Let’s Discuss Our Feelings and Hug

For many years, I have had a problem with this exchange:

“Hey great show tonight!”
“Eh, it was kinda terrible actually.”

Why? Because someone just gave a subjective complement, and the recipient basically just told that person that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Even if the show really was terrible and the compliment-giver is just being polite, it should be appreciated with a simple “thank you.” (See previous blog post from eons ago about how it is ok to lie and say “good show” even if you really didn’t think it was.)

I have recently come upon another similar situation in which a reaction – and one that you might think sympathetic and helpful – could be improved. I was in the running for a job a couple of weeks ago, and I didn’t get it. Many of my friends attempted to console me by saying things like “That would have been a nightmare job anyway” or other disparaging things about the job itself. Now, I know that everyone was trying to make me feel better (I should say that I have fantastic friends, by the way) but to my surprise the result was that it made me feel like I was an idiot for wanting the job so bad in the first place and that if I’d gotten it my friends would have only been pretending to be excited for me.

So what have I learned from this? That I was an idiot for wanting that job. Ok not really.

What I learned – and this is a little more touchy-feely than I tend to be – is that when you’re self-esteem is taking a little trip to rock-bottom, even the best intentions can be twisted around to make you feel worse. I’m becoming a big believer in the notion that a lot of the time, our job as friends is just to listen, tell our sad friends how great they are, and avoid any other judgment. By bad-mouthing the thing they’re upset about, it’s like we’re telling them they’re stupid for caring about that thing.

The same applies I guess for break-ups; there’s always that urge to say “Hubert was a jerk anyway. The only thing great about him was his name.” And then Hubert’s ex-girlfriend feels like a big dummy, not only for having been with a jerk, but also because her friends apparently never liked him and were just tolerating those game nights when everyone else wanted to play Balderdash and Hubert would only play Risk.

Who knows? I don’t know. I’m certainly no expert on “feelings” or “being a good person” but I figured I would share these potentially obvious observations.

  • Matt

    Absolutely. I think that people don’t think enough about what they’re about to say, in general. What kind of response would be reasonable for a comment that they never liked your boyfriend?

    “Hubert was a jerk anyway.”
    “Um… thanks?”

  • Dave

    I think that too often people don’t know how to listen to each other because they never learned how to do so from their parents. I’ve only learned in the past few years how to really listen to my kids, two of whom are adults, about their needs and their issues.

    Me: “Mom, what did I just say?”
    Mom: “erm … Dangit, I’m the one that’s supposed to do that!!”

  • Acadia

    Good post.

  • Jim

    A female friend and I have a difference of opinion about compliments. She contends a badly chosen compliment (such as me saying “your hair looks nice” when she thinks it doesn’t) undermines future compliments from the same source. I think you take the compliments you can get without analyzing. Am I right? Is she? Are we both, in our way? I don’t much really care. She’s super either way. And you are too, Ms. Erdman. Sonics just don’t taste the same any more. Best wishes.

  • Garry

    This is in response to Jim’s comment. I like to think of a compliment as a kind of gift, and I think it’s only polite for the receiver to treat it as such. Think about it, when someone gives you a gift, if it’s not the perfect gift, would you tell them it’s a worthless piece of crap and throw it back in their face? I remember being taught that ‘it’s the thought that counts’. So why is it different with compliments? In general, I think a compliment should be accepted graciously and not over-analyzed.

    Admittedly, people could be a little more considerate about what they say, but not everyone is an experienced therapist. It would be nice if the receiver would show a little empathy and understanding as well, sometimes people are just trying the best they can.