science of us

What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

Photo: Thomas M. Barwick/Getty Images

Earlier this year I had jury duty, and while waiting in line to get back into the courthouse after lunch, I made polite conversation with a fellow juror. He asked me how my weekend had been, and I said it was good, and then, after a moment, impulsively blurted out that actually my boyfriend and I had broken up. He nodded and without missing a beat said that he believed everything happened for a reason.

I said, yeah. And then, later, “yeah.” He went on seamlessly to list some of the upsides of being single. They mostly washed over me, and I felt slightly ridiculous for burdening him with this social task, but at the same time he was doing it so gracefully, and I did feel better. Something that seemed like a big deal to me was just normal to a total stranger, which made it seem smaller and less powerful. Just another thing that happens.

Also, his platitude, “everything happens for a reason,” stuck with me. I know we’ve all heard it a million times, but in the moment it seemed both profound and possibly true in a way that was a real gift, and I thanked him. He seemed so sure of it, and I was moved by the experience of being heard.

This squares with the idea, suggested in a new study, that while there’s never something perfect to say to someone in pain, often something simple can be enough. When you’re wondering whether to “express sympathy, downplay the situation, say you know how they feel, or something else entirely,” as one British Psychological Society editor writes, describing the study, the unsurprising answer is probably to play it by ear, since everyone responds differently to different types of consolation. Although the study’s authors do gently endorse erring on the side of saying less. As they write in their paper’s conclusion:

Many people seem to believe that there are magic statements that, if spoken, would provide lasting comfort to the recipient. Our findings suggest that there are few if any such statements.

Not even the seemingly airtight: “Why don’t you get some lunch and forget the whole thing?” which is one of the sentences they tested. Personally I’ve always liked: “That sounds really hard.”

I remember when my dad was sick and dying, and I was so far past knowing what to say. He understood this better than I did, and at one point told me, “It is a comfort just to have you here,” which I have thought of many times over the years. Just being there is the important part.

What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say