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

by Cate on March 3, 2010

Can we talk?  I mean, really talk?  As talkative as I might be, sometimes I don’t know what to say.  I know, shocking, right?  This weekend was one of the more recent times.  A ten minute conversation with a complete stranger left me utterly gobsmacked.  Shaking my head.  And had me heading to the nearest phone to tell a friend or two how crazy I think people are.  Seriously.

I was dropping off something to be fixed.  The guy (who I think is the owner of the shop) surprised me by starting to fix it right away.  A pleasant surprise.  He made a comment about me not smiling.  I’m doing errands, a To Do list a mile long.  This isn’t dinner and a movie.  “What’s the matter, husband giving you a hard time?”  No husband.  “The kids giving you a hard time?”  Kids are with the ex.  “Don’t worry, you’ll find someone.”  Yes, because that surely is the only thing that could possibly make me happy.  “Why did you separate?  What happened?”  I kid you not.  At this point, I had been in the store maybe six minutes.  That’s being generous.  Do I give off an “ask me anything” vibe?  I might be friendly, but I’m fairly certain that’s not the vibe.  By the time I had left (a grand total of ten minutes), he had written his number on a business card and handed it to me.  Into the trash at my next stop.  But seriously, what makes people, complete strangers, think that they can ask you anything?  Particularly deeply personal questions?  A friend said that it’s easier to ask a stranger a prying question because it doesn’t matter how they judge you.  I don’t disagree, but still … people need boundaries.  Sometimes I think it’s easier to just lie and say I’m married.  It ends some things right away.

Over the past several months, when people find out that The Husband and I separated, I have been a little surprised at the things people say.  It’s like people have no filter.  Or they think they might be close enough to me that anything goes.  Neither is necessarily good.  I’m actually fine with no filter, since I think I tend to operate that way too.  The only difference, and it’s an important one at that, is having boundaries.  I might say what I think, but I still respect certain lines.

Separately, knowing that I myself don’t always know the appropriate thing to say, I totally get that too.  It’s hard to know the right thing to say.  The thing to say to make it all better.  And the topic doesn’t have to just be about someone’s marriage ending.  This isn’t all about me.  The scenarios can run the gamut.  A miscarriage.  Someone losing their job.  Someone dying suddenly.  You name it, these types of situations are hard to navigate.  I know. I’m right there with you.  There’s a reason Emily Post has been around since 1946.

  • Follow cues and respect boundaries.  I actually stopped using a contractor a few months ago because he didn’t have the appropriate boundaries when asking questions.  He had done work in our old house.  When he first came to the new house, within minutes of walking in the door, he asked me quite pointedly if “everyone made the move.”  Seriously!  I might be friendly, but there is a line.  Respect it.  Don’t pry.  If I share on my own, that’s one thing.  Otherwise, I’m sorry, but it’s not your business.  And even more so in professional situations.
  • Be careful with the jokes.  Someone jokingly told me that I was lucky.  He and his wife had been arguing, and he meant it in the context that at least I didn’t have to deal with arguing with someone.  Even though that conversation happened last year (and has actually happened more than once with more than one person), it’s still fresh enough that I don’t think it’s a joking matter.  Can I make a joke or two about the situation?  Sure.  Some days.  Of course, he didn’t mean it to offend, but you get my drift.  Just be sensitive.
  • Don’t cut yourself off because you don’t know what to say.  Support, in any situation, is important.  Don’t disappear because the topic of what happened makes you uncomfortable.  That might be the time that your support is needed the most.  It’s ok to not know what to say.  Just say that.  It’s honest.  “I heard the news.  I’m so sorry.  I don’t know what to say.”  That works in so many situations.  I’ve said the same thing myself to others.  Follow their cues after that.
  • Don’t pry.  Typically I’m a very private person to begin with.  Even more so with something personal.  Unless we’re uber-close, don’t ask me why it happened.  If I want to tell you, I will.

I actually wrote parts of this post back in December, and it’s been sitting in my queue, unedited, since then.  I hesitated to publish it because I don’t want it to read as a vent.  It’s not.  I also don’t want it to be me, me, me.  This is about me.  About you.  About everyone.  Before you say something, take a beat.  There’s a person, a real person, about to hear what you have to say.  Some situations call for humor.  Some, sensitivity.  Some, much seriousness.  But above all, the situation involves people.  Real people.

Project 365
March 3, 2010, Photo #57


I spied this in our backyard this morning. Apparently it has served as a Squirrel Snack Bar as of late.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Caron March 3, 2010 at 10:23 pm

This is such an important post … in hard situations, it can be so hard to find the right words. But sometimes, those are exactly the right words: I am so sorry. I just don’t know what to say. Is there anything I can do?

Sometimes people need to talk … other times, they just need to know you are there.


patsy March 3, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I think many people have a hard time finding the right words and just stumble around trying to find something to say. It’s a shame you can’t just hand them this post as a reference card!

I agree though about the shopowner… a bit too personal for someone you’ve never met or had a conversation with before… people definitely need to respect boundaries!


Claire March 3, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Sometimes just listening is the best thing to do. I have very close friends that I haven’t asked certain questions because I don’t want to pry. Now, one day those questions may come, but I’ll follow the cues and flow of the conversation and relationship! (I think that’s one important thing…certain conversations can only come after a certain level of relationship is achieved!).


mandy March 3, 2010 at 11:34 pm

It always disturbs me a little bit when people have no filter or boundaries. I am an incredibly private person and am very protective of whom I discuss certain things with, it always puts me on edge when some people ask certain questions. I wish we could make this post a billboard or something. So true.


Jesse March 4, 2010 at 12:02 am

Some people are so crazy. I worked with a girl like that at one time. She didn’t mind asking you anything super personal but on the flip side she told you WAY to much about her and her love life. Yikes!


Joanne March 4, 2010 at 7:12 am

I’m so glad you’re putting this out there and talking about it Cate. I feel like so many people skirt around serious like this even though we all think about them. A good portion of the time. I’m sorry people have been so tactless. That shop owner seems especially egregious seeing as how you don’t actually know him at all.

I agree with Patsy, I think you should carry versions of this around with you and just hand them. You definitely won’t give shopowners “ask me anything” vibes…that’s for sure!


chris March 4, 2010 at 9:28 am

yes i do agree with you to a point however when you walked in he noticed you and thought you were cute he wanted to feel things out. granted a little fast but c’mon Cate. give the man a break. you are single and ready to mingle right?? we arent getting any younger


Ramona March 4, 2010 at 10:27 am

Too many people don’t respect boundaries. But then again, too many people blab out their whole life. So it’s kind of hard to know what’s the right thing to say and what is not.

As far as that noisy guy, I would have probably pretended my phone was on wiggle and I had to answer it and walked off. Or remember that I have an important phone call to make. I know this sounds insane but I’ve dialed my desk phone from my cell phone to get me off the line before.

So I guess I tend to avoid people that make me uncomfortable. For the ones that do it unknowingly like “you don’t have to worry about that” – then I tell them right up front what I think about the remark and if they get pissed or it hurts their feelings then we’re even. I don’t stew over it and let it keep bothering me.


Karen March 4, 2010 at 10:27 am

See…I am/was a divorce lawyer. People will tell me EVERYTHING about why they separated. It happens socially all the time. (An older relative told me her husband forced her to do nasty things in the bedroom. Yeah. She gave details.) I think I am on the opposite end of the spectrum.


Casey March 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

Great post.

I once learned to answer “Why do you want to know?” when being asked a personal question……when you are sure someone is simply being tacky and inquisitive for the wrong reasons. Love that.


paula March 4, 2010 at 10:58 am

I think that most people mean no harm when saying the wrong thing, asking the wrong question, telling you too much, etc. Everyone has different boundaries and they aren’t written on our foreheads so other people are bound to mess up a bit every now and then. Another woman might have left there thankful for the interest even if she wasn’t returning any interest to that particular man. He may have made her day.


Cate March 4, 2010 at 11:27 am

Chris (miss you!) and Paula – re: that particular situation, I am all for someone showing interest, no problem there. My problem was him asking the details of why I was separated merely minutes after meeting me.


MariaV March 4, 2010 at 11:44 am

Good post, Cate. For me, it boils down to “think before you speak.”


Bridgett March 4, 2010 at 12:56 pm

I must be old-fashioned by today’s standards but I totally believe that not everything needs to be asked or told and I totally agree with your feelings. I would have just told him that sorry, but I am not one for sharing details with strangers. Plain and simple.


Heather March 4, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Thank you for this post! I experienced three miscarriages in two years and was amazed at the comments people throw out there – “Maybe the babies were deformed and this is nature’s way of taking care of them.” Really, this is supposed to be a comfort? “You can try again.” Yes, but I wanted THIS baby, and maybe another pregnancy isn’t guaranteed. “Everything happens for a reason.” Mmmm, maybe so, but what crappy reason explains this? Anyway, I’m venting, and my story has a happy ending (I now have a beautiful daughter). People need to just be supportive – just like you said. Say, “I’m really sorry. I don’t know what to say. Is there anything you need?” You hit on the head. Thanks!


Karen March 4, 2010 at 4:32 pm

First of all it’s OK to vent and you have a right to be annoyed/hurt/embarrassed by nosy prying none of their business questions. I am 69 and one of the things that I have determined is that I do not owe these people answers or any more consideration then they have shown me.

You can always fall back on the “Why ever would you want to know that” or “That was a very hurtful/reminds me of something painful and I have am not going to discuss it further.”

If they still don’t take the hint you can go to “I only discuss these matters with those who are involved in the situation and you aren’t one of them.”

On a happier note I love your BLOG!! – keep up the good work!!


Cathy March 4, 2010 at 6:49 pm

I get it completely. My husband and I split back in December and it amazes me the amount of people that think they are entitled to know what happened!


pamela March 5, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Great post, Cate. So true and very well written. Keep smiling!


Magda March 17, 2010 at 12:18 am

Guilty. I have no boundries or filter sometimes. I am one of those people that asks too much and gives TMI. I think it was also me who told you that you were lucky. Sorry about that.


Cate March 17, 2010 at 11:21 am

Magda – it wasn’t you. Promise. You definitely take “no filter” to another realm, but that’s what makes you … you. ;)

Cathy – I’m so sorry to hear about you and your husband. It does get better. I swear.

To everyone else – thank you!


lux October 27, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Just a thought… this guy in the original story w/o acceptable boundaries.. I understand how you feel. I am private as well. However, perhaps you should send him an anonymous thank you card (or drop it off w/o being seen) IE – privacy protected… Reason: His awkward behavior granted you a subject to blog about, allowed you to feel sought after and allowed you to reject it as not your thing, granted you a moment to re-explore yourself and ask yourself why you feel the way you do, an exercise in justifying yourself (appropriately… i may add …that’s not sarcasm) and then feel “ok” about thinking about it all this time wondering why it nagged at you.


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