The Right Thing to Say in 20 Tough Situations


I'm embarrassed to admit just how many times I've said the wrong thing in a tough situation. After a number of gaffes where my well-meaning comments did more harm than good, I decided to turn to the experts. From the most mundane to the most grievous of situations, there are things we can say to let those around us know that we care about them.

1. You Blank on Someone's Name

It's happened to most of us. You're in the check out line at Target and the person behind you is someone you recently met... but where? The best course of action is to let the conversation run its course. You'll figure out their name eventually, without letting on that you forgot their name. If it doesn't come to you, you can always ask a mutual friend later.

2. You Fixed Up Friends and They Didn't Hit It Off

A simple "I'm sorry it didn't work out with..." will suffice. A perfect match is hard to find, and no reasonable person is going to blame the matchmaker if she doesn't create a true love connection.

3. You Receive a Facebook Friend Request That You Don't Want to Accept

If you're the private type, saying nothing and ignoring the friend request may be the least hurtful course of action. The requestor will probably interpret your lack of response as an indication that you're not an active Facebook user. If they bring it up later in public, try this, "I post a lot of personal family stuff on Facebook and only accept requests from family and close friends." Just be sure that's true or they can easily find out from a mutual acquaintance.

4. You Run Into an Old Flame Who Ignores You in Public

You may feel like screaming, "Hey you jerk, you know who I am!" but then you'll just look like a raving lunatic. Instead, experts recommend going about your business as usual and pretending not to notice. He or she is an ex-flame for a reason, right? Sometimes what's important is not what you say but instead what you choose not to say.

5. You Run Into Someone You Hoped to Never See Again

It's best to keep interaction with someone you don't enjoy to an absolute minimum. That doesn't mean you should pretend to not see them but instead should aim to keep the interaction brief. Conversational cues like, "I'm just on my way to [x]" will signal that the conversation is ending, even if it's just begun. A negative remark could drag you into an unnecessary and emotionally draining public altercation. "It was nice to see you," gives you an immediate escape opportunity, even if it wasn't nice all. The trick is to pivot and leave immediately after. Don't leave space for continued conversation.

6. You Got Busted for Re-Gifting

We all occasionally receive a gift we can't or don't want to use. What to do if you've passed it along and the original gift-giver finds out? The best course of action is to own up to it. Lying will just make the exchange more awkward. A simple explanation of why you passed the gift along is helpful, so long as you did so for good reason. "It meant a lot to me that you thought of me, but I'm allergic to chocolate," for example.

7. Your Don't Like Your Best Friend's Fiancee

Unless you have reason to believe your friend's fiancee is actively hurtful, it's best to phrase your feelings very gently. Once you've said your piece, it's best to accept your friend's response, even if you don't agree. When choosing between a friend and a life-long partner, a bride-to-be is much more likely to side with her new spouse.

8. A Spouse Recently Passed

"I'm so sorry for your loss" or "I'm here to help in any way I can" offers support to a loved one without trivializing their loss. Even if you've lost a partner yourself, it's impossible to understand what a friend is going through. It's best to avoid the well meaning but unhelpful, "I know how you feel" because its likely to come across as disingenuous.

9. A Friend Had a Miscarriage

People who are suffering a loss need comfort and support. Instead of offering advice about how to move on, try acknowledging what your friend is feeling. "This is terrible and unfair," is much more sympathetic than advice or a comparison of your own past trauma.

10. You Don't Feel Safe Around a Friend's Dog

If the dog belongs to someone whose house you frequent, and want to continue to visit, you'll have to find a way to manage your fear without hurting your relationship with the dog's owners. Etiquette expert Catherine Newman suggests the following, "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid of your dog. I know he's a really important part of your life, but I need to come up with some strategies for managing my fear because it's going to affect how much time I spend with you." A considerate dog owner will consider what you say and might put the dog in another room when you're visiting. If they can't or won't compromise, you can always host get togethers at your place instead.

11. You Need to Leave a Party Early

It's considered bad form to leave a party without saying goodbye to the host. Even so, it can be hard to track him or her down at the height of the party. When you arrive, before the party has gotten into full swing, let the host know your plans. A simple, "I'm excited to be here, but I have to leave around 9 o'clock," should do the trick.

12. You're Stuck Talking to Someone Boring

If you're at a party and the person you're chatting with is putting you to sleep, there's no harm in excusing yourself, so long as you do so gracefully. After a few minutes of polite chit chat, it's perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself to get a drink, help the host, or make a phone call. Alternatively, you could introduce the dullard to someone else and then get out of there.

13. Your Doubles Partner Is a Sore Loser

Your partner is a great player who always shows up on time and is even fun on the court. If he turns sour when faced with a loss, however, how should you handle it? "When you pout and snap at everyone, it's tough on all of us," suggests etiquette expert Peggy Post. "Let's make a pact to have fun, win or lose."

14. You're at a Dinner Party Where You Can't Eat What's Being Served

If you have a dietary restriction, it's your responsibility (not the host's) to manage it. If you haven't told the host ahead of time, it's best to pretend to eat what's on your plate and to even commend the host for preparing such a lovely meal. If you have a bona fide allergy that will cause you serious distress, you can take the host aside later and explain why you didn't eat the meal. Otherwise, just grin and bear it.

15. You Just Complained About Your Mom to a Friend Who Recently Lost a Parent

We've all said something thoughtless at some time without first considering the impact on the other person. Even an innocuous comment about your mom coming over too often can be jarring for someone who just lost their mom or dad. If you realize you just put your foot in your mouth, a simple "I'm so sorry, what I just said was really insensitive" is the best tack.

16. An Old Friend Lost a Parent, but You Haven't Spoken for a While

People have many different ways of grieving and, if you haven't spoken to your friend for a while, she may not be up for a call. Sending a note — either a card or an email — that says, "I'm sorry for your loss and I'm thinking of you during this difficult time," lets her know you're thinking of her and doesn't overstep any haven't-talked-to-you-in-a-while boundaries.

17. A Friend Is Getting a Divorce

No matter how common, most of us don't know what to say when a friend is faced with divorce. As with all difficult situations, the less said, the better. "I love you," is a good start as is "I'll be bringing you dinner on Tuesday," or "You are not alone." You can help your friend by letting them know someone is there for them, no matter how alone they may feel.

18. You Don't Want Pictures of You Posted on Social Media

Some people like to maintain privacy and so abstain from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. Even without an online footprint, though, others can always post pics in your stead. Social media is akin to the wild west of privacy in that almost anything goes — whether we want it to or not. If you'd rather your friends and family not post your pic online, you can say, "I'm a very private person, and I'd rather my photo not appear on social media." Even with a kind and considerate ask, though, there's no way to guarantee it won't happen.

19. Someone Asks a Truly Inappropriate Question

People don't often intend to be hurtful, but they sometimes just don't realize how inappropriate a question can be. If someone asks you something and its hit a nerve, it's absolutely fair to lob the question back in their direction. A "Why do you ask?" response gives the questioner a chance to reflect on their question and to realize just how inappropriate it was. Hopefully, they'll realize their gaffe and change the subject.

20. A Close Friend or Family Member Commits Suicide

Even if it takes all the compassion and restraint you can muster, do not, under any circumstances, ask, "How did he do it?" If your friend wants to tell you this, she will, without being prompted. Instead, you can offer support by saying "I'm so sorry," "This must be terrible for you," or "What can I do to help?"

What's the most considerate thing someone has said to you in a tough situation? How has it changed how you respond to others in a similar situations?

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Guest's picture

The most inappropriate question I get asked is "When are you/Are you going to have kids?". The answer is, I don't know, and it's really noone else's business whether I do or not. There are TONS of people who can't have children without medical assistance (3 of my friends are in this situation) and questions like that seem innocent but are really hurtful to people who either can't or don't want to have kids. Some of the people asking these questions are quite dense, and I highly doubt that replying "Why do you ask?" the next time someone asks me or comments on me having kids is going to make them realize they said something inappropriate.

I'm a relatively new employee, and one lady who I've barely said more than "Hi" to stopped in my office one day and asked, "I meant to ask you, do you have kids?" (which, considering we've barely spoken, is a very odd way to try to start a conversation with someone). When I replied no with a little laugh, she just kind of laughed weird while saying, "oh, oh..." and then just walked away. WTF was that?

Then at my last employer, there were some older ladies who would ask one little twit (female in her 20's) in my department when she was having kids. She would ALWAYS reply "Oh, I'm waiting on Claire" and laugh. WTF?!?!? She was such a b!t%h.

Why does everyone think it's their right to pester others with questions like "When are you going to get married" or "When are you having kids"? IT'S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!!!

Alaina Tweddale's picture

Great addition! My twins were born when I was 35 and yes, after medical assistance, so I've heard this question many times (as well as all the awkward follow-up questions that parents of multiples get peppered with!). This would make an excellent #21 on this list.