I reacted badly to a friend. I was stressing about some things going on in my life, and the response I got was, “I’m sorry. I know things will get better for you. You just have to keep the faith and stay positive.”
My first reaction was not positive. The “I’m sorry” shows sympathy. The intention of the entire statement was to be supportive.
It fell flat. Felt banal.
So I examined my frustrated reaction, and quickly realized that the next three phrases are platitudes—those little phrases people use when reacting to someone else’s problems. And because I tend to sometimes take a deep dive into my irritations (or some would say I am simply a geek), I did a little research on platitudes and their use. My favorite non-dictionary definition is from a blog called Award Winning Blather*
“A platitude is a statement that’s used so often, it sounds dull or trite instead of interesting, thoughtful or helpful. When someone is coping with a life problem, a platitude is the typical reaction of another person who has nothing genuinely heartfelt or sympathetic to say. It helps fill the silence in an uncomfortable conversation, and can be an indirect way of letting people know they should look elsewhere for meaningful dialog.”
The reaction I got was devoid of complex thought, and therefore I felt that my friend, who really does mean well, didn’t care enough about whatever challenge I was discussing with him to give a thoughtful reply. Even though I know that is not the case, it irritated me.
When we share our challenges, we are willingly exposing our vulnerabilities. I don’t often do that, and when I do, I don’t want them glossed over. Exposing our vulnerabilities is part of intimacy, whether in a friendship or a love relationship. Platitudes feel inauthentic, and are therefore an affront to intimacy.
So, why do we use platitudes at all? Is it really because we don’t care? Maybe in some situations that theory applies. But in most cases, I think it’s really one of the following reasons:
- We don’t know what to say. Sometimes we simply don’t know how to react appropriately to other people’s pain or problems. When I lost my two babies, there was probably nothing in this world that could have comforted me. When someone said “Everything happens for a reason,” I wanted to punch the well-meaning person in the face. What reason could there possibly be for the death of a child? No matter what your philosophy of life, uttering those words to a grieving mother will not comfort her. Ever.
- We fear the other person’s pain. If we can react quickly and move on, we can distance ourselves emotionally from the situation and avoid having to face the same fear within ourselves. Classic deflection to avoid pain.
- We don’t know what to do that would truly be helpful. I always say that I don’t know what I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t know how to help when I have not had a parallel experience. Sometimes you don’t have to DO anything; you just need to listen.
- We don’t know how to communicate our sympathy. Not everyone is verbally expressive. Not everyone can put their heartfelt sympathy into words that are original, or at least not clichés. That’s ok too.
This reminds me that I really need to be present when I am having a conversation, really listen to what I am hearing, and respond in meaningful ways. It’s ok to stop at “I’m sorry” if I have nothing thoughtful or helpful to say. It’s ok to say, “I’m so sorry. I really don’t know what to say.” That’s at least honest. It lacks shellac.
What do you think? Did I miss anything? Am I being too sensitive or thinking too much again? 😉
Oh, and for the record, I did apologize to said friend. And if you’re reading this, you know who you are. I hope we’re still cool.