Etiquette for Expressing Condolence to Someone You Don’t Know Well


A Complicated Issue

When you’re expressing condolence to anybody, the idea is to help them feel better. You’re trying to do something good. The problem is, sadness has a quality that’s sort of like a black hole. A black hole has a gravitational force so strong it bends light. The darkness is so dark, it literally “eats” light.

Depression is like that. Grief is like that. Loss is like that. Just think about some minor issue you’ve encountered in the last year. Maybe your car wouldn’t start and it rained, then a person you were trying to date blocked you on social media. For a lot of people, that’s just Tuesday. But the first few times life throws lemons like this at you in a bunch, things get sour quickly.

You start thinking about what’s going wrong, why, and how many things in your life haven’t worked out, and before long, you’re just a puddle of emotion on the couch. That’s basically the human condition, and something people go through when minor issues impede them. When something major happens, the issue is exponentially compounded.

If you’re not careful, just the act of comforting someone can make things worse. There’s etiquette to think about here, in this writing we’ll explore some best practices to help you truly assist those in pain.

1. A Gift Has its Place

Flowers, travel, chocolates; all are valid means of expressing condolence through the “vehicle” of gifts. The link has more information on etiquette to consider. The value of a gift is, it’s sort of like “drive-by comfort” if you will. You’ve heard of a drive-by shooting?

Well, with condolence gifts, you drop in, drop off the gift, and disappear. The person can “digest” what you’ve given on their own terms. You can even give anonymously if that’s appropriate and feasible. Here’s the thing: get something appropriate. Flowers are a fine option, as are treats, or a little change of scenery via travel.

A handle of vodka is probably not the best idea, even if the sad individual seems to appreciate it. A sad movie may seem like a good idea, but it could prompt someone into a further downward spiral of sadness. A puppy, now…that might be a good option—provided the individual isn’t allergic, or unable to care for the little animal. A gift has its place.

2. Listening is Also Important

You want to listen more than you want to talk when someone is in a place of grief. This is hard because grief isn’t always communicative. Greetings, a few polite words, and your presence can be more helpful than talking endlessly.

It’s often wearying to have a conversation. When the weight of life is on your shoulders, such situations are unbearable. Don’t tell the grieving person you know what they’re going through, and don’t relate any clever anecdotes of similar situations you’ve encountered.

Let them talk, and be there. Once they get a little “off their chest”, as it were, the social dynamic may be closer to normal. Whatever happens, let them guide the interaction.


3. Space: Maybe Not “the Final Frontier”, but Helpful

Just as long conversations are wearying, keeping up social appearances is hard. Especially when someone is shouldering a hard loss, you want to take this into account. Being there silently can be helpful.

Sometimes someone just wants to be alone for a while. If they’re in this kind of place, don’t utterly neglect them—check in on occasion. Even so, give them their space.

Helping Hurting People Mend

Part of life’s undulating diversity involves times of extreme joy, and times of extreme sorrow. We all go through it. When it’s your turn to comfort someone, keep in mind condolence etiquette. Give them their space when they need it, listen rather than talk too much, and when you give gifts, be considerate.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.