Etiquette Questions, Answered: Tricky Conversations
How Do I Address a Past Tragedy With a New Friend?
Q: When someone I’ve just met brings up a tragedy in her recent past―a death in the family, for instance―should I just express
sympathy, or should I ask about what happened?
New York, New York
A: This is one of those delicate situations many of us have found ourselves in. I remember meeting a new friend in college―at that time of life when you’re all excitedly sharing everything about yourselves―and when I inquired about her mother, she told me that she had died. I felt bad enough for having stumbled onto upsetting ground, but I wasn’t sure if it would be more or less insensitive to delve further. So I took my cue from her: She was clearly comfortable sharing a few basic facts about her situation, but that was all for the moment. (This person became a dear friend, and over the years I’ve learned more about how her mother’s death affected her.) My feeling is that it can’t hurt to express your condolences. Then adding something like “That must have been incredibly hard for you” will tell you everything you need to know about whether the person feels like divulging more. When in doubt, express interest and leave it to her to change the topic. She will if she wants to.
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