“You told her?” I said to a friend who is in the middle of a prolonged separation from her husband.
My friend is a wonderful listener. One on one, we have talks of such range and depth, I often feel like I’ve left the therapist after we have lunch. Unlike me, in a crowd, she’d rather watch than take the limelight. While I might set my husband’s car on fire, tell the world about his sins, or write a plot based on our breakup (were he to do to me what hers dared) she is internally grappling with a range of emotions.
“Yes,” she said. “I had to.” I was surprised to hear her say since she is a very private person.
“She asked what happened. I didn’t know what to say.”
“People ask you that?”
Even extroverted me, who is an impulsive blurter-outer of all and sundry phrases, was shocked to the core. I might wonder what happened but even I would restrain from asking my boss, co-worker, or fellow nursery parent, for the details.
“You won’t believe how many people ask,” she replied.
Fuming for my friend, as news of the latest installment of intrusion came, I did what I do when I have observations on humanity. I tweeted.
Note to self: “What happened?” is NOT the reaction when someone says she is SEPARATING FROM HER SPOUSE. #duh #yeesh (not me, a friend). #fb
— Mohana Rajakumar (@moha_doha) September 16, 2013
Immediately a few people Tweeted back, wondering why “What happened?” is a less than optimal response (the feed). In short, the question seems a poor cover up for obvious nosiness.
No doubt the fishbowl nature of expat life makes me queasy at the idea of people in the carpool, workplace, neighborhood having more information than they need. In a social setting where people know the most intimate details about each other, where you go on vacation and with whom, how long cars have been parked in a spot in a neighborhood, who is eligible for a promotion, who was fired and who really did resign, I cringe every time my friend says she didn’t know what to say when someone asked her what’s going on.
Yes, I understand that life’s tragedies will come out eventually. The very nature of the word means they are not something we can hide from.
Surely we all cringe at the over share of details during these traumatic moments; changed Facebook statuses, Tweets, or otherwise.
Word to wise, (as I’ve learned from another acquaintance’s loss, a year plus now, of a baby she never discussed with me): friendship has a variety of meanings, depending on the individual. If someone wants you to know the back story of a particular personal event, s/he will tell you.
Until then, best keep the quest for details to writing related tasks.
PS my short list of optimal responses to life tragedies:
- “Sorry to hear that.”
- “Can I help in any way?”
- “You’re an amazing person.”
- “This too shall pass.”
Amen! Don’t pry. Be tactful.
Another — don’t say anything that begins with “at least…” !
A friend once told someone else that her mother died in childbirth. This woman actually said, “At least you don’t have to miss her.”
OK. Rant over. Great post.
WHAT? Wow. Wow. That was a short and meaningful rant, Laura. I think we need more of them.
I’ve had 20 years to reconcile with the death of my daughter and the reactions of everyone to that loss. People said many intrusive things over the years, it used to hurt me quite a bit. Now I understand that most people just want to reach out, want to offer support, but do it clumsily.
Some people are just jerks, that’s unavoidable, but most people are decent. They want to help and don’t know how. They are curious about tragedy, that’s also a human trait. It’s easy to get angry. Anyone who’s suffered that kind of loss NEEDS something to be angry about, somewhere to lash out.
If you really want to support someone who is going through a tragedy, just say you’re there, that you’ll listen. And if you’re a real friend, you’ll understand that grief makes us say and do awful things, then let it pass.
Thank you Cairn for this unique perspective. You are far more generous than I would have been in your situation – or am for far less serious infractions. We all need grace.
I admit I would ask, especially if I am an acquaintance or friend, but I would also add that they are under no obligation to tell me if they don’t want to discuss it. I don’t ask out of nosiness as much as genuine concern and wanting to help. I doubt that is most people’s intention, though. I don’t wish to be rude, just want to help the person feel better, even if they say later what they need is to be left alone.
It’s a tricky one for sure Becca. But what you’ve suggested is a great opener: tell me if you want, and if you don’t that’s okay. If only we had more people who used that caveat.
I, too, am long separated from my husband and I am still stunned to remember the people who asked, out loud and to my face, “Was it another woman?” Crickets. In comparison, “What happened?” feels somewhat tame. At that time, I was a mini-celebrity in my small community and people genuinely felt they were entitled to be involved in my personal life. The night my husband left, I somehow had the presence of mind to reach out to a few of my most intimate friends not only to break the news but to also ask them to circle-the-wagons around me and my children. They served as my privacy police and I will never know how many intrusive questions they deflected. Whenever someone outside the circle asked what happened, the reply would always be, “Thank you for asking, but I would never dream of imposing on you by sharing such personal and private details of my marriage.” To those who asked if it was another woman: Crickets.
In my friend’s case, I think she’d be glad if someone asked if it was another woman, because she could say “No, it’s been dozens.” Which goes to show you that every situation is unique. I’ve rehearsed with her potential replies to “What happened” question and the bottom line is, if you have to ask, don’t!
I’m so glad that you had friends to circle the wagons. The inner circle of someone I thought I was close to locked me when something happened and I genuinely wanted to help.
We are no longer that close, me, her, or that circle of women, but that’s okay too. Boundaries are healthy.
Thanks for sharing Annie. You’ve further illustrated all sides of an invasion of privacy.