When a friend of yours has been going through a rough time, you’ve probably used some of these common phrases to offer reassurance: “every cloud has a silver lining”, “there’s no use crying over spilled milk,” “no pain, no gain,” etc. These phrases, known as idioms, are pronounced so commonly that they have been transformed into clichés that we automatically accept as true without much extra thought.
The problem with using clichés as a way of understanding and giving meaning to someone’s current situation is that, although they are not necessarily false, they are incomplete and simultaneously oversimplify and minimize people’s experiences.
Let’s set the scene. Your friend, Graham, comes to you because his relationship with his partner Lucy is strained. Lucy has been making hurtful comments after coming home from stressful days at work. Graham told her he didn’t appreciate it, and she promised to try to express her emotions more constructively. After bringing it up a few times, Graham has noticed a pattern: a temporary improvement followed by a gradual regression back to Lucy’s old behaviour. Your reaction might be to tell Graham, “actions speak louder than words.” Lucy repeatedly says she’ll do something and hasn’t – must be a lost cause. Point final. However, this cliché completely stops the conversation and does not take into account the complexity of the situation. Why is there a discrepancy between Lucy’s words and actions? What are specific, tangible steps Graham and Lucy can both take to help her communicate her stress? Why is she stressed? Is it because of the job itself, her boss or her coworkers, or is there something unrelated going on? As you can see, a conversation that was once a dead end suddenly opens up.
Let’s jump to a second scenario. Another one of your friends, Monique, is a motivated and driven individual. She is a member of the student association of her university program, volunteers at several local organizations, is passionate about her field of study, and has a buzzing social life. She applies for a competitive internship but doesn’t even get an interview. Monique is devastated. In order to justify what has just happened, you might try to console her by saying “you win some, you lose some,” meaning that she already has a lot going for her and she just can’t have it all. However, the logic of this cliché is flawed. Why can she not be thriving academically and socially and get the internship, too? Also, this justification completely dismisses Monique’s distressing emotions. It doesn’t encourage her to find adaptive ways to cope with the disappointment, nor does it motivate her to persist in the face of adversity. Again, the conversation comes to an unnecessarily abrupt end.
Every person’s experience of an event is distinct, so why are we using the same figures of speech to define different people’s experiences? The core issue with using clichés is that they follow an outdated, one-size-fits-all philosophy that stifles conversations and limits reflection. Instead, we need to make an effort to find the right words that address the person’s unique needs, feelings, and concerns. Feelings and experiences are so nuanced and deserve more thought and reflection.
To truly be able to help someone, we need to take the time to try to understand - understand why people feel the way they do, understand how they define their experiences, understand the thoughts and attitudes behind their behaviours. Understanding helps bridge the gap between our feelings and another’s and ultimately makes the person we’re helping feel heard, validated, and valued.
So next time you’re talking it out with a friend, instead of picking from a bank of clichés, take the time to understand and choose your words with intention.
Please note: The situations discussed in this piece are entirely fictitious and are not examples of actual vent sessions, as these are completely confidential.