Nice to meet you! Your son died? Okay, so...
February 3, 2009 9:53 PM   Subscribe

What should I say when people who I don't know well or recently met share personal, usually tragic, information about their lives with me?

So I'm out there, working, volunteering, socializing and I find myself in awkward, but very human situations.

After the initial smalltalk, I seem to end up learning something about the person that's not happy news.

For example, "I moved here because of my sister, but she recently passed away," or "I work at this company mostly because my wife has disease X and we need the insurance"

I think my usual response is a frown and, "I'm sorry to hear that". I don't really know what I should be saying. I don't know if them sharing that part of their life is an invitation for me to ask more questions about it or just a fact of their life or what.

I know sometimes it doesn't really matter what you say, but how you say it. So teach me what to say and how to say it, because I don't want to come across as a man with no heart.
posted by abdulf to Human Relations (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think you're doing fine. Saying "I'm really sorry to hear that" acknowledges the statement, and allows the other person to share if they want to do so, but doesn't force the conversation on them. I can't really think of a better way to handle situations like that.
posted by sherlockt at 10:00 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think my usual response is a frown and, "I'm sorry to hear that".

Go with what feels right.

I'm so sorry to hear that. It must be tough to see someone you love suffer.

That sounds terrible. I hope things get better for you.

Sincerity is what matters. If you are sincere, people can tell.
posted by jayder at 10:01 PM on February 3, 2009

Well, for what it's worth, the "I'm sorry to hear that" is more than enough for me personally. Sometimes it comes up in conversation that my dad died last year. For example, if a person older than me finds out that I like some old band that don't expect me to know about, I end up saying, "Oh, well my dad listened to them all the time," and then they say something like, "Listened?" and I have to say, "Yeah, he died last year." It's not something I bring up for the express purpose of talking about it, and while I don't mind talking about it or anything, I don't want or expect anyone to continue to talk about it because they feel obligated. In fact, I try to avoid bringing it up precisely because, like you, I don't know what to say when other people tell me those things, and I don't want to make them feel awkward.

Plus, the more people try to talk about it so they can express sympathy, the more it seems they have trouble dislodging themselves from the topic. "How did he die?" "Well, technically a heart attack, but it was because the drug manufacturer was mistakingly releasing tablets with twice the dosage of one of his heart medications, and a lot of people actually died." "Oh wow, that's horrible." "Yeah, we're in a class action lawsuit... anyway..."

That's not to say that other people might want/expect you to say something more, but I dunno how you would know. I want to say that you can't go wrong erring on the side of not prying because some people might think you were rude, or that they made you feel weird, if you don't. But honestly I think that's irrational of them when it happens, so I tend to go the whole "sorry to hear that" route myself.
posted by Nattie at 10:01 PM on February 3, 2009

Just drop your voice slightly and say: "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," and then let the conversation continue. If it's your turn, ask a benign, parallel question. "When did you move here?" "Oh, how long have you been working here?" Let them make the next conversational turn, so as not to seem like you're changing the subject. If they keep talking about the painful thing, then follow up with some general questions about it. If the personal turn becomes uncomfortable or awkward, then change the subject gently after a minute or two. Or settle in to have a more intense and more human interaction than you'd anticipated.
posted by felix betachat at 10:03 PM on February 3, 2009

Best answer: You must come across as a very trustworthy and approachable person--that's commendable, and it seems like you must be doing something right already in terms of saying the right thing the right way if so many people are telling you these things when you've barely met. A frown and "I'm sorry to hear that" seem entirely appropriate and sufficiently respectful, but anything more personal, emotional, or inquisitive could easily backfire. Some people are just very open about their painful experiences, others exploit their painful experiences to get attention (understandable, sometimes, but not healthy). I think your current approach makes sense until you know a person better.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:04 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's difficult to say. I'm afraid my default response is generally along the lines of "Yeah, life's rough all 'round", but that's only because strangers divulging that sort of personal information puts me in a profoundly uncomfortable position and I utterly resent sympathy vampires. Of course, they could just be remarkably honest and open people, but in my experience this is basically their way of saying: "The world is out to get me, so don't expect too much." (Disregarding the fact that the world actually doesn't give a shit about them.)

Basically, they are lowering your (potential) future social expectations in advance. The correct response is a variation on "That's a sad story."
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:05 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

My usual response if a bad thing's mentioned in passing is to just say a very standard sound of "I'm listening to what you're saying" like, "Ohhh," or "Ohhh, really?" and mainly communicating via facial expression - a sympathetic frown - and tone of voice: sympathetic, attentive, but not questioning or emphasising this bit of information any more than anything else they've told me. The aim being to show I'm sorry that happened to them but that I'm listening to wherever they're taking the conversation. If it's just another bit of tangential information that has to be said to explain something else, I don't want to drag them into explaining it: I'd like to leave them free to do that on their own time when and if they choose.
posted by springbound at 10:14 PM on February 3, 2009

Wait, you're in Texas? Honey, this is what "bless your heart" and all its variations were made for.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 10:23 PM on February 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

There are variations on "bless your heart"?
posted by pmbuko at 10:38 PM on February 3, 2009

Bless your little heart.
posted by salvia at 10:55 PM on February 3, 2009

So long as you're sincere, a brief statement like "I'm sorry to hear that" is 100% acceptable and expected and appropriate.

To give you perspective, sometimes people going through difficult times aren't in the mood to talk about something, but it slips out or it simply isn't possible to avoid mentioning it without lying or stopping mid-sentence. "I moved here after my husband passed" is a perfect example; making small talk, it will come up in a matter-of-fact way, and evading mentioning her husband (in this example) would require lying or aborting the sentence in some awkward way.

Besides, tragedy isn't (or shouldn't be) shameful or embarrasing, it's just something we deal with in our lives. "I moved here after winning the lottery" is really no different, except that "I'm sorry to hear that" isn't appropriate in that instance. So don't sweat it, and just be sincere.
posted by davejay at 11:02 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

I enjoy "So it goes" with a sympathetic shrug and frown. Sometimes, depending, a sigh. Then again, I'm a terrible person.

The above "bless your heart" can only be pulled off if your hair is large enough and you have enough jangly bracelets on. You place your fingertips to your collarbone, glance into their eyes, say the phrase, and succinctly change the subject to something more benign, like potato salad.
posted by Mizu at 11:04 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

What about people who, when you tell them "I'm sorry," say "Why should you be sorry? It's not your fault."
posted by Kirklander at 11:28 PM on February 3, 2009

What about people who, when you tell them "I'm sorry," say "Why should you be sorry? It's not your fault."

Saying "I'm sorry" is not an admission of guilt. You can say "I'm sorry" as in "I'm sorry that you feel that way" or "I'm sorry you are going through what you are going through."
posted by MaryDellamorte at 11:37 PM on February 3, 2009

I would think that when people share personal, emotionally loaded information, they are not looking for evaluation or advice. They are looking for empathy, they want to feel felt, that's all.

It sounds too simple for the solution oriented mind, but in these moments it is the emotional side of the brain that is operating.

So, what you can do is try to imagine how they feel and reflect it back to them. It may sound like:

I imagine you feel frustrated because you are working a job you are not excited about.

Try to feel their general mood when they share this and reflect it back.

This is not a trick, it is how beings with emotional intelligence relate.

You don't have to take sides, or offer solutions. Just try to sense what they feel, and why, and reflect it back.

For more information, look up "nonviolent communication" and "emotional intelligence"
posted by andreinla at 11:51 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

What about people who, when you tell them "I'm sorry," say "Why should you be sorry? It's not your fault."

Those people are assholes, and I count myself amongst them. When I became increasingly forced to reveal my dad's death to people, and they responded with "I'm sorry", I would say "That's okay, you didn't do it. Or did you?"

Point is, they are deliberately misinterpreting the offer of sympathy and aren't worthy of any more of your time. Suggest they tell it to the birds.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:14 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry is plenty. Most people's personal tragedies -- including my own -- tend to be pretty banal. So, me, I don't like to get drawn into conversations about people's personal tragedies, unless I am in a position to actually help. Usually with people I don't know, that's not the case, so they'd be depressed and I'd be bored to no purpose. How about them Dodgers?

What about people who, when you tell them "I'm sorry," say "Why should you be sorry? It's not your fault."

Those people are being mean to you. You say. "Right. Nice meeting you!"
posted by Methylviolet at 3:34 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Something standard like, "I'm sorry to hear that," or for a recent loss: "My condolences," is by far the best. The reason we have these standard lines is because the things we come up with on the spot to say in such situations are usually stupid and embarrassing.
posted by winston at 4:25 AM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I dislike the "I'm sorry" school of responses, since if I am on the other end I never know how to respond, and end up shrugging and saying, "It's okay," which must kind of make one sound like a sociopath for thinking that one's personal tragedies are really no biggie.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:05 AM on February 4, 2009

ITheCosmos, you can say, "Thank You." That'll probably feel more comfortable.
posted by winston at 5:28 AM on February 4, 2009

My response to "I'm sorry" is oblique, ITheCosmos, not directly addressing the "sorry." For example: "I'm so sorry." "Yeah, it was really rough. But what can you do?" "Oh, I'm sorry." "Yeah, I don't like it but I guess things happen that way," or some such.
posted by ROTFL at 5:36 AM on February 4, 2009

Point of order. In "bless your/his/her heart" the word "heart" must be pronounced "hort." Otherwise, it isn't authentically Texan.


The above "bless your heart" can only be pulled off if your hair is large enough and you have enough jangly bracelets on.

Alternatives to this include, "Well, look at you!" (especially if you're bad at the soft-toned, "I'm so sorry to hear that.") which is sufficiently vague and yet somehow sounds sympathetic.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:35 AM on February 4, 2009

If you're volunteering (particularly in a social services context), you could ask your fellow volunteers for advise. Do you work along side a social worker or other experienced people? Observe how they handle hearing the bad news (and there will be plenty). If you're interacting in this capacity, you may want to follow-up with questions that focus on the person like, "How have you been handling this?" or ask them if they need to find resources to take care of themselves or others. Research support groups in your area and have a short-list in your mind in case they ask.

In a less formal context, you ought to be sympathetic (keep doing what you're doing) but avoid making assumptions about what they're feeling. E.g. If someone tells you they are going through a divorce and their tone doesn't immediately give away their emotion, you'd be in a tricky spot. Saying "I'm sorry" or "that must be sad," ignores the multitude of perfectly valid positive emotions that they could be feeling and saying "Hurray" isn't very sensitive.

There's nothing wrong with asking some follow-up questions if they broached the topic.

If you painted them into a corner, so to speak (as in Nattie's music example), you may want to proceed with greater caution (e.g. felix betachat's "benign, parallel question" route). Make it clear you don't mind talking about them and leave the door open for them to continue without immediately getting into the gory details.
posted by cranberrymonger at 6:54 AM on February 4, 2009

I immediately get this flow chart in my head when stuff like this happens because I'm totally okay in an interaction with a simple "Oh man, I'm sorry to hear that..." but I have a weird flip-out response on the rare occasions when these situations turn into BIG oversharing experiences. I am also one of those "holds cards close to chest" people and do not respond with personal anecdotes "Oh that can be rough, I remember how I was feeling when my Mom's longitme roommate died last Winter..." which I sometimes think is what people want or would prefer.

So, presuming that people are telling me this because they are in some way emotionally different from me, I try to do a few things

- say something nice that indicated I've heard them but that isn't opening a door to "let's share confidences"
- change the subject politely or gently with the supposition that they don't want to dwell on this either but it's just what's on their mind
- if it does turn into some oversharing "Yeah he was really sick and coughing up blood, it was really horrible...." then I give myself permission to make my exit.
- remember whatever fact they told me in the interest of being polite and not sticking my foot in my mouth next time if we've actually strayed into a topic area that seems like a sore spot with them [as TD said above, I feel that some people really do sort of broadcast "hey I'm nothing but bad news here" and it's okay to heed that warning]

I know it sounds a little strange and robotic but while I don't at all mind saying "wow that sounds like it sucked and I'm sorry" I have a hard time being present and interested with long bad news stories. I work with older people most days who seem to have a larger-than-average share of them.

This was particularly bad when my Mom got her cancer diagnosis and when people asked how I was I'd mention it just to explain why I'd been away for a few weeks while she was in the hospital [see, that's me doing it] and a lot of people would be like "Oh I'm sorry to hear that" and move on [PERFECT] and some would see it as an opening to talk about their loved one's gruesome illness and death from cancer which was exactly the wrong thing to say and I found it very distressing. So, giving myself permission to just walk away from those people has been a useful part, for me, of not fearing getting trapped with them which was always my irrational but real-to-me fear.
posted by jessamyn at 7:08 AM on February 4, 2009

"Oh, how terribly sad."
"Oh dear, how awful for you."
"I am so very sorry to hear that."

One of the above said as earnestly and as thoughtfully as you can manage. Continue to hold eye contact, make your serious/empathetic face, perhaps reach out to pat the person's shoulder, and follow up with a moment of silence. Let the other person make the next move. Take your cues from them.

I would think that when people share personal, emotionally loaded information, they are not looking for evaluation or advice. They are looking for empathy, they want to feel felt, that's all.

They are not always looking for empathy either. Sometimes the information comes out accidentally or deliberately for some other reason than a bid for sympathy. That is why you need to take your cues from them. If they follow up your "How terribly sad for you," with a shrug and a "That was a long time ago and I don't think about it much anymore," that is your cue to nod thoughtfully, and change the subject.

I am speaking from experience when I say that big, life-changing tragedies can make society look at you different and make you feel freakish. People can become awkward and uneasy around you, so that is why you quickly learn to keep it to yourself; it can be a conversation stopper.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:08 AM on February 4, 2009

For example, "I moved here because of my sister, but she recently passed away," or "I work at this company mostly because my wife has disease X and we need the insurance"

I think these sorts of disclosures are common. It's simply part of life, and getting to know someone, not a play for sympathy.

I know that when I'm meeting someone or socializing, there's some potentially "troubling" information that either I mention or avoid. If I mention it, it's not because of any desire or wish for sympathy, but rather by way of explanation or answering a question. If I avoid it, it seems awkward, shallow, or evasive.

So, if you meet me and I happen to mention that we moved here to be close to the Medical Center, and then you ask if I work there, and then I say, no, it's for easier access to my partner's doctors, it's quite acceptable to say, "oh, o.k." and then move on. If I mention his conditions, by chance or by the turn of conversation, again, you can respond based on the context of the conversation. And if that context isn't clear, any brief polite acknowlegement ("I'm sorry to hear that", as you say) is fine.

On preview, Secret Life of Gravy has great a point: Take your cues from them. Pay attention to the context.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:39 AM on February 4, 2009

I am frequently in your position. Your "I'm sorry to hear that" is perfectly fine. If you can rock the Texasism, go for it. It's more about the delivery than the actual words. Conveying a little kindness is all that's required.

That said, I'm not a huge fan of "so it goes" or "life's tough all over" because it smacks of "suck it up." Especially if I felt like the question required a little mention of something sad because I'd been painted into a conversational corner, that response would feel pretty hostile.

A person who I did not know well (I knew her partner) told me the first or second time I met her, totally out of the blue that her brother had been murdered. I said something like, "Oh Mary."
posted by *s at 8:20 AM on February 4, 2009

Whatever you do, don't ignore what's been said. I can't stand when I mention my daughter's death and people are all "Oh that's so nice..."

"I'm sorry to hear that" more than suffices.
posted by togdon at 9:19 AM on February 4, 2009

"My condolences"
"I am so sorry to hear that"
"That must be difficult"
"Oh, that's awful"

As long as you don't avoid their eyes and sound genuine you'll be fine.
posted by agentwills at 9:58 AM on February 4, 2009

Best answer: This past wednesday I had two of these conversations within 20 minutes while I was at a quick oil-change place.

One guy working there was a nephew of a friend of my dad's. My dad and his uncle had a falling out years ago, a bad one. This guy knew me when I was little. I didn't recognize him. He was slightly upset that I didn't recognize him. Then he hits me with the fact that his uncle had just died. I very genuinely said "I'm sorry." Which I was. I was only like ten years old when the stuff between my dad and his uncle happened, and I don't have any bad memories of the guy. Then he tried to bring up the falling out my dad and his uncle had, and kind of nonchalantly implied it was my dad's fault. So that's a bunch of awkwardness there.

But I tried to play it off and be nice, I told him the truth, which is that I don't see my dad a whole lot since I had a kid, and that you know, sorry I didn't hear until just now.

Employee number two heard that I had just had a kid. So he comes over and begins a conversation (uninvited mind you, he was halfway down the ladder to the oil change pit when I said it) with me by showing a tattoo he just had done. It was his daughters name and birth date and death date. 1998-2006. He then details for me, graphically, how his daughter was split in half around a telephone pole, how the neon his ex-wife was driving was torn in two. I hear about how he takes it day by day, how he loved her, fought with her grandma at the funeral, spoiled her.

At one point, I think it's all over, because the conversation winded down, after he told me for the nth time about how he gets up every day and looks at the sun and tries to reason with god about what happened. He starts to walk away and I think he's gonna leave it with a simple "I just gotta be strong." He's walking away, I think he's gonna finally help the other guy do my oil change and it's all over when he looks back and says, "Let me get a picture from my truck so you can see what she looks like."

At that point I can see the other guy in the oil change pit, and when he hears it he gets a very angry look on his face. Guy number two gets the picture from his truck, comes back in and resumes the conversation all over again and repeats everything he told me already until the oil change is done.

At that point, guy number one finishes my oil change, shows my the oil level on my dipstick, and tells me my total. As I'm paying, guy number two is still going on about his daughter. I try to once again tell guy number one that I'm sorry about his uncle. He again tells me that it was my dad's fault him and his uncle fell out. Guy number two somehow figures out who I am, realizes that he knows my dad, and starts defending my dad to guy number one. So I'm in the center now of a debate about what kind of guy my dad was.

Guy number one hands me my keys, I get in the car, shut the door and wait for the garage door to open up so I can leave. Before I closed my car door I kind of ended both conversations with a simple, "well my parents weren't perfect but they did the best they could," A general as hell statement that would both admit that my dad could have fucked up a friendship and that my dad was a decent guy. Problem solved.

So I told you all that so you would believe me when I tell you this: I wish I had just gotten in my car and left.

When someone mentions in conversation a tragedy they've just had, a simple, genuine, "I'm so sorry" should do it.

If it doesn't, and the guys try to show you their tattoos and shit on your parents, It's best to get your oil changed else-where, if you catch my drift.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 5:12 PM on February 4, 2009 [7 favorites]

The point about Texanisms brings to mind that context is everything. Having been raised in Texas, I show more empathy and politeness than is normal on the East Coast, where I have to live now. Responding sincerely in a Texan way here guarantees a brusque "why are you sorry?" response, which to my ear sounds deliberately rude.

So take cues from the other person and your surroundings. Nowadays to be safe, I pause for a moment and say "I am so sorry for your loss," or "How difficult that must be." Then I pause again and let the other person decide where to take the conversation. That second pause is key so you let them go where they want with their disclosure.

But when in Texas, I express myself more freely, more politely and show more empathy to acquaintances because I can assume that relative strangers will avoid making me feel bad about a well-intentioned choice of words.
posted by vincele at 10:15 PM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

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