“I don’t know why Barb won’t talk to me,” my friend Janet sighed.
I had run into my neighbor in the supermarket, and she was telling me about her “break up” with her best friend of 35 years. It seems that Janet and Barb had been in Home Depot looking at refrigerators for Barb’s nearly completely remodeled kitchen, and Barb was purchasing a stainless steel, French-door model that cost almost $4,000.
“How can you spend that much on an appliance? There are less fancy ones that are just as good,” Janet had said to Barb.
I stood there and nodded sympathetically while Janet told her story, but what I should have said was: “Janet, Barb isn’t speaking to you because you said something completely idiotic, and if I had been there, I wouldn’t be speaking to you either.”
There’s this myth that we can completely be ourselves with close friends, that we can say anything to those with whom we share so much. Problem is, it’s simply not true. Even the people we’ve known forever or gone through so much with don’t want to hear some of the things that go through our mind.
Here are a few clues about words that we should almost never utter, no matter how close we think we are to a person:
Don’t say: “I told you so!”
Here’s why: No matter how right you were, these four words nearly always will be experienced as criticism, says Elaine Zelley, associate professor of communications at LaSalle University in Philadephia, Pa. “You may think you’re being supportive, but you’re really rubbing it in,” she adds.
Exception to the rule: If you and your friend are in the middle of a good laugh — for instance, you are watching a TV sitcom or movie and you predict something will happen, and it does! — “I told you so” can be part of the fun. Be sure, however, that your friend doesn’t have an emotional investment in always being right about the plot line.
Don’t say: “I hate to say this, but everyone thinks that guy you’re dating is a loser.”
Here’s why: “Criticizing a person’s romantic partner is always risky,” warns Nicole Zangara, a therapist in Arizona and author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. “When you say your friend’s partner is a loser, you’re implying that, by extension, she is, too.”
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Exception to the rule: You have true concerns about your friend’s girlfriend or boyfriend based on something concrete you have observed or a “fact” you have heard (such as the new girlfriend has been previously married and your friend doesn’t seem to know). In a case like this, you have to be careful about the way you phrase your concern. “Preface your remark with a clear statement that you value your friendship, but you have information that, if true, your friend should know,” Zangara advises.
Don’t say: “I can’t believe your adult child is living with you!”
Here’s why: Your phrasing implies you think this is something bad (“Again, you’re being critical,” Zelley says), when statistics would show that your friend is part of a growing phenomenon: the boomerang generation. Besides, your friend might be really enjoying the company. “It’s so much fun having Nicole home. It’s helpful, too, because I can ask her to grocery shop or start dinner on days when her dad and I are working late,” says Peggy from Brookline, Mass. “I know she’ll find a good job and be on her own soon, so I’m treasuring every moment of my delayed empty nest.”
Exception to the rule: Your friend has a truly deadbeat kid who (you know for sure) isn’t earning any money and is mooching off her parents. Another reason to have a conversation about the kid who won’t leave home: You know that your friend isn’t happy with the situation. “Don’t be critical or flip about it,” Zelley advises. Instead, ease into the subject by prompting your friend to talk about how she feels. Then ask if there’s anything you can do to help.
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Don’t say: “You don’t really want dessert, do you?”
Here’s why: Basically, you have just told your friend you think she’s fat. This is an example of “passive/aggressive criticism,” Zelley says. What you’re saying may sound non-attacking. However, your words reveal that you believe your friend should avoid extra calories. “Would you want your friend to say that to you? I don’t think so,” Zangara adds.
Exception to the rule: It’s you who doesn’t want dessert — you’ve eaten enough or you’re trying to stick to a diet — and you are sure your friend understands you are asking her to help you avoid sweets.
Don’t say: “Your grandchildren are out of control.”
Here’s why: People are supposed to say nice things about each others’ grandchildren. No way “out of control” translates into “sweet, sensitive, super-smart, or adorable” — the adjectives that apply to all grandkids everywhere.
Exception to the rule: When a friend confides in you that he’s concerned his grown children (or the other set of grandparents) are spoiling the youngsters or ignoring problematic behavior, be there to listen, Zelley says. You can give constructive advice if a friend seeks it.
Don’t say: “Isn’t that outfit a little too young-looking for you?”
Here’s why: This one is a double whammy. You’re insulting your friend’s taste in clothes and at the same time implying she’s “old,” in a negative way. Sure, some people argue that people over 50 should avoid certain styles, but maybe being 50+ actually means we get to wear whatever we want . . . except the weight of the world or a stiff upper lip.
Exception to the rule: Zangara couldn’t think of any circumstance where this phrase would be OK and neither can I.
Don’t say: “You think you had a bad day? Listen to what happened to me!”
Here’s why: “You don’t want to be that friend who makes everything about her,” Zelley says. Besting a friend’s tale of woe does not show sympathy; it reveals narcissism.
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Exception to the rule: Sometimes friends sit around, shooting the breeze, trying to outdo each other’s stories because they’re having fun. Situations like this usually involve lots of giggles. If your friend isn’t laughing when she tells you her problem, you’re not in that kind of setting.
Don’t say: “Wow. Your new car must have cost a pretty penny.”
Here’s why: If you think it’s a nice car, say, “That’s a nice car.” The subtext here is that you think your friend can’t afford an expensive car or has violated your belief that fancy cars are a waste of money. “People who constantly dole out criticism don’t hold on to friendships,” Zangara says. Share your friend’s enthusiasm, deftly change the subject or don’t say anything at all.
Exception to the rule: If you are certain that a friend is spending money he or she doesn’t have, you can try to arrange a private talk where you preface all you want to say with a heartfelt statement about how important your friendship is, Zangara advises. For all you know, your friend may have inherited some money. But if you fear your friend needs help, come prepared with resources, such as telephone numbers of counselors, which you can share.
Don’t say: “How can you be friends with Alice? She’s such a pain.”
Here’s why: Have you ever considered that some other of your friend’s friends may think you’re a pain? Or perhaps Alice is going through some kind of difficulties of which your friend is aware, and your friend is being kind and loyal? “The purpose of friendship is to have social support and companionship. If you’re rude and abrasive, you’re not a friend,” Zelley says.
Exception to the rule: The person is abusive to your friend. Say something, but remember that unsolicited advice is often unappreciated. So, to paraphrase Zangara once more, preface your remarks carefully.
We’ve all heard the adage, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Indeed, before you say something that another may experience as criticism, think about how you would feel if someone said those words to you. Zelley believes that people should generally steer away from unsolicited advice.
“Always be thoughtful about the implications of what you’re saying,” she says.