Counterintuitive Underreactions and Overreactions

I love Pride and Prejudice but this is the image in my head for Bad At Serious Conversations.

The quality of not reacting in an upset way to new information has been on my mind recently. People seem to tell me things regularly—a driving force, if not the initial impetus behind my career choice–and something I’ve noticed as a skill is knowing when to react strongly to emotionally-loaded information…and when to treat an offhand remark like a plea for help.

That is, how do you decide when the reaction to–

“Yeah, sorry I’m late on this piece of the project–I had some friend trouble last week–but what if we scheduled a meeting on Tuesday and went over this section right now?”

–should sound like:

“Oh, that sounds [expression of sympathy], I’m so [sad/apologetic]! [Tell me more/how have you been handling it]?”

And when the appropriate response to–

“Yeah, I’ve had some struggles with depression and repeated hospitalizations meant I had to take an extra year of college.”

–is best phrased as:

“Oh, okay, [brief smile] [topic change, offer of ice cream, return to task at hand]”

My initial impulse was to say that a good heuristic is “the weirder/more emotional the information, the more noncommittal the response” But this breaks down very quickly. For one, I hang out in a social group that is almost definitely breaking my Weird and Emotional Information Disclosure alarms. Casual references to hallucinations and depressive episodes are par for the course, and dissecting how one feels about a surprise phone call is the norm.

Each time I try to break down exactly how I decide which of these to do in what situation–because sometimes ‘I had some friend trouble’ is an offhand aside, and ‘struggles with depression and repeated hospitalization’ does call for processing and discussion of current feelings–my brain comes back with ‘well, it was obvious in the situation!’ Thank you, brain, for that helpful contribution.

And then there’s another complication: what if in attending to this; in trying to figure out when to be noncommittal about Serious Things and take parenthetical remarks as openings for Deep Conversations, you do more harm? If you maintain even mediocre relationships, it seems high-risk to play around with how you respond to disclosures. If the learning curve means messing up a few times in large ways, you might be better served by not accidentally tanking your friendships.

And these interactions can and do make or break relationships and friendships. I can hear it now (in part, because I have heard it before):

“I confessed my deepest secret to her, and she just asked if I still wanted to go bowling!”

or, from my own life:

“Every time (this is only slightly hyperbolic) I offhandedly mention that my parents recently divorced, everyone thinks it’s The Worst Thing In The World, and I have to convince them I think it was a good idea. And then when I say I’m glad, everyone assumes I had a horrible home life. Now I just never mention it.”

At the same time, filing this as a skill that some people have and some people don’t, and one for which there is no ability to intentionally jump from one camp to the other just grates on me. Most of my social skills are learned, and I pick up new ones best from explicit instructions and scripts that I, over time and testing, adapt. They’re social skills, after all, not social I can just miraculously do it and you can’t so pbthhh.

So….how? Accept that straining some friendships is the price for being a slightly better friend overall? Try some other heuristic for how to react? What do you do?


  1. says

    This is a cool topic to focus on! I haven’t thought about it much before in this form. Mostly just in the isolated incidents, you know?

    So asking is an obvious answer that comes to mind. But it doesn’t have to be stilted. You can have a small question to probe their interest in sharing more, like, “Oh, was it bad?” or expressing sympathy with a pause for them to optionally fill in with more if they choose.

    But if it seems like a high-risk, don’t-wanna-mess-it-up situation, asking if they’d like to talk about it always seems like a safe bet. And you totally do that!

    • Kate Donovan says

      Yeah, mirroring is MUCH of how I figure this out, but having more and more met-online-first friends is making it trickier for me. However, it does facilitate more explicit communication–I can get away with just asking.

  2. consciousness razor says

    What do you do?

    A lot of times, I literally play it by ear. Listen to the tone of their voice, how quickly they pass over the information (or how slowly they dwell on it) and try to work from there. You need at least some familiarity with how they talk, how they think, how excitable or stressed they tend to be, etc., to make this somewhat useful, but it seems to work fairly well even when the person’s conveying a new piece of information. Audio and visual cues like this, as well your memories of them (and other people you think are like them in some way), are probably most of the “magic” your brain is doing unconsciously. This is what makes reading text, and extracting exactly they (often unfamiliar people) mean to be saying, very difficult for me sometimes.

    Anyway, you could exploit that. There’s sort of a method to the madness, and I think you generally can train yourself into being more aware of that stuff (even though it’s still not always certain). If you find yourself not noticing anything right away, it might help to deliberately “replay” their statement(s) in your head, including how they look and sound, to see if you can spot anything that seems to be sticking out. If not, they aren’t doing a very good job of communicating something which really is significant to them, and one of their skills isn’t something you can cultivate.

    As you say, you won’t necessarily find it in the content of the statement itself, since people can have very different reactions to the same things. Even then, it doesn’t exactly hurt to express sympathy (or joy, etc.) to them, because if that turns out not to be their response to it, that opens to conversation to learning how they think about it. And if they really don’t want to have that conversation, then it’s not clear why they would’ve brought it up. But if you play it right, I don’t think there’s much risk of destroying relationships, unless they’re really touchy about you trying (and possibly failing) to understand them. And if so, it’s probably best to find out sooner rather than later. :)

  3. geekgirlsrule says

    If I can’t immediately tell from their demeanor, I usually ask, “How do you feel about this?” or “What do you need from me regarding this?” Because I’ve had friends who were ambivalent at best about pregnancies, I’ve frequently said “Congratulations?” as if it’s a question. Usually, they’ll laugh and say, “Yeah, I guess so.” Once I had said friend shake her head and throw her arms around me until she could calm down enough that we could talk about her options.

    One of the reasons I ask what they need, is I have a tendency to try to problem solve, and that means they can tell me they just need me to sit there and listen and make comforting sounds, rather than lay out a plan of attack.

  4. John Horstman says

    I find that most people indicate their preferred/expected responses with their own behavior. There are exceptions to this, of course, especially for people with difficulties with interpersonal interactions. I also find that having the ‘wrong’ response isn’t usually a huge deal if you don’t persist in responding that way once the person indicates it was the wrong response. For example, people trying to convince you that your parents’ divorce is a bad thing when you’re telling them it was for the best is asshole behavior (if perhaps unintentionally so); they should listen to your words and accept them at face value.

    Our brains’ ability to build heuristics from experience is really useful here, especially given how much processing we dedicate to interpreting social behaviors and predicting the behavior of other people. It’s likely that it’s easier for most people (though often not those who fall on the autism spectrum) to actually practice and develop these skills than it is to formally identify and list the exact method of determination. There are current attempts to actually identify and explicitly catalog ‘appropriate’ responses to people under various conditions by/for (high-)functioning autistic people, which strike me as a very similar sort of project. I’m thinking primarily of this.

  5. says

    This is interesting to me because I tend to get very irritated and worried when someone responds to what I thought was a routine disclosure (“Ugh, exams have been so stressful, I can’t wait for them to be over”) with what I perceive as “too much” sympathy (“Oh I’m so sorry, that must really suck, do you want to talk about it? *hugs*).

    The reason is that I feel that I must’ve somehow indicated that I “needed” this support or sympathy, and it’s very important to me to appear self-sufficient and in control at all times. If people understand this but still want to offer me support, that’s great! But if they don’t realize it and think I desperately need help, then I feel very bad and spirally.

    That’s why I prefer to be so direct. “Hey, can I get a hug? Exams are really stressing me out.” Or “I just need someone to validate that it’s okay for me to be upset about this.” If I don’t request anything, I’m probably just making conversation or letting you know what’s up in my life.

    • Kate Donovan says

      YES the discomfort with having extra sympathy. I worry that I’ve overshot my level of upsetness, or been confusing. And then it’s very hard to walk it back, because people sometimes react by assuming I’m being overly shy or downplaying it.

  6. Ashley F. Miller says

    I usually just say “Do you want to talk about it?” to let them indicate their own needs. I find this to generally be useful. Occasionally I say, “This sounds difficult, how can I be helpful? Do you just want me to listen, do you want advice, or would you rather I just distracted you?” I suspect this is probably overly robotic for some people to feel natural at, but I think it helps indicate that, at the very least, you are a person who is concerned with making them feel better and that alone can be helpful.

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