Help me get through conversations with my sister!
October 7, 2010 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Looking for advice when relating to my sister. She says some things that are very judgemental, and I would love advice about how to brush her comments off without getting into an argument.

It happens in every single conversation. She's my older sister - in her 40's (not that age has much to do with it - unless it's just her being "the older, wiser sister"). Anyway - one example: "I can tell a lot about people when I visit their house - if it's nicely decorated, I know where they're priorities are - not about having fun or spending time with family, just about showing off & that's what's important to them." Or she'll make assumptions based on appearance... they dress "artsy" they must smoke pot & be stuck on themselves... Or about me - she'll say something like "you know how you are" when she's just said something negative. It's all really a bunch of generalizations that aren't true & I dont' feel like I can have a normal conversation with her. When I say things like "people that have nice houses don't necessairly have their priorities askew," she'll argue with me. So I don't really want to argue - I just want to not acknowledge ther judgemental comments and move on. How do you handle people like that? Why do they do it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"Well, that's one opinion." *laugh, subject change*

Or maybe:

"I guess we all look like that to somebody."
posted by hermitosis at 12:50 PM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

They do it because they are unhappy with themselves but cannot admit it. I have a sister like this. Think about it - if you are perfectly happy with yourself you do not feel the need to judge others. I am still struggling with how to handle but I do know that ignoring such remarks makes it less likely she will continue making them. It is called exstinction in psychology. If you ignore a behavior it is more likely to diminish than if you pay attention to it. She will not completely stop but may be less likely to make those comments around you. Ignore and change the subject every time. If you pay attention every once in a while it will increase the behavior. In order for extinction to work effectively, it must be done consistently.While extinction, when implemented consistently over time, results in the eventual decrease of the undesired behavior, in the near-term the subject might exhibit what is called an extinction burst. An extinction burst will often occur when the extinction procedure has just begun. This consists of a sudden and temporary increase in the response's frequency, followed by the eventual decline and extinction of the behavior targeted for elimination.

You can read more about extinction on the web if you are interested.
posted by shaarog at 12:54 PM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I just want to not acknowledge ther judgemental comments and move on.

Sounds like you already have your solution.
posted by dersins at 12:57 PM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm a big fan of the noncommittal "mmm" and a rapid change of subject, on subjects unrelated to you. On comments about you, though, I think addressing her insinuations and calling her out a little bit is appropriate; good-naturedly and patiently try to get her to spell everything out for a while, and she'll hopefully start to realize that she's being unkind.
posted by verbyournouns at 12:57 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Courtesy of Patricia Evans:

"Cut it out."
"Please keep your comments to yourself."
"Cut out the criticism."
"Stop judging me."

And then ignore it. This is for comments that are directed at you.

For attempts to start a conversation based on judging others:

"Oh." Or perhaps, "Cut it out." If an explanation is insisted upon: "I don't want to talk like this about other people."
posted by tel3path at 12:59 PM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

"It's a good thing you know so much about other people and their motivations. When's the book coming out?" if you're in a joking mood. Or perhaps "You know, mom/dad taught me to say nice things, or say nothing at all. Where were you that day?"
posted by davejay at 1:01 PM on October 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

"You know how you are."
A sincere, "I'm happy with how I am," tends to shut this stuff down quickly, I've noticed.
Or in other contexts, people being negative about something you've chosen/bought met with an enthusiastic, "Oh, but I love it!" works just as well. Most really don't know how to argue with this, unless they want to get into an argument about how misguided and deluded you must be.

If people actually try to challenge that, though, I tend to straight up ask them (with genuine curiosity) if they're happy. Most people are completely taken aback and change the subject, but at least the comments tend to lessen after that.

Given it's your sister though, I'm tempted to suggest pointing out she's judgmental. Maybe she doesn't realize how much she's letting worrying about everyone else eat her time and energy.
posted by vienaragis at 1:08 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have similar problems with my mom sometimes.
Some things you can try:

-Change the subject ("Oh, that reminds me--")
-Smile, acknowledging what she said, THEN change the subject.
-"Hmm, maybe." (genuinely, not doubtfully)
-"That's possible." or "That can be true sometimes." (again, genuinely)

If she continues being difficult, you can just shrug, say that you just have a difference of opinion or "We'll just have to agree to disagree," and refuse to engage any further.

Alternately I've found that pointing out exceptions to the rule will sometimes have an effect.
I.e., "People with tattoos are all no-good hoodlums who do drugs and engage in anti-social activities!"
"Oh, but what about my friend Jenny? She got straight A's when we went to college together, and now she's a history teacher. And she has 2 tattoos!"
This sometimes creates an "ah-ha" moment for my mom, but may or may not work for your sister. Also, it can get exhausting, but probably less so than arguing.

Also, her comments about *you* are less okay IMHO. I mean, if it's something true and not so bad ("You know how you are: Twenty minutes late is 'on time' for you!"), then it's probably best to just laugh it off or shrug and agree. But if it's less-than-true and/or mean-spirited, that's something worth taking a stand on.
Maybe "I don't care if you think that's true, I don't make disparaging remarks about you, and I'd appreciate it if you'd treat me the same way!"
posted by couch fort dinner party at 1:10 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have two older sisters. One of them (the middle one) is like this. Seconding shaarog, in that it has to do with insecurity with themselves. We used to be a lot closer when we were younger, but I feel like she's gotten more judgmental (and gossipy, which is in the same vein). When she makes weird comments about other people, I try not to feed into it, which also means resisting the temptation to argue with her. If she comments about someone's relationship, or sexuality, or tattoo, or clothing, I tend to respond with something neutral like "well, as long as they're happy" or "to each their own" and just avoid the subject altogether. I think she's learned to sense my non-concern and leave it at this. At least some of the time. But she also like to gossip within the family - I ignore it once, and speak out more if it continues. It does make me sad, because we used to very close as kids. She has tended to be judgmental about me in the past, and decided to take it upon herself to be the ringleader in getting family members to get on my case (about getting a tattoo, not being skinny, and stupid trivial stuff). But at the same time, I feel sorry for her - she must feel some level of being incomplete or diminished self worth to feel like it's her place to broadcast her opinions to other people, and share their personal business. My best advice would just be to not feed into your sister's judgments. There's a very good chance that her generalizations have more to do with a projection of her own personal discontent, rather than those around her.
posted by raztaj at 1:11 PM on October 7, 2010

I don't like to argue either. How about replying (in a surprised or disinterested voice "Oh really, well I've never heard anyone put it that way before" Something along those lines that makes it known that her opinion is out there. Then change the subject. I don't think there is a non bitchy way to deal. So be a bitch and let her know that she sounds like she's from another planet. In a nice way of course.
posted by mokeydraws at 1:13 PM on October 7, 2010

You know, my elder sister and I are very different. We come from a culture and a traditional enough family within that culture that makes her being older sufficient reason for me to have to treat her with the "respect due to elders." I used to struggle a lot with how to deal with her opinions on how I should behave. Until I learned to simply not respond. Simply by telling myself silently " If you just don't react, she'll stop telling you to [whatever it was that she was telling me at that moment that I really must do]".

Don't respond to her comments. Eventually she should get the message. Or at least there's no benefit to her of continuing to make them in your presence.
posted by bardophile at 1:13 PM on October 7, 2010

I have known a couple of people like that. They are also people I care about so I don't just want to tell them they are full of it, so I usually just change the subject, pick that time to go to the bathroom, or just go "mmmm" and not say anything else. I just don't engage.

When it comes to comments directed at you, I'm very partial to being honest in saying "I feel like you are judging me and it makes me unomofrtable. can we change the subject?" People like that balk at first, because of cooooouuuurse they aren't being judgmental, how could you say that?! But after a while of giving her the same response, it might get her to cool it with the judmental barbs. Especially if no one has ever called her on it before, she might not realize that what she is saying is judgmental (or that people are on to her).
posted by DrGirlfriend at 1:13 PM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is actually borrowed from Izzy Kalman's work on how to handle bullies.
You: ask if she really meant it as if it seems odd or questionable -
"So, you can tell if people use pot by how they dress?"
Sister: "yes, of course"
You "Oh. (pause) Well of course, that is one opinion" Change subject.
If she challenges you to argue, avoid it by saying "Well, you just told me that was your opinion and I agreed that it WAS your opinion."

Challenging her statements head-on is a losing proposition, as you already found out, since you aren't going to talk her into changing her mind by arguing facts. But suggesting that there might be other opinions is way of going on record that you see her opinion as opinion, not fact and that as a minimum there are other ways of looking at the situation.
posted by metahawk at 1:25 PM on October 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

Treat her like a child. Just pretend she didn't say it, as if to say, "I can't hear you when you're being overly critical." No expression change, no "I'm hurt by that". Whether she's doing it to be helpful or to get a rise out of you, this should train her out of it.
posted by supercres at 1:44 PM on October 7, 2010

Another useful phrase: "Seems like we see things differently!" Then change the subject.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:07 PM on October 7, 2010

Deborah Tannen has a book with really great advice on communicating with adult relatives. It's title includes the words 'because I love you' but I can't remember the whole thing. She is a sociolinguist, and very readable.

My advice though, is don't tell your sister you've read a book about how to understand her. People don't like being told that they are hard to communicate with/listen to. (ask me how I know....)
posted by bilabial at 2:15 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

A tried and true response for me: listen, give a pause for contemplation, then shrug and say 'Well, it takes a lot of different kinds of people to make the world go around', the nice thing about this response is that it is a little ambiguous and allows you to close the subject and move on.

Additionally, if you don't feel agrumentative you could roll your eyes (humorously, not with contempt) and say it, kind of like a friendly 'what can you do?'; if you strongly disagree with her you can look her in the eye and raise your eyebrows when you say it, like 'is that nice of you? no'.

This also helps because as you say it to her you are saying it back to yourself (about her), and hopefully it makes you feel better.
posted by tr_tex at 2:17 PM on October 7, 2010

You could also take her comments to their illogical extremes, and/or press her on what exactly she's saying.

Her: "I can tell a lot about people when I visit their house - if it's nicely decorated, I know where they're priorities are - not about having fun or spending time with family, just about showing off & that's what's important to them."

You: "Yeah, the Smiths next door have a great living room. They must never have any fun at all, and not care about their families. They just live their lives constantly worrying about what you think of them."
posted by coolguymichael at 2:33 PM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

"Well, bless your heart."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:55 PM on October 7, 2010 [7 favorites]

My mum can be quite judgmental, mostly about a person's appearance or attitude. I just come back with a comment like "well, perhaps where that person comes from those colours work together", or "yes, that haircut may not be very flattering but if he likes it, who is it hurting?", or "yes, that person came off a bit snippy but maybe his/her grandmother died yesterday", and so on.

Also, not too long ago, Mum, my oldest brother and I had a conversation where Mum said that as she gets older the more judgmental she feels. Both my brother and I came back with just the opposite opinion. We both find we're less judgmental as we get older. She was rather surprised.

I think that between the responses I make to her comments and the conversation we had with my brother, it's helped. Her negativity has lessened a great deal.
posted by deborah at 2:55 PM on October 7, 2010

"Sister, I love you dearly, but these comments you make are very judgmental, and I feel uncomfortable listening to you when you make them, especially when you make them about me. I no longer wish to be around you when you say these things. Goodbye for now! I will come back later when you're not going to be so rude and presumptuous."

I have discovered that, at least for me, the best way to nip bad behavior from a family member in the butt is to be direct and firm. I used a variation of the above with my dad the other day when he was making some very off-the-cuff remarks about some of my personality traits, and it worked very, very well. He has since become very conscious of the things he says.
posted by patronuscharms at 3:09 PM on October 7, 2010

"Interesting, though I don't agree. What do you plan to do this weekend?"
posted by lemniskate at 4:05 PM on October 7, 2010

This is often a way to point out the stuff you'd like to have, but don't. One thing you could do is tell her she has that stuff after all. This will be good for her ego which might make her more pleasant overall. Or...not.

This kind of ego stroking is a good trick to have in general because insecure people will think you're a psychic or something. I know this works on other people because it does, and I know it works on me--I'm insecure and sometimes bust out the judgmentalism and when people reply this way I start wanting to hug everyone and talk about how awesome everyone is. It's like conversational ecstasy (the drug).


I can tell a lot about people when I visit their house - if it's nicely decorated, I know where they're priorities are - not about having fun or spending time with family, just about showing off & that's what's important to them.

You: Your house is decorated nicely, and you're fun to be around!

Her: She looks stuck on herself and like she smokes pot.

You: Remember when you made/did/wore X? That was so creative.

Her: blah blah you did something wrong and stubborn. You know how you are!

You: I'm glad that persistence runs in the family! You really know how to hang in thee.

If you don't want to go for that (and I don't blame you) there are a few people who can get me to stop doing this kind of obnoxious shit-- mostly because they don't do it themselves and they're a bit authoritative. Don't know how well it will work with an older sister, though.

My favorite for gossip: "I don't think s/he would want me to know that."
My favorite for judgmental stuff: "Come on. You know better than that."

Those two shut me up pretty quickly!
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:26 PM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I say things like "people that have nice houses don't necessairly have their priorities askew," she'll argue with me. So I don't really want to argue - I just want to not acknowledge ther judgemental comments and move on. How do you handle people like that?

...By...not acknowledging it, as you suggested.

A simple "Anyway..." or "Whatever...." or "Okay..." may help to change the subject:

SIS: "I can tell a lot about people when I visit their house - if it's nicely decorated, I know where they're priorities are - not about having fun or spending time with family, just about showing off & that's what's important to them."

YOU: "....Okay. Hey, I'm trying to find out who's on The Daily Show tonight, have you heard anything?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:30 PM on October 7, 2010

I'm an only child so ymmv but my comeback might be this, said kindly:

"Sister, do you know how that makes you sound?"
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:43 PM on October 7, 2010

I'll assume that your take on her is correct but from reading the transcripts your sister seems more like a wannabe comedian. If you are a funny person then perhaps you could beat her at absurdest generalizations, or at least do as davejay suggests.
posted by holloway at 5:09 PM on October 7, 2010

I want to throw in a little monkey wrench here and point out to you that your question doesn't make a whole lot of sense. You ask how to NOT acknowledge judgmental comments and move on. There's only one simple answer: ignore it. Pretend it didn't happen. There's no trick to it.

Forgive my presumption, but could you perhaps have a different "inner" question, which is how to point out to her in a non-argumentative way that she is being irrationally judgmental, right when it's happening? I know you don't want to argue with her, but in reading your question, I sense a yearning in you that she not be that way. (Yeah, I could be projecting.) You might be ready to find in yourself a little more courage than you think you have to start to confront her, gently, when this happens.

If that's the case, you have some great advice here about ways to do that. I love ideas for humor and redirection, by the way, but ultimately those methods don't really take her seriously. In my experience, folks who broadcast opinions (like she seems to do) deeply, deeply want to be taken seriously. Take her seriously and she is more likely to listen to you.

So I'm with the folks her who suggest that you be direct and get her to talk about HERSELF:

"That's a really negative way to see that. What makes you think that way?"
"Sis, you're sounding more and more negative about people all the time. Why is that?"

And then do your best to draw out from her WHY she thinks that way, rather than counter her reasoning. I'm not sure where this will lead, of course, but at least you'll have a better understanding of how she's gotten to be so bitter. It sounds like it makes you sad to hear her be this way. I think this is something she needs help with, and something you can do.
posted by woot at 6:33 PM on October 7, 2010

"Well, bless your heart."

And along those lines, here is last year's great AskMe on alternatives to "bless your heart." Some of the suggestions in that thread may be useful as well.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:42 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just don't engage.

My ILs are like this and it is im.pos.i.ble. to have a two way conversation with them. It cannot be done. They want to use me like a pitch-back- you know, those things that you practice baseball with. It doesn't actually do anything, but you get your ball back. That's how they are.

So I have totally stopped trying.


"You aren't going to flush that diaper down the toilet, are you? Dear God!"

"No, it's a cloth diaper. I'm going to dump the poop out of it, and flush that."

"Oh, because I thought you were going to flush that diaper down the toilet and clog it up, hahahaha, and I thought, hmmm, is she that stupid and-"

"Oops, getting a phone call."

Aaaand, exit. Don't justify, don't respond, don't defend yourself or anyone else. The word here is toxic, and there's nothing that can be done about it.

There are many excuses. "I need to use the bathroom." "Did you hear that noise?" "I have to clean/change the filter in my furnace/AC." "I just remembered, my car is at 3001, I've gotta get to Jiffy Lube, STAT!" My favorite is to say that I'm getting a phone call. Whatever, my phone could be on silent.

The hubs has taken to calling my behavior "aggressive ignoring". After you get good at it, it's kinda fun.
posted by Leta at 7:04 PM on October 7, 2010

If I'm in the mood to toy with a person, I keep asking them why they make that assumption. About 3 whys into it, they usually catch a clue. As for, "you know how you are" I'd respond With "Yes, I'm very blessed." or "Yes, I'm so fortunate." It'll annoy the pants off her.

I see you're trying to take the high road. Consider that allowing her to spew her stuff without challenging it is giving her tacit approval. You may be okay with that in an effort to maintain a relationship with your sister.
posted by 26.2 at 10:24 PM on October 7, 2010

I wonder why you can't tell her what you said in your original post? At least she has the opportunity to find a way to remedy the situation and make it more bearable. It sounds very frustrating to be silent and grit your teeth over something that bugs you like that.

I say this coming from the side of being ignored for "bad behavior", being treated that way feels like shit. I don't know what I've done wrong and basically feel ostracized. It's far better when someone tells me what I did in very concrete terms, I can at least take an active role in fixing it. That is not to say I might not get upset at first or react well on the initial telling, but I do think about it afterwards. Maybe this isn't true for everyone, I don't know.

I don't know your sister, being that she's judgmental of others she may also be sensitive to "criticism", if you do tell her, might want to leave out the "every single" time, and just say when you do [this], I feel like [this].
posted by mbird at 10:45 AM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd have said "well you know what they say about judging a book by its cover..."
posted by IndigoRain at 12:32 AM on October 10, 2010

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