The internet has recently seen an explosion of “Things You Should Never Say” articles, many of which pertain to interactions with people who are suffering. To some, these articles may seem overly sensitive or demanding: How are you supposed to keep track of all these things you’re not supposed to say? What’s the point of even trying to support someone when you’ll inevitably say the “wrong” thing?
While this attitude is understandable, it misses what may be a more important question: Why are insensitive comments so common, even among well-meaning people?
First, consider what makes a comment insensitive at all. Comments that minimize or invalidate a person’s lived experience and the reality of their situation are especially likely to be hurtful. For example, as Sheryl Sandberg said in a Facebook post marking the end of sheloshim, a 30-day period of mourning, losing her husband made her understand how well-meaning comments like “It’s going to be okay” can be painful, after just experiencing a devastating loss or terminal diagnosis. “Real empathy,” she says, “is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay, but acknowledging that it is not.”
Another way that well-meaning comments can be hurtful is when they implicitly hold people responsible for things beyond their control. For example, telling a depressed person that depression is a choice and they should “snap out of it” can imply that they are to blame for their depression. Or as Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, telling someone with advanced cancer that if they just maintain a positive attitude they will beat it can imply that a poor attitude is to blame if their condition does not improve.
Here are 6 possible reasons why well-meaning people make insensitive comments:
- They haven’t been there. When someone hasn’t experienced major hardship themselves (or hasn’t experienced the specific kind of hardship that the person they are speaking with has experienced), it can be harder for them to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. As Sandberg notes, before her husband’s death, she “never really knew what to say to others in need.” Research suggests that empathy for physical pain is increased by prior similar experience. Among females, prior exposure to an upsetting life experience is associated with great empathy for someone going through a related experience.
- They have been there, but they’re beyond it now. Although shared experience can facilitate empathy, there are circumstances under which it may have the opposite effect. One series of studies found that people who had successfully overcome a distressing event (e.g., bullying), compared to those who were currently enduring it or who had no experience with it, were more harsh in evaluating those who had failed to overcome the event. In hindsight, they apparently viewed the event as easier to overcome.
- They don’t want to imagine being there. Even if someone cannot directly relate to another person’s hardship, can they at least try to imagine what it is like? Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Empathy can be painful, which motivates some to avoid entering into the situation. Feeling overwhelmed by personal distress due to someone else’s suffering can reduce compassion; people become more concerned with trying to reduce their own distress than trying to support the other person. This may lead people to make comments that minimize the seriousness of a scary situation.
- They want to make the problem go away. While there is nothing wrong with offering suggestions and advice, some problems don’t have simple solutions—or any solutions. People may just want to feel cared about and understood, not fixed. But support-givers are often drawn to problem-solving because it makes them feel helpful, or perhaps helps them avoid the discomfort of acknowledging the painful reality of someone’s situation.
- They don’t want to feel vulnerable. As I discuss in other posts, it is upsetting when bad things happen to good people. Many individuals may try to avoid this thought by convincing themselves that victims must in some way be responsible for their misfortune. This attribution is a double-edged sword: It helps people feel less personally vulnerable, but it can also make them less compassionate.
- They’re just saying what they think they’re supposed to say. Often well-meaning people say hurtful things because they’re at a loss for words. Not knowing the right thing to say, they may turn to canned statements, like “don’t worry about it” or “you’ll be fine”—the kinds of statements that tend to be least helpful in difficult times.
If you are suffering, sometimes well-meaning people will make offensive comments. Understanding why they do so can reduce their sting. Usually, it’s more about them (and their own fears and insecurities) than about you. No one wants to see the people they care about suffer, and this experience doesn’t always bring out the best in them.
But when people genuinely want to help, sometimes they just need a gentle nudge in the right direction, like “I would love to believe that everything will be okay, but the truth is there’s a lot of uncertainty right now” or “I really appreciate your advice, but right now I just need a hug.” Don’t be afraid to educate people on issues that they seem ignorant about, such as the biological basis of medical conditions or the fact that grief doesn’t have an expiration date.
As a well-meaning person, what can you do to become more sensitive in these kinds of interactions, without having to memorize a long list of “don’ts”? One thing that can help is to recognize that your assumptions about what someone is going through, why they’re going through it, and what they need may not be accurate. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask questions and be honest about what you don’t know or don’t understand.
And if you do say something hurtful and it gets brought to your attention, try to be open to that feedback rather than becoming defensive—saying the “wrong” thing once in a while doesn’t make you a bad person; we have all been guilty of that.