Tuesday, March 31, 2015 | By: Lynn

Don't Give Me Platitudes, Give Me Real

I’ve been on my soapbox for a while about platitudes. I hate platitudes. I want interaction with others to be real, even if it’s difficult. Platitudes don’t make connections, in my opinion, or offer real sentiment that might help. Platitudes are shallow and not always truthful. That is why I hate them.

Platitudes, however, are used often, for various situations. Someone tells you his or her mother just died. Because it’s a sensitive moment and it’s hard to know just what to say, it’s often an occasion to use a platitude: “At least she didn’t suffer.” “He’s in a better place.” “He lived a full life.”
In that moment, we may feel discomfort ourselves with the idea of death, our own or of a loved one. A platitude can help us avoid being present at all with what’s real. It usually has good intentions. Platitudes get credit for that. And when we’re busy and don’t want to be in a lengthy discussion, a platitude can suffice while letting us move on. Sometimes the situation is overwhelming and we’re at a loss for words.

In my book Dancing with Detective Danger, the main characters, sisters Sterling and Lacy Aegar, have suffered so much loss and pain in their lifetime that they’ve adopted a coping mechanism. When things get rough they use platitudes to distance themselves from the problem.

Noting that the receptionist’s desk was empty, Lacey glanced at the wall clock and casually wondered why Michelle wasn’t at her desk by 10:30 a.m. But the thought was quickly forgotten when sounds of anguish spilled out from behind the door of the private office she shared with Sterling.
                “I can’t believe it!” Sterling fumed.
                “Can’t believe what?” Lacey walked to her desk and tossed her purse in a nearby chair, slightly alarmed by her sister’s dismay.
                “Oh, when it rains it pours, I guess.” Sterling’s sleek, chestnut hair fell over her face as she leaned her head on her hands.
                “If it weren’t for bad luck we’d have no luck at all?”
                “We’re between a rock and a hard place,” Sterling came back with from under her hair.
                “Well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It was a common game for the sisters, something to test their edge and sometimes to relieve stress. But Lacey knew this time something was serious. “Wanna tell me what’s up?”

In part their habit is denial of the severity of the problem. It lets them bypass fear and anxiety. But in real life, platitudes don’t help us feel any better because deep inside we know the truth. But being real is what everyone longs for, according to John Amodeo, PHD, writing for Psych Central.

“The deeper yearnings of our heart — our desire for love and connection — requires something from us. We need to know and show what we’re really feeling inside. Rather than keep our authentic self hidden due to a fear of being rejected or shamed, we need to summon the courage to contact and reveal what’s genuine inside us,” Amodeo wrote. “We legitimately want love, respect, and connection. But this wanting will not be actualized unless we’re willing to give something, both to ourselves and others: the gift of authenticity and realness.”

I’ve been learning in the last year or so that not every adult is skilled at communication. I don’t know why but I’ve always assumed adults know how to engage and interact effectively. It’s not true. Becoming skillful and real at communication with diverse people and in diverse situations takes awareness and practice. It’s not something we learn from others modeling and it’s not taught but as a means to get something, like a job or cooperation. But it’s interesting to see teachers, preachers, politicians, people who work with the public, and those we imagine would need to have acquired good communication skills haven’t.

It’s a thing of beauty to watch or engage with someone who is skilled in communications. They understand it takes focusing on the moment, presence, whether on the phone, in an email, or face to face. Even when a platitude would do the job, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” for instance, is a decent platitude. But how much better to be real, notice, and acknowledge that sometimes things just stink. They’re hard, devastating, grievous. And those moments should not be bypassed.

Last fall, one of my daughters-in-law was walking hand in hand with my son (her husband) on a semi-deserted road when a truck crossed over into the opposite lane, where the two were walking on the shoulder, and hit my daughter-in-law. The hit threw her several yards away into a ditch. She received a severe concussion and a broken arm. When my husband and I got the news we called my son at the hospital. One of the first things my husband said to our son was this: “I wish I were there so I could give you hug.” My distraught and traumatized son said, “I wish you were, too. I need a hug.” Over the phone the two shared the moment of deep emotion that deserved time and attention. My husband could have said, “Everything will be okay.” But at that moment, it wasn’t, so why bypass the truth?

Of course others, family and friends, offered something different. “Tomorrow will be better.” “It could have been worse.” I don’t mean to be critical. It’s just that platitudes or a cheer-up-things-will-get-better would have fallen so flat in easing my son and daughter-in-law’s emotional pain.

There is a time for something simple and traditional in moments that are challenging. When someone gets downsized it could be a time to say, “With losses come opportunities.” “Life is full of changes and you have to roll with the punches.” But that might come later. At first, having the heart and time to say something real and be present in the moment with the other person can meet the longing for truth —some things are hard, some things just hurt so much, and I’m right here in it with you.

Some platitudes are fun to ponder. What platitudes do you know?


Liz Flaherty said...

This is really interesting, and I like the scene between Sterling and Lacy. Personally, I prefer platitudes to the silence that comes from not knowing what to say. I'm one of those adults who isn't always skilled at communication--and when I am, it's usually WRITTEN communication. :-)

I enjoyed the post!

Luanna Stewart said...

I love that scene between Sterling and Lacy! A couple of my chat friends and I play something similar when we're bemoaning the writer life. I'm also one of those adults who doesn't know what to say in a difficult or painful situation. So I opt for the truth and say that I don't know what to say. It keeps the conversation going and gives me time to offer some comfort.