Negative Comments – How to avoid hurting others

As we are slowly coming out of lockdown restrictions, I am hearing that people are worried about the comments that may be directed towards them. We have been in a prolonged period of restrictions that may have led to outcomes such as weight change, skin problems, sleep issues or psychological distress. Visible differences are often commented on in society, with positive and negative consequences.

I wanted to highlight some examples of what you might say to someone INSTEAD of the comment you wanted to make to make sure you don’t hurt their feelings. All of these things have been said to me at one point or another:

‘You look tired’ This is such a common comment and a perfect example of what I am trying to illustrate. Although it might be said with good intent (e.g. the person commenting is worried that you look tired and want you to know that they have noticed) it can be counterproductive. You might not want to tell the person you haven’t slept properly for 2 weeks and are worried about your finances. So instead, you will internalize this kick to your self-esteem and accept their comment. 

Try – ‘Can I help you with anything?’ ‘How has your recovery been from X?’ (some people may be returning to their normal routine post-covid or any other illness/stressful event)

‘You look terrible’  I honestly do not know why anyone would want to say something like this, but again it has been said to me and it hurts! If you aren’t looking up to dealing with the day, you probably already know this. Of course it is entirely possible that some people will not mind this type of comment as it gives them a chance to discuss the reasons behind it.

Try – ‘You don’t look yourself, how are you?’ ‘Would you like to catch up later, I’d like to know how you have been keeping’. These options still give the person the chance to open up to you instead of making them feel worse than they already may do.

‘Have you gained/lost weight?’ – I will admit there are times I have felt elated if anyone says I have lost weight, but we should be aware that commenting on physical characteristics is not always appreciated. Weight is one of the things that a lot of people find a very personal topic and are not comfortable to discuss. Also really why should anyone have to defend their weight change?

Try – ‘I love that outfit on you’ ‘That’s a great look’ These examples are still appearance-directed but have a positive slant and might make the difference to a person’s day.

‘What’s happened to your skin/face/lips/nose’ – These types of comments/questions probably don’t add much to the person’s day, especially if they are already struggling with the change that you want to comment on. You can usually tell if someone if trying to hide something, they might not make eye contact, or partially cover a feature. If you can see this, it might be better to distract them from how they are already feeling. My own example (unrelated to a physical change that might have happened during lockdown) is my nose, to me it is perfectly normal and the one I have looked at all my life, however it doesn’t look like that to others, so many times I have been asked if it was broken or what happened to it. No response is really worth remembering, but what I can remember is that the comment made me feel really low, not for long but that feeling is not something I want to be responsible for creating in another person. Some people will be vulnerable to these comments and that can have a lasting negative impression.

Try – ‘I took up cooking during lockdown, did you try anything to keep yourself sane?’ This is a general comment that has nothing to do with what you might have wanted to say, but most of the time a comment like the one you might have wanted to make is not something that will add to the person’s life. If there is a concern about something you can see, again why not just ask if the person has time to talk to you about how they have been lately?

Also, I would suggest replacing the COMMENT with an ACTION that might actually help the person, for example asking if they want to talk. You can also use your own example, especially if you are worried about the other person, for example ‘I struggled with lockdown, how did you find it?’. This can make the other person feel more likely to open up.

Not everyone can react to a comment about their appearance positively, even if the comment was not made with negative intent. These situations often occur unknowingly but can be hurtful, even with the best intentions. In a world where people have been subject to unprecedented stress, it is important to be able to support each other in the journey into the new ‘normal’. 

Be kind x

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