I was visiting with a good friend of mine yesterday. I hadn’t seen her in a while and was enjoying catching up. FYI: She’s in the midst of dealing with a difficult cancer situation. She had taken the lead in talking about some of the challenges she had faced. Suddenly, in the middle of the conversation, she asked, “Do you know what really frosts me?”
Of course she knows that Emily Post is my great-grandmother and that I dish advice in the etiquette world, but it’s unusual when friends turn the conversation to etiquette. Friends tend to respect the boundary between my professional life and my personal life. Turn it she did.
“I hate it when someone suddenly starts telling me about someone they knew who had a cancer like mine and they end the story by saying, “And it didn’t turn out well,’” or, “And after all that treatment, they died in about six months.”
I was incredulous. How tactless. Bad enough the person was involving a third party in the conversation. But even worse that their story ended by focusing on the negative. “It drives me nuts when they do that,” she continued.
“Does that really happen?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she said.
I couldn’t resist asking the next question. “More than once?”
“Lots more than once. All the time.” She countered.
My wife chimed in talking about a friend of hers who has cancer and had related the same tactless kind of story. They both agreed that you would think people would know better, but apparently at least some people don’t.
If you are with someone who has cancer, be supportive; be a good listener. But don’t tell them about a person you know who died or is faring poorly from the same condition. It’s not comforting, and even if they don’t say anything, it is anxiety provoking and hurtful.
Some good things to say? “I am sorry to hear that. I hope you are doing well now,” or, “How are you doing/feeling right now?” Then just listen to what your friend is willing or able to share. And if you are the person in difficulty, don’t be shy about asking for help. Friends really do want to be helpful and useful. So, if someone could cook a meal, pick up some groceries, take you shopping, or just go for a walk or be a listening ear, let them know. And friends, keep the bad outcomes to yourself and enjoy being with your friend in a positive, supportive way in the here and now.
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About the author
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."