5 Unhelpful Ways We Respond To A Friend In Crisis
Considering how much practice we get, it's kind of weird how bad humans are at talking to each other. I don't mean the small talk about politics and hockey (though we're bad at that too), but the conversations that actually require some tact. You know, when you're talking to someone who's in a bad place, trying to make them feel better. We all seem to have a few go-to reactions in those scenarios, and they're almost never helpful. Like ...
Giving Obvious Advice About What You'd Do Instead
The first instinct we have when we hear about a friend's problem is to fix it. And if it's a problem that can no longer be fixed, we'll tell them how we would have obviously handled it. Clearly our friends and colleagues aren't just coming to us to vent; they're coming to us for our vast wisdom!
Sure, this can be helpful if the problem is fairly straightforward ("Next time, try adding thyme to the sauce" or "Next time, try calling the other rapper's mom ugly when you have the microphone"), though usually that kind of information is easily obtained elsewhere. Much more often, this comes off as "Here's why your stupid problem would never have happened to me!"
So if someone is upset that their boss keeps making them work unpaid overtime, don't say, "Next time he pulls that, I'd tell him to go fuck himself!" Not only is this shunning actual advice in favor of making yourself look like an assertive badass, but it's also implying that they had no good reason for not doing that the first time. It's the same for the oh-so-common advice people offer as a response to harassment: "If that drunk guy was creeping on you, why didn't you just kick him in the balls?"
You can imagine the above being said by a 230-pound man to his 120-pound female friend, or at the very least, someone who has never been in that particular situation. But there are endless varieties of this, from "Next time, don't wait until the layoffs come -- train yourself for another job!" to "You should get regular checkups, that way brain tumors like yours won't go unnoticed for so long!" Even if it feels helpful when it's leaving your mouth, the reality is that you're just asserting your superiority.
Assuring Them That You're Not Part Of The Problem
Nothing is more devastating than realizing the proverbial ground under your feet isn't as stable as you thought. A mugging on a street you considered safe, the breakup of what you thought was a happy relationship, a Subway employee clearly rubbing his dick on your sandwich, maintaining intense eye contact the whole time. We know, rationally, that these events are rare (that street is considered safe for a reason, Subway would never have grown to its size if it employed hordes of weirdos asking if you want their "special sauce"), but that's what makes the exceptions such a shock to the system.
Naturally, if a friend has just been victimized somehow, you don't want them to compound their suffering by living in constant fear. So your impulse will be to reassure them about something they really already know -- that the thing that happened was in fact rare. Throwing statistics at them seems cold and impersonal. ("Only seven people get robbed at the corner of Picket Fence Lane and Police Station Boulevard every year! You were, uh ... one of the lucky ones!") So the next best thing is to reassure our friends that, whatever horrible thing happened to them, you are the sort of person who would never do that.
This is another one that often has a gender element. Upon hearing tales of a shitty man's behavior, men tend to rush in to say that while they're so ashamed to be a man right now, not all men are like that. They certainly aren't. It's another example of the human brain sneakily disguising a boast as friendly reassurance. It also contains zero useful information for the victim: Even if you think 99 percent of men (or police, or Uber drivers, or whatever) are righteous, it doesn't help the victim, because it just means they happened to run into one of the 1 percent.
As for the reassurances that you're one of the good ones: If you're a friend, they already know that, or they wouldn't be talking to you. If you're a total stranger on the internet, why in the fuck would they believe you?
Assuring Them That Something Similar -- Or Worse -- Happened To You
Well, if the thing people want most is someone to listen and be reassured that they're not alone, why not say something to demonstrate that? Surely this calls for an anecdote to let them know that we too have been there.
It seems like there are only two outcomes here, and both of them are bad. The first is that it turns out your story doesn't compare at all. "It really sucks that your mom just died, but I know what you're going through. My, uh, dog died last year." You're really only expressing the opposite of what you intended, that you don't know a damned thing.
The other possible outcome is that your thing was way worse. "Oh, you're worried about paying rent? That reminds me of the brutal year I spent living on the streets." You think you're helping by providing a sense of scale, but it instead comes across like "How dare you worry about your father losing his leg in an industrial accident when my father died of cancer?!" They're not going to stop worrying about it; they're either going to feel bad for bringing it up, or annoyed that you tried to top them.
It's a strange impulse, because we're usually fine admitting that we have no frame of reference in other circumstances. If your friend is a pilot and you're an accountant, you're not going to respond to an anecdote by trying to draw a tortured analogy between an Excel formula you whipped up and an emergency landing they had to make. But when it comes to grief and tragedy, we feel like failures for not having some equivalent story in our pocket.
But once again, it really comes down to trying to win the conversation. "You think you have problems? You should check out my shit!"
Offering "This Is An Opportunity In Disguise!" Inspiration
We're getting to what may be the single most common reaction to life's most typical bad news. Loss of a job, the end of a relationship, an expected opportunity that fell through -- each time, the hearer's brain leaps to "Look on the bright side!" Maybe we'll even go the extra mile and recite something we saw in an inspirational meme one time, about how disappointment is but the shit we use to fertilize our dreams.
And hey, maybe someone, somewhere, has felt better after hearing this. But the reality is that it's very easy to sit outside someone's life and, facing none of their challenges, let them know that the thing they lost just wasn't meant to be, or that what really matters is the valuable lessons they've learned, or that their layoff just means that now they can pursue their passion. "You're right, now that I've lost the material and psychological safety net that was my steady income, I will be able to focus exclusively on my my hobby of drawing cartoon dogs with impractically large erections!"
It also puts pressure on them to be positive, when hey, sometimes being negative is the reasonable response. Not everything is a problem you can solve by slapping a smiley face Band-Aid on it. It's OK to be sad that something objectively terrible happened, and it's fine to let someone else be sad. Sometimes they need time to adjust to the fact that things are just worse than they used to be.
And let's be honest: Lots of times, our desire to make their sadness go away is in fact selfish. A happy person is one you don't have to worry about. A happy person, whether their happiness is genuine or a mask they're wearing to get through the day, is a person who will go to the bar or play video games with you. A sad person will focus on the source of their sadness, and you can't hang out with someone who's busy sending out resumes or processing their trauma.
Feeling Like You Have To Say Something
By now, some of you are thinking "Christ, can't I say anything? I just want to be helpful!"
Well, you're being helpful just by being someone who cares enough to listen to a long rant from your friend about how their boss is an asshole, or how they don't get enough respect in the dating world, or how some arrogant know-it-all on the internet is trying to police their conversations. And sometimes that's as helpful as you can be, being there and listening without judgment. By groaning at all the right moments, by offering all the right affirmations. By agreeing that yes, a food truck that only served borscht was a great idea, despite the market's stern rejection.
Sometimes people just need to vent, and sometimes they just share because it would be weird not to say something. ("Oh, thanks for inviting me and my dad to your barbecue, but he actually got hit by a train eight months ago and I guess I never got around to telling you.") But we say a bunch of awkward and unhelpful things because we feel the need to insert ourselves, to become an active participant in their battle. To fill a void that they didn't actually ask us to fill.
Sometimes "Man, that sucks, I'm sorry," is the best and only thing to say, even if we feel lame for saying it. You can gently probe to see if there's more you can offer ("Can I do anything to help? Maybe I can cook dinner for you sometime?"), but often there's really not much you can do, or that your friend even wants you to do. And that's OK! If you're in a tough situation, it's actually really good to just hear people agree with you that yes, what's going on sucks and they have a right to feel lousy about it. They don't need easy solutions or trite reassurances; they just need to know that someone gives a shit.
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