How to Avoid Surface-Level Sympathy

She sat in her desk at the back of the room, eyes red and unable to hold back a few tears.  Four or five of her female classmates hovered around her, kneeling on the floor or leaning in from the seats nearby.  I’ve never met this girl in my life, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but her body language was all too familiar.  Stop asking me to talk.  Stop telling me everything’s going to be OK.  You don’t know.  You don’t get it.  Stop it with all this surface-level sympathy.  All the things you can’t say to someone who thinks they’re trying to help but doesn’t have a clue how bad things really are.

I don’t know what upset her.  It could have been anything from a breakup to a family problem to a bad grade.  It doesn’t matter.  Whatever it was, it was bad enough for her to cry publicly but not want to talk about it publicly.  So I may have seemed heartless to her classmates when I asked them return to their seats for attendance.  I kept my tone gentle, but more for their sake than hers, since I knew they wouldn’t understand my reasons.  I didn’t look at her more than necessary, either.  I’m the sub.  I’m no one to her.  But whether she realized my intentions or not, I could at least save her for the hovering masses who were unsuccessfully trying to get her to talk.

I took attendance, gave the class their instructions, and sat down to write some notes for the teacher.  A young lady approached my desk – one of the girls who’d been sitting near the crying girl at the beginning of class.  She motioned towards her friend as she addressed me.

“Can she and I go in the hallway?  She doesn’t want to talk in here, with everyone around.”  I glanced back and forth between the girls and decided to trust them.  I nodded.

“Yeah, just out in the hallway, that’s fine.”  As she turned away, I called her back to add, “I understand, but just so you know, I can’t excuse you two from the assignment, either.”

“Oh, yeah, of course!  We’ll do the work.”  They left together, and when they returned at the end of the period, it was with dry eyes and a hint of a smile.  And they both turned in their assignments (which is more than I can say for some of the students who stayed in the room).

* * * *

This story isn’t about the girl who cried.  It’s about her friends, both the ones who hovered around her at the beginning of class, and the one who helped her escape.  Because even with the best of intentions, sympathy can be such crap in high school.

I remember the sympathetic girls in my school – the ones who crowded around me at my locker the way they hovered around that girl at the beginning of class.  I tried to tune out their exclamations of “Aw!  Are you crying??  What’s wrong?!”  Only the girls who didn’t know me well talked to me like that, and I wasn’t about to spill my problems to them.  I remember thinking that they didn’t care – not really.  They were just curious.  They wanted the story.  Maybe they didn’t know that’s what they wanted, but that’s hardly the point.  They would listen to whatever I’d tell them, offer empty assurances of “I’m sure it’ll be OK!” or “I know how you feel!” (HA!), and then they’d go back to their lives without lifting a finger to change things in mine.  But they’d asked, so in their minds, they’d helped me.  It was almost sickening.


Reach past the surface. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t ask “what’s wrong?” unless you’re also willing to ask “what can I do to help?”  In fact, just start with that question, instead.

Don’t tell someone that things will be fine unless you have reason for that assurance.

Don’t tell someone you know how they feel, because you might be wrong.

Don’t ask someone if they’re OK unless you’re willing to hear the word “no,” accept it, and not try to change their mind.

Anything less is curiosity and surface-level sympathy.

But for the girl in that class, it didn’t end there.  She had a friend – a real friend – who went beyond the surface to help out.  Her friend found a respectful, appropriate way to get her away from her peers’ prying eyes and ears.  I had a friend like that in high school – a friend who found an excuse to get me out of the room and away from my classmates so I could cry.

As leaders in the theater department, we had been given the task of cleaning and organizing the prop closet.  That closet became a safe haven for the two of us, a place where we could escape without fear of interruption.  We’d pour our hearts out among the racks of costume and tables of props.  I remember once, when the class gossip painfully salted an open wound in my heart, she took one look at my face and asked the teacher, “are we actually doing anything in class today?  Or can Christine and I go work in the closet?”  With the teacher’s permission, we retreated to our haven, and I spent the rest of the period recovering from what I’d heard.

I only trusted the people who didn’t try to make my tears go away and who seemed more concerned with my well-being than with finding out why I cried.  Sympathetic words can only go so far.  Trying too hard to get the story can even seem pushy and uncaring, despite good intentions.  What helped was knowing that someone would be by my side through the pain and wouldn’t try to talk it away.  It helped to know someone was more concerned about me than about the story.  It seemed to help that girl in class, too.


2 thoughts on “How to Avoid Surface-Level Sympathy

  1. Love how you describe the distinction between true empathy and false sympathy. Great utilization of anecdotes too, it’s great that you had a friend like that in high school!


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