How to liven a get-together with a Davey Downer
July 2, 2014 2:36 PM   Subscribe

I'll be attending a get-together with family, including a Davey Downer who always inserts her tales of woe and misery into conversations. We all like her, but she can bring a conversation from lively to quiet in a few short phrases. How do you keep such gatherings more upbeat, while including someone whose only input seems to be personal tales of misery?

I'm sure she has happiness in her life, and she seems to be in a relatively good place, but she keeps bringing up past sadness and pain, as well as her current issues. She seems to be happily married with friends, and she's not a shut-in, so it's not a case of only knowing her personal miseries. And her comments are vaguely topical, but I worry that trying to help her find the positive in every sad comment will only further focus on her sorrows, while taking us farther from the prior topic.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried gently teasing her about it? I know someone like this and I've mimicked the little trumpet sound from the Debby Downer skit to signal that she killed the conversation (very sparingly, but it gets the point across and breaks the awkward silence). Or you can try modeling this for her--when you catch yourself finding the negative spin on something, openly catch yourself and turn it around. Maybe something subtle like that will work.
posted by parkerjackson at 2:52 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Has anyone ever talked to her about it? She may not even realize it's happening and be aghast when someone points it out to her. That would make the gentle teasing a lot more palatable (both for her and for you) -- more of a reminder that "Davey, you're doing That Thing we talked about again...".
posted by Etrigan at 3:10 PM on July 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

trying to help her find the positive in every sad comment

The thing is, this is the person she is and I don't think any amount of trying to change her outlook is going to make any difference. Spending time trying to change people into the sort of person you'd prefer them to be is usually not very productive. If you like her then you just have to accept her as she is.

I'd just have a few phrases ready to breezily change the subject so that she gets heard but the group doesn't have to work too hard at lifting the mood again. "Yes that is sad. On a lighter note, did you hear about..." kind of thing. Get used to moving past what she's said rather than everyone dwelling on it.
posted by billiebee at 3:17 PM on July 2, 2014 [13 favorites]

"Trying to help her find the positive in every sad comment" is not going to help things. Unless she directly asks, "Can you help me be more positive?" this is her outlook on life and she will continue to accentuate the negative no matter what others say. Telling her to look on the bright side in a group situation will either come off as patronizing or, as you said, focus the conversation even more on her woes.

I think swiftly changing the subject when she starts talking about her woes is the best bet. Acknowledge with a "Gee Davey, chickenpox does sound harsh -- that reminds me, has anyone been watching that new medical drama??" or something similar. If she continues to turn the conversation back towards her and her issues every time, I'd ask yourself how important this relationship is to you -- is it worth braving the awkwardness of telling her privately that her conversation is ruining the mood, or is it better to just avoid her in general?
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 3:30 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Honestly, i find this so annoying and i've seen it work that while i never thought i'd say this, i agree with the sentiment above about light teasing.

I can never escape the feeling that people like this aren't in it for any sort of commiserating or sympathy as much as just attention, and being the focus of the conversation. It always feels really narcissistic.

So yea, teasing/ding type stuff, and "wow, way to kill the mood" type stuff. As assholey as it may feel, if this is happening constantly the correct response isn't sympathy, but just calling out of the fact that conversations are getting perpetually derailed.
posted by emptythought at 3:35 PM on July 2, 2014 [14 favorites]

Deal with behaviour, not attitude. Behaviour is like clothes: changed with a bit of effort, and not usually integral to the person's sense of self. Confront the fact that she keeps killing the conversation with a sad note.

How? By observing that she's doing this and asking if there's something going on with her that you can help with. This raises the behaviour and the outcome to her without directly confronting her because its couched in an offer to listen and assist. "Hey, I notice that sometimes, in the middle of an upbeat conversation, you'll mention something personal and downbeat that kind of stalls things, and I wanted to know if there's something happening with you that you want to talk about." Maybe there actually is an issue to discuss, maybe this will just serve as a way of informing her about something she doesn't notice. Either way, you're not staging an intervention with all the drama and defensiveness that implies.

The worst that happens is that she doesn't change this behaviour, but you've done something nice for her.
posted by fatbird at 3:42 PM on July 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

Don't you mean Debbie Downer?

I think you need to just swiftly change the subject. Engaging, even in a way of trying to find the positives, is just going to further pull the conversation down the sad rabbit hole. Just gloss over and transition. It doesn't have to be smooth, just quick. Once I was at an awkward dinner and I just blurted out, "What is your favorite movie? I've been thinking about it recently and I'm not sure what mine is. What is else's?" And then I'd ask them why. And it turned into a 15-minute conversation about movies. Maybe you could say "Speaking of loneliness and despair, I saw Bridget Jones' Diary on cable the other day. Does anyone remember how awful that movie was?"
posted by AppleTurnover at 3:43 PM on July 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've been this Debbie Downer. Perhaps she has some genuine suffering in her life, perhaps even caused by her family. Just because someone is "married and has friends" does not mean that they have no sadness in their life. This is extremely superficial. You don't know anything about her private world and what she's been through. If you did, I think you'd be really embarrassed to treat her as being "downer" rather than a fellow human in pain.

And the advice above to tease her or make fun of her? This is really abusive and unempathetic when someone is talking about their pain.

How about some empathy instead?

Something like: "Oh, I'm so sorry that happened. I have a friend who had that happen too. It took her a while, but eventually she found a new career as an x and is doing better."

"Oh, I bet that must really have been difficult. I'm glad you've coped well so far. So, how are you enjoying your new hobby?"
posted by 3491again at 4:29 PM on July 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

a) just because people are married and aren't shut ins doesn't mean they have happiness in life.
b) not everyone has happiness in their life.
c) dysthymia is a thing, and it sucks. some would say it sucks worse than "real" depression.
d) people like this don't want the positive things pointed out to them. they hate that. they hate it as much as you hate her debbie downer behavior. don't do that.
e) just ignore her. just pretend as if she hadn't said anything and continue on with her conversation. alternately, a quick "yeah, that sucks" is fine. clearly you don't want to engage her or have a conversation about what is bothering her, so don't.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 5:28 PM on July 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

If I were Debbie Downer and you were my relative, I would hope that you would move into another room, so that I could speak with my family in real terms and not offend them. I have exactly one in-law who is very judgmental of people who have issues or feelings, and he has, on more than one occasion, caused trouble for me by talking to my daughter about me, about how he and my sister just can't associate with me because of reasons (I divorced his best friend, and he had been dating my sister at the time and they'd introduced me, so my not sticking with it was a disappointment to him, and therefore, my sister, as he spoke for my sister, that is why she doesn't speak to me, blah, blah, blah, who never had a problem speaking to me before this guy... go figure).

The rest of my family is cool with me. I even talk to my sister sometimes. Rarely.

Who are you? The good person or the Asshole like my Brother-in-law? Because I get along with the rest of my family.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:02 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree that marrried and not a shut-in does not equal happiness.

If you are an empathetic person:

Once she's made such a comment or two, pull her aside (this will take 2 min) and say, "Hey, I feel I've assumed you were generally happy, but your comments are making me realize you may be struggling. Why don't you get in touch with me in X days, and we can talk."

If she bursts into tears, you say, "Oh no. I hate to have upset you. I need to help so-and-so now, but there's a restroom [wherever]; do be in touch, okay?"

If you are not particularly empathetic:

Change the subject quickly, but don't try to change her. Let her be who she is and don't try to protect others from the conversational dips. Endure them and recognize that others are able to a) do the same or b) reach out to her.
posted by whoiam at 10:53 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you should tell her to go into therapy. She's in so much emotional pain that it's spilling out continually, at inappropriate times. If she were in equivalent physical pain, interrupting your cheerful gathering with uncontrollable groans of pain, you would not tease her or change the subject. You would insist that she go to the hospital.

Similarly, if she's in this much emotional pain, tell her to seek professional help. I suggest pulling her aside and saying this to her. If she keeps making public comments of misery, then start saying it every time she makes a Debbie Downer comment.
posted by vienna at 11:02 PM on July 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Your question is written to give the sense that you only include your personal view of the circumstances, with nothing that indicates how others present feel, including those she's responding to in that moment. It might change my response, depending on if other people agree or disagree with your assessment of her words and actions.

Since you describe the comments of hers as on-topic, it makes me wonder if perhaps she believes that she is commiserating/empathizing/sympathizing with the person that she comments in response to, not deliberately bringing the focus on herself as you assume. In other words, she may well be attempting to or being helpful - and context and content matters.

If so, the "teasing" idea would be, imo, harsh and inappropriate, and likely to lead to her withdrawal either verbally or physically from the conversation. I wouldn't feel comfortable with that outcome, myself.
posted by stormyteal at 12:31 AM on July 3, 2014

Just keep talking through it. Like many people already said, this is who she is and trying to cheer her up is probably not going to work. If she is just looking for attention, not giving her comments that much validation may actually help her adapt and join the conversation in a different way.
posted by defmute at 6:36 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

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