Updated at the bottom:
AlphaMom recently had a question on the Advice Smackdown about giving pregnancy announcements to those who are infertile or have lost a child. I'm pointing this out mostly because it was actually some great advice and great advice needs to be applauded, especially when we all know there is some shitty advice streaming around out there. Amalah's response is sound and circumspect, explaining how to give information while keeping in mind the listener. It's advice that could apply to a whole host of situations.
But reading the original letter, I was thinking about a scene in Across the Universe (I know, I know, how many more times can I mention the Beatles in one week?) where the family is arguing at the Thanksgiving table. The uncle tells his nephew: "Maxwell, what you do defines who you are." And the boy responds: "Who you are defines what you do. Right Jude?" His friend, Jude holds the key piece of advice in his answer: "Well, surely it's not what you do, but the, uh... the way that you do it."
Because the art of communication cannot be reduced to a formula: email + news = good response. Communication is a grey area that requires the person to take a step back and approach the situation with circumspection, placing themselves in the listener's shoes and considering how they would like to receive the information.
The only thing the letter says is that her friend "decided to email the news a friend who recently lost her baby at 24 weeks gestation." And yes, using a medium that gives the listener time to compose themselves rather than stating the news in a public space is thoughtful, but like Jude says: "it's not what you do, but the way that you do it."
The reality is that without knowing what was emailed, the reaction of the listener becomes a moot point. We know that "The friend who lost the baby responded very poorly to the news and accused my best friend of being insensitive and selfish, when really she was trying to be the opposite." She may have been trying to be the opposite, but without the original email, it's difficult to understand the reaction or offer advice except to reframe how we give news in general.
I mean, did she email and sensitively acknowledge the situation of the other person and then share her news and then step back and allow the other person--the person who maybe needs it more--to take the lead? Or did she email, but write something along the lines of "I have great news!!! I'm pregnant and here are the last three sonogram pictures because I just know you'll want to see them!!! Baby dust!"
Er...which is sort of akin to calling up your recently widowed Grandma and shrieking, "I'm getting married and we are so in love and you are just going to love our wedding. We are young, young, young, and just starting out our life, you decrepit old woman!"
Okay, perhaps not that drastic, but the way we say something tells a lot about how much we're actually paying attention to the other person and communicating with them rather than just speaking at people because we have news and we want to share it, damnit!
Think of it this way: even when you are imparting information, you are entering a conversation. Some people hold what is essentially a conversation without listening, meaning, they start talking without noticing what is happening around them and with little regard in actuality (though a different amount in theory) for the person taking in the information.
Just as we expect people at the office to notice that we are deeply engrossed in work because we're on a deadline and it's not a great time to jump into a conversation about another project, we expect people to take into account things happening in our lives (as best they can know) when starting a conversation with us. Email and the telephone mean that we don't have the visual cues that we depend on to know whether it's a good time to impart information. But we can still hold a conversation with listening, which means taking into account the silent words being spoken by the listener before we start speaking aloud our actual words.
The comment section, though, is where the true conversation starts to unfold concerning the post which has a multitude of great points the most important one being that there isn't a way to truly state the best way to give sensitive information because everyone has a different preference. One agreed email was best, another said they'd rather hear it through the grapevine than be singled out. And over and over again, the point was made that you could do everything "right" and that when someone is in emotional pain, you're most likely not going to be able to create the response you want to see.
Think of it this way, go slam your hand in the door. I'll wait. That was painful, right? You're screaming right now and shaking your hand in pain. This wouldn't, of course, be the best time to brightly smile and tell you my good news, would it? Though sometimes, we need to give news so a person holding their throbbing hand would still understand that sometimes news needs to be delivered when we're not in the best space to hear it, and hopefully, if it's delivered well, we can roll with the poor timing.
At the same time, we all know that physical pain tends to recede and become forgotten whereas emotional pain has longer staying power. And knowing this, her friend is in emotional pain and while she may still need to hear information, the reaction to that news should be viewed through the lens of someone who is in pain. The person may simply nod, or may be frustrated that you gave them news when they weren't in a state to hear it, or may not respond at all. Because very few pieces of news can transcend emotional pain.
And that is the point to keep in mind if you have news to give another person. My happy news does not create happiness in others much in the same way that my sad news does not create sadness in someone else. We seem to understand how it works in one direction--we can see a sad movie, read a sad story, hear sad news and if it is happening to someone else or a character, we can also go back through our day without carrying those sad feelings with us. We understand that the sadness belongs to someone else and we are merely the witnesses unless it affects us directly.
But as humans, we don't seem to get the opposite idea--that our happiness cannot create happiness in others. We can be happy for another person, but that does not mean that we are happy like the other person. Which is to say that with the exception of a close friend where I know I will be the child's fictive kin or my own siblings, I am never truly happy like the other person when I hear a pregnancy announcement and it has nothing to do with infertility. I am happy for the person and I can express excitement for them, but they own their happiness and I'm merely a witness to it.
Which is why it's strange how much excitement we take in giving happy news. I had a friend who didn't want to tell me about her pregnancy over the phone because she wanted to see my face. And I couldn't completely understand that mentality, especially when she wouldn't have said the same thing about imparting devastating news (I didn't want to tell you that I ran over your dog because I just had to see your face when I told you about it!). The fact is that as humans, we truly believe that while our sadness does not create sadness in others, our happiness can transcend other situations and make other people actually happy once they hear what is happening in our life.
And that just isn't the case.
As nice as it would be if it were true.
So my advice would be to always return to Jude's wise words and think not just what you're doing, but the way that you're doing it. And to the greater end, why you're doing it. If you're telling your friend about your pregnancy because people should be kept abreast on major changes happening in your life (a move, a job shift, a baby, a marriage) and good friends will want to celebrate and support you, then go ahead and speak the words. But if you're telling people to generate that happy buzz of people excited for you, well, you may want to take a step back and decide who fits that category (a sibling, parent, best friend) and who may not have it in them to give you back what you need.
Which is to say that friends come in different levels and the response we expect from a close friend should be different from the response we expect from a peripheral friend--even one that we see frequently but hold at arm's length for negative news. My feeling is that if you wouldn't share your most embarrassing, most humbling news with the person--the kind that needs to be spoken to a best friend over alcohol or ice cream--they're actually a second-tier friend and one that while much loved may also not be the one you expect too much out of in terms of response. A poor or good response does not a friend make and our reactions are usually more indicative of our personal situation and not a reflection of how we feel about the other person.
I know I'm preaching to the choir, but this post felt like it belonged here too. And I know I've said all of this before in one way or another, but I wanted to jump off Amalah's post and point it out because it was good advice and then got too wordy for...words.
Serenity makes some great points in her comment below and I just wanted to agree with it. And while this may not come out the right way, I think y'all know I mean by this: being infertile or going through a loss does not mean that you've perfected empathy. We are all human and just as we want people to speak to us while taking into account our situation, we also need to extend the same courtesy to everyone else--being infertile doesn't mean that we naturally tell people about our pregnancies in the best way. We need to do the same amount of work.
Going through infertility or loss doesn't give you a bye with manners or circumspection. It needs to flow between all people and yes, I think the thoughts above apply across the board. To be mindful about crowing about your new job or all your new purchases to your friend who is out of work or in danger of being downsized. To be mindful about another person's relationship status as you discuss your own.
That said, feeling something and expressing something are two different things. I don't think we should ever squelch our feelings or brush them under the rug, pretending they're not there. But I think for the sake of sensitivity towards others, we need to sometimes squelch what we want to express. Though anyone telling another that they shouldn't feel what they're feeling--that's simply bad advice. We can't mess with our hardwiring, we can't talk ourselves out of our feelings. We can only talk ourselves out of our actions stemming from those feelings.
So if you're hearing an announcement and it's upsetting you, feel that emotion. Just...er...perhaps don't express it outwardly towards the person.
Cross-posted, mostly, with BlogHer.