Saying the Right Thing

“I’ll never forget what you said to me once…”

The phrase terrifies me.  I talk a lot.  And I often don’t think about what I’m going to say until it is already spilling out of my mouth.  The good news is that a true friend tends to remember the brilliant things you’ve said, and tries to forget the idiotic ones.  And this one remembered.  She remembered when I said it, where we were, whom we were with….  And as she began to recount it, I didn’t exactly recall saying it but I do remember thinking it.  No doubt I did say it.

What had I said?  The subject was “What to say”.  One does not always know what to say, but there are a few times when I believe there absolutely is  a “right thing to say”.  My friend remembered me preaching this to my kids…as we sat in a movie theatre waiting for the movie to start.


(1)  When someone gives you something, say thank you.  In fact, if it’s a gift or a generous gesture like dinner or a trip to the lake with their family, you write a thank you note.  My mother has always been a stickler for writing thank you notes.  And the anatomy of a thank you note goes like this (it’s trainable)….

Dear  Blank

Thank you so much for the  blank.

(Then tell them what you like about it).

(Then tell then how you plan to use it or enjoy it). 

Thanks again –


I can remember my own deep sighs and rolling eyes when Mom would remind me – for the third or thirtieth time – to write a thank you note to someone.  Even so I don’t remember every time, but I really do try.

Now I’m the stickler.  I don’t ever want my kids to seem ungrateful.  They are grateful.  I just want them to appear to be what they are.  My mom pretty much trusts me to write my own thank you notes (I am 52 and she is 91), but if she is worried, she may say, “Oh, Kris, I’m sure you wrote them a beautiful thank you note….(hint hint hint)”, to which I reply, “OH, yes, Mom.  Of course I did.”  And I dash home and do it.  It really helps to have a reminder sometimes.

(2)  Now, when someone gives you a gift you don’t like, say thank you.  In fact, show some enthusiasm for the gift.  Don’t lie.  Tell the truth.  But tell the right truth.  Tell the truth about how thoughtful the other person was to give you a gift.  Tell them it means a lot to you (that they gave you a gift), and that “It’s terrific (that you have a person in your life who will give you a gift at all)”.  Or simply look them in the eye and say, “Thanks.”

So some people suck at picking out gifts.  Who cares?  That’s not the point.  The point is the act of giving it.  It’s awesome, and it should be encouraged in this world.

(3)  When someone looks pregnant, and you’re positive they must be pregnant and you don’t need to be told because they are clearly and obviously pregnant, assume you are mistaken.  Never ever, not ever, no matter how certain you are and no matter how happy you would be for that person, and no matter how unbridled your enthusiasm is for babies – never ever ever say “Congratulations!” or “When are you due?” or “Are you expecting?”  Not ever.  Am I clear?

Have I been asked this question….when I was not pregnant?  Yes, damnit!  Can’t you tell?  I have a body that liked being pregnant so much, that it took on a permanent appearance of that state perhaps thinking it would invoke that same happiness forever and ever.  I’ve accepted that and I am OK with it.  But when I was younger, I recall a certain crushing sensation…

And I will admit with some sick pride that when I was pregnant (40 months of my life)  I  cruelly tried to educate a few folks on this subject, by answering, “Expecting what?”   I know.  Brutal.  But I may have saved some Rubenesque woman some humiliation down the road.

So never.   Ever.   Just wait to be told.  She won’t mind it being overlooked.  Especially if she is not pregnant.

(4)  When someone tells you they’re pregnant, there is only one acceptable response: “Congratulations!”  Even if you think this person “shouldn’t have gotten pregnant”.  Even if they look sad or scared or desperate when they tell you.  Even if you think this person would be a lame parent, or their husband is an idiot, or they’re not married and you have a problem with that, or they already have “enough/too many” kids…..  It doesn’t matter what you think about this person getting pregnant.  The point is, they are.  It’s a done deal.  We are officially on to “a baby is coming”. And that deserves a big ole “Congratulations”.  In fact, you actually don’t have to say anything else.  Maybe throw in a “When are you due?” if it’s awkward.  Make sure there is a warm smile attached to it, because what we are doing here is setting up the situation for the best possible outcome.  And joy is always a good place to start with babies.

(5) When someone has died, say “I am so sorry (for your loss).”  Every time.  Don’t stand around evaluating your closeness to the deceased or to the survivor.  Just say it.  Truth is, there are no words.  But that’s no excuse for not saying something.  It hurts.  Something needs to be said.  And it is generally not helpful to say much more.  So don’t worry about it.

It’s a time to listen.  It’s a time to just be there.  It’s a time to feel and reflect. And if you are truly wanting to pitch in somehow and offer some practical support, you can also say, “Is there anything I can do?”  and then insert a suggestion to help the person understand what you are really willing to do.   Like pick people up from the airport. Or prepare some food for visitors.  Or make some phone calls.  Or feed the cat.  Then shut up. Disappear.  But wait in the wings.

And teach your kids what to say.  That takes a lot of courage for a kid.  Especially when a playmate has lost a parent or a sibling.  That is so very huge that a kid’s instincts are to stay away….far enough to avoid having to say anything, but close enough to see the mourner.   And stare.  From as distance.  Ick.

Keep it simple.  Move in close and say, “I’m sorry about your mom.”

(6)  Give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to age.  For example, you see a guy playing with a little boy in the park.  Should you say, “My goodness, your grandson can really throw a ball!”?  I mean, the kid has to be about 6, and this guy is a white-haired old guy.  Isn’t it safe to assume this is grandpa?  Of course it isn’t.  Not safe at all these days.  (“These days.” Now I  sound old.)  Think about how the old guy will feel if you say, “My goodness, your son can really throw a ball!”  He’ll either think, “What an idiot, it’s my great grandson.” or “Oh, no, you’re too kind!  He’s my grandson!” and he’ll probably go home feeling pretty good about himself.

And if you’re one of those people who thinks this approach falls into the category of “sucking up”, the best start is actually to say, “My goodness, that boy can really throw a ball!”  And maybe, “Is he yours?”

Whatever.  No assumptions.

(7)  When someone organizes a reunion, go Even if you don’t really want to or it’s inconvenient or you have a conflict.  Figure it out and go.  Why?  Because reunions of any size – three people or a thousand – are a pain and a hassle to pull together.  You can never accommodate everyone’s needs, never choose an ideal date or location….but the effort should be rewarded by showing up.   And don’t tell whoever organized it what a hassle it would be for you to come and how much juggling you had to do with your busy busy schedule, unless it comes along with your gracious acceptance of the invitation, and it is purely to illustrate how incredibly important it was to get there at all costs.

If you play it this way, you will actually have a better time.  And you will be expressing an appreciation to the organizer(s) for a gesture of optimism (that people will come), hope (that everyone will get along), and generosity (of time, effort, and risk of ridicule, humiliation and failure).

By the way, “I really wish I could be there” will not cut it. Just figure it out and show up.  These things won’t come along often, and they actually won’t kill you.


So there it is.  I hadn’t thought about these things in a while, and it’s been interesting to list them.  Maybe I’ve figured a couple of things out after all.

By the way, the reason my friend remembered this years-ago conversation in the movie theatre was because she and her son were preparing to face #5.  A tragic death of an entire family, the son of whom was a classmate from his high school.

What to say when you don’t know quite what to say.

Just so very sorry.


One thought on “Saying the Right Thing

  1. This turned out great…..thanks for the words of wisdom all those years ago and thanks for mentioning the Lee Family, so very, very sorry.


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