and start her worrying about her position and her future. It’s a horrible thing to say in an era of record long-term unemployment.

  9. 11

    Thank you for saying this so thoroughly. It used to be something that I said sometimes, but I have a friend who does it a LOT, and also in other variations (“you look like shit today, what’s wrong?”), and I realized how awful that whole genre of comments/questions makes me feel. I understand it’s out of genuine concern on her part, but sometimes I thought I looked great today and she burst that bubble, sometimes I do feel awful but don’t want to talk about it and I’m really trying to hold it all together and I tried really really hard to look ok, so thanks for letting me know that didn’t work and I’m not fooling anybody. It’s just… ugh. I’ve been trying to erase it from my vocabulary altogether, and thank you for adding such a detailed and eloquent rationale to it.

  10. 12

    Driving while tired can be even more dangerous than drunk driving, so when I ask someone if they’ve rested, there’s actually a reason for it. The same way people take the keys away from a drunk, the keys should be taken from someone who clearly hasn’t slept in 24 hours.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most of the people who say you look tired are veiling an insult on your attractiveness, but there’s good health reasons that really do outweigh negative responses. I mean, I’ve been told my whole life that sleep is about the most important thing for my health ever in the history of the entire cosmoses, so maybe I’m a bit biased.

    I’ll try to keep in mind chronic fatigue though.

  11. 13

    Many of us with high intelligence also have underlying chronic inflammation (don’t take my word for it, google ‘autism schizophrenia inflammation’). Chronic inflammation can trigger cytokines, which cause that ‘omg, a tank just dropped on me’ kind of fatigue whenever we’re really sick.

    Chronic inflammation would not only make you feel fatigued, but cause pallor (pale skin), circles under the eyes, and psoriasis, which combine for that ‘gosh you really look tired’ package.

    But don’t get me started on cytokines and depression…

  12. M

    There is nothing worse when I’m feeling good, and not feeling self-conscious [for once- it’s rare], and then someone goes ahead and tells me I look tired. It happens to me all the time. No, I’m not tired. I’m just not attractive. Deal with it.

  13. 15

    It is a rude and insensitive comment to make no matter what and clearly shows someone’s complete lack of social graces. In saying to someone “you look tired”, you are cutting to the core of their self esteem because society places such a high value on appearance. There is never an appropriate time to say someone looks tired. Period. Would you go up to someone and say, “you look fat today” or ” your hair is a terrible color”? Likely not, therefore it is never OK to demean anyone’s appearance.
    It boggles my mind to know people actually say that to others. I have had that happen and my response, “is there some reason you feel comfortable saying that to me?” Usually stops the conversation and relationship in its track.

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