5 things NOT to say to people crying in the street (and a few you can).

So, some fucking idiots who deserve to burn in a hell of inane and invasive chitchat forever and ever have set up some scheme to encourage people to talk to each other in London. Their rationale is inexplicable, but at some point they mention talking to people who are upset. Now, as someone who’s been ‘upset’ in London a fair bit over the last, eep, 13 years, I can only conclude they have NO IDEA of the kind of bollocks well-meaning strangers subject people crying in the street to. (Nb. Gender is a bit relevant here – by ‘people’ I mostly mean women. Partly because due to shitty gender socialisation bollocks they are marginally more likely to be crying in the street than dudes are, partly because they are MUCH more likely to be approached/addressed by strangers.) It is a tragic truth that people often mistake the understandable human impulse ‘see if you can ease crying person’s pain’ for ‘see if you can make the person STOP CRYING, because then you win a prize, and you will obviously have solved all their problems and can go on your way with a smug self-satisfaction in your step.’ Lest you think I exaggerate, I would like to point out that all of these have been addressed to me over the last decade in London (and had the statutory number of 20s life dramas.) I AM NOT MAKING THIS SHIT UP.

5) ‘You’re too pretty to look so sad’.

Right. Even if beauty bore ANY relation to the capacity to feel emotion (which it doesn’t), in what way is it appropriate to deny an upset person their right to their feelings? (Answer: never). The implication that ‘prettiness’ comes with the requirement to adopt only self-expression appropriate to being objectified by others is at the heart of a whole bunch of fucked-up shit about gender in the Western world, and to parrot it without thought at somebody obviously in distress is unforgivable.

4) ‘Don’t cry, I don’t like to see people cry.’

Well, sorry that my grief/bereavement/breakup/sadness/exhaustion/accident happened in your immediate vicinity. Next time I get a phone call announcing a death, or am unexpectedly dumped by text, or break a bit after working 16-hour days for a fortnight, I will be sure to have NO FEELINGS until I’ve checked with all those in a half-mile radius that expressing pain is welcome in their personal philosophy. Of course your vague and irrelevant preferences should be everyone’s priority when in your presence, virtual stranger. It’s not like we all need to share the same public spaces or anything (and, therefore, are largely and sensibly inclined to do our thing and let other people do theirs).

3) ‘Plenty more fish in the sea.’

(Bonus points if this is simply addressed to a crying person with no prior contact whatsoever, so they may actually be crying about Game of Thrones or the death of their cat.)

Even if someone IS crying over a breakup, the chances are they are doing so because they are engaging in the healthy process of grieving for something lost. It is necessary to do this. Encouraging someone to stop mourning a particular person and simply go on to replicate the dysfunctional patterns their tears and the attendant introspection and memory might serve to address and reconfigure is about the least helpful thing you could do.

(Nb. If you are a FRIEND of crying person, and objectively consider their mourning for a lost partner to be excessive or dysfunctional, this is your prerogative and you are encouraged to communicate this as sensitively as you can. I still wouldn’t use the phrase ‘plenty more fish in the sea’ as an opener, though. It’s belittling both of the person and of their feelings and experiences.)

2) ‘I know what you should do….’

Let’s say the crying person you approached genuinely wanted to confide in someone, and has poured out their troubles into your willing and tissue-bearing listening ear. Let’s say you have heard in depth about the cracks in their marriage, or their crisis of religious faith, or the pregnancy they can’t bear to tell their partner about, or their fear of coming out to their dad, or the death of their beloved dog Albert. Still, unless you are genuinely a professional expert with no subjective opinions in marriage counselling, faith-based therapy, abortion counselling, youth LGBT issues, or bereavement, the best thing you can do is not to attempt to solve all their problems with a whisk of your conversational wand, but ask questions, and help them figure out what they feel/need/desire/want for themselves. It’s a psychoanalytic cliché that the patient knows all the answers anyway, they just don’t know it, but it wouldn’t’ve become a cliché unless there was a kernel of truth in it.

You just met this person. The chances are they know a lot more about their psychological and emotional background, the support networks available to them, the complications surrounding their loss, the cultural resources it’s easy for them to access, than you do. There are exceptions to this – I once directed a homeless man to the Crisis centre where I was working at Christmas, for example, because he wanted a shower – but by and large, the best thing you can do when someone is upset is listen and respond to them and what they seem to need from you. If their experiences relate to yours, then it’s much better to frame your thoughts ‘well, I think I would do x, but YMMV’ that it is to tell them what to do. They have to take responsibility for the decision, after all.

And for god’s sake, this is about THEM, not you. It’s not about you playing the good Samaritan (there are trained Samaritans for that, and their number is 08457 909090 in the UK. Or you can email them at jo@samaritans.org. Feel free to pass these details on if you feel it would be helpful.) It’s not about you going away feeling good because you managed to solve somebody’s problems. (If you feel like that, you probably didn’t.) Listen. It’s the most human, humane and helpful thing you can do.

1) ‘Cheer up love, it can’t be as bad as all that.’

Ah, my personal favourite. World literature and the entire internet do not have space to enumerate all the ways in which this is utter bollocks, but here are a few:

a) it implies crying (‘all that’) is somehow bad or shameful. It isn’t.

b) ‘can’t’? If you’ve never felt bad enough about anything to cry in the street you are lucky, chatty stranger, but you are also in the minority. You know nothing about my life. I may be bereaved, suffering from terminal illness, have a loved one suffering from terminal illness, just discovered I’m pregnant, just discovered I’m not pregnant, be depressed, be high, be coming down, be exhausted, be listening to Gorecki on my headphones. If you are (as so often is the case) an apparently able-bodied cis white male, there are scales of ‘as bad as’ you have literally no idea about. This applies to all of us. Even if you have a horrendous history of trauma, so might the other person. (I would suspect someone with a history of trauma not to be such a dick, though.) Don’t be a dick. Don’t assume.

c) The reasonableness or otherwise of my crying impulse is not your business or your problem.

d) it implies women (although males and others of my acquaintance, do yell if this happens to you too) have some duty to present themselves favourably for the gazes of (patriarchal) others at all times, regardless of their personal situations (see 5). This is bollocks.

e) I am not your love.

f) Fuck off and die in a hole.

Ah, but, I hear you cry. What of human compassion? What of people crying on the street who are desperate for the comfort of strangers? What of situations where someone is genuinely in need of help but for some reason is uncomfortable asking for it? Well, luckily for you, there are some things you CAN say without being the kind of douchenozzle enumerated above. They all hinge, though, on responding to the wishes and needs of the crying person, so once again, don’t go in wanting to be a saviour. It won’t work.

1) Crying person is crying. Check out the rest of their body language. Will they meet your eye? Are they deliberately avoiding your gaze? Are they hunched in a corner trying to keep as much distance as they can from Other People? Do they have headphones or dark glasses on? Are they trying to hide? Then THEY PROBABLY DON’T WISH TO BE TALKED TO. If someone won’t meet your eye, go on your way. People wanting or even willing to be engaged with will signal it.

2) Ask, don’t state. If whatever you wanted to say is framed as a statement, rethink it. Say something that can be answered with ‘no’, AND BE PREPARED FOR THIS TO HAPPEN. ‘Are you okay? Can I do anything?’ A lovely Facebook friend of mine suggested ‘You look unhappy. Is there anything I can do to help?’ as this opens up space for the person to refuse. They are a kind person with the right idea. You are giving the person opportunity to engage with you if they wish, NOT necessarily trying to get them to stop crying.

(If you are trying to get them to stop crying, you are a dick. This should be about what they need, not what you want. Many people find crying helpful and therapeutic.)

So there you are. Maybe, just maybe, we can engage with strangers to our mutual benefit. But we absolutely can’t when we insist on imposing our own problematic ideas and constructions upon them. End of.

Be excellent to each other.


About Goblin

Academic, critic, endlessly fascinated; reads, thinks, listens and talks far more than is good for her. Ex-anorexic, ex-ME, excitable, queer, kinky, nosy, mouthy. Purveyor of uncomfortable truths. Talks filth in public. Likes rabbits, old houses with big windows and John Wilmot Earl of Rochester. Needs more sleep.
This entry was posted in Culture, People being dicks, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to 5 things NOT to say to people crying in the street (and a few you can).

  1. Last year I walked past a Very Complex Situation. I have no idea what was happening, but there was a woman, and she was having what appeared to be a very difficult encounter with a man. She was upset, but dealing. As I overtook them, I said to her quietly, ‘Are you okay?’

    She blanked me, in a very physical, turned slightly to more deliberately ignore me, way.

    Demon brain: *Offence* *I wanted to *help*

    Conscious thought: Fuck off, demon brain. This is about another person, not your ego. In this case, your sensitive and helpful intervention is, for whatever reason, of NO USE, and may be actively unhelpful, and the person you are officially seeking to assist has made this quite clear.

    It was an interesting realisation of how strong the ‘But I want the Cookie of Fixing Things’ is embedded.


    • Goblin says:

      Thank you! I think situations of threat are perhaps different again – there have been occasions when I’ve been physically under threat when intervention would be differently loaded – but totes with you on being aware of the Fixing Cookie Hunger 🙂


  2. Doe Johnson says:

    Yes. This ^^.

    Some more thoughts that may add, or might just say the same again another way. IN MOST CASES UNLESS YOU ARE CLOSE OR HAVE ESPECIAL RESPONSIBILITY AnD A PRIOR CONNECTION…….

    * Do not say, or do, things that take over others problems, ‘own’ them, attempt to decide for them, declare unilaterally that certain approaches right or wrong, and do not be too quick to judge and ‘take sides’.

    * Do not attempt to imply you understand as much or as well as they do, the problem they face. The problem they face may not be the one you would face in their shoes; they may have perspectives or other ‘stuff’ that impacts which they’ll never tell you, they may see things differently from you, or may not have explained to you fully, it may have impact that you don’t really ‘get’ to them that wouldn’t happen if it were you. Above all, it risks the classic error “Well, if I were going to the library I wouldn’t tart from here. They start from where they start, with whatever issues, past baggage, perspectives, responsibilities, tensions, needs, and state of mind, they start from, and very often they need a solution that respects those, not one that cuts across them ignorantly. If they need the latter then normally they need it from someone who is close and established enough to make that call, not from a stranger who doesn’t.

    * Do not look for quick fixes, do not make ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’ at their issue an ego issue for *you*. You can add a view *at best*, you cannot live their life and it’s grossly disrespectful to pressure them to a view or an action because of how reassured, happy, comfortable or egoic, it makes *you* feel, or how you need them to quickly solve it so you feel good. When you meet a crying person, or anyone in pain, your feelings are not important here. *Theirs are*. And real problems or real difficult emotions are often hard to solve or need passage of time (otherwise they would have)

    * Do not try to cheer up, compliment, or distract. A person upset that much usually knows whats up and why. They won’t appreciate it and it may not help.

    What might help:

    * Listening and keeping antennae out for vibes that suggest unspoken things.

    * Be clear what’s your stuff and what isn’t. It’s upsetting to *you* or you think they might be in pain, yes. Asserting “what’s so”, no. “You look sad, I wish you weren’t, is there anything I can do?” is better than “you are sad, you shouldn’t be [don’t have the right to be]”.

    * Listening (again!)

    * Accept that “space alone” is often what people want most. Its legitimate to need it. “I’m here if you want, but if you need quiet, say so, I’ll leave you be”.

    * Asking if they are SAFE. (Are you safe, is there someone you can talk to, do you need to talk to someone, has someone hurt you)

    * Reaffirming they have value – often people in dspiar or depression or pain, may feel they are worthless-hopeless-helpless (they have no value as a human being, they have no hope of things getting better, they have no right or resources to get any help). reassuring that they are worth something, there are people who will care, they can find help if they need it, can be immensely valuable — this is about reassuring them they are a valid human being, rather than proposing to “solve” any “problem”.

    * Being willing to disengage when it’s not clear you are wanted.

    * Understanding when a vague or non committal answer means “really no but I don’t want to be rude, or I don’t feel I have the right to say it”.

    * Checking, not assuming.

    * Listening (once more)


    • Goblin says:

      Thank you! 🙂 *wry five* I think one thing I would also add is BE PREPARED FOR THE ANSWER. If someone does want yo talk and discloses abuse/violence/illness/death/other subjects you may not have the tools to acknowledge and deal with, and they need to deal with your inability to deal, you will have made things much worse.


      • Doe Johnson says:

        Which makes me think of this —

        Never, ever, replace what someone *actually* said, with what you *wish to have heard them say*, or with *what you believe they really meant to say* or a dumbed-down version that misrepresents them. What they say may conflict with what you think someone “should” say, or may not make sense, or may clash with your values and views in life. Nonetheless it is, and remains, what they actually said, complete with any ambiguities, flaws or anything else. Do not erase and delete it, do not pretend “they can’t really have meant it”, and – whether or not you accept it – do not pretend they gave you anything different than they actually did give you. Ever.


  3. paul turner says:

    you seem to be having a lot of situations that are causing you to cry in public , can i suggesst that you may need to change some things in your life or get some help.


    • Goblin says:

      I don’t think having been upset in public the six times it would be necessary for this article to be accurate in thirteen years is unreasonable, actually. I’d be more worried if I’d gone that long without having any serious emotional upheavals, as it would imply my life was static and emotionally sterile. Fortunately for us all, it’s not.


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