Why are there No Comforting Words that Aren’t also Factual Statements?

Suppose you have a sad friend whom you would like to comfort. Both of you are committed to Overcoming Bias, and you have no information suggesting that the situation is objectively better than your friend thinks it is, so your comfort cannot come from you conveying favorable factual information. What you really want to do is simply offer your friend some sympathetic attention, which sad people appreciate for reasons that have nothing to do with information. You could do this with a hug or a cookie, and people sometimes do so, but there is an overwhelming impulse to have words be part of the comforting. What words can you use? “It’ll be OK” won’t work because you don’t know that to be true. Something like “I love you” or “I care about you” are closer to the mark (if they are true), but even those are factual statements that your friend was probably aware of, and it’s not clear why hearing a known fact, even if it is a pleasant one, should be comforting in and of itself. And anyway “it’ll be OK” is much more common.

Why is it that we have no words to use for fact-free expressions of sympathetic attention? This seems like quite a remarkable fact, whatever the reason turns out to be. As for the reason, here’s a completely made up sociobiological just-so story. Showing sympathy is more fundamental than language; other primates do the former but don’t have the latter. Language evolved in us, and it’s original function was to allow us to express factual statements. But it proved to be so powerful that it insinuated itself into every facet of our lives, so now when we want to express sympathy, we are powerfully inclined to do so verbally, because we do almost everything verbally. Could this be the origin of at least some kinds of bias? Our forebears wanted sympathetic attention, and getting it presumbaly conferred some kind of survival advantage, but because everything has to be done in terms of language they demanded it in the form of comforting words. But almost all available words were about factual statements, and the only factual statements that would be comforting were about how everything was going to be OK, so they reached the point where they could be comforted by hearing such things, even when they were false.

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  • I can’t seem to think of many things you can say in English that aren’t declaratives, interrogatives, or imperatives. I can think of a few social niceties that are phrased as (or have evolved from) one of the above but have lost much of the original denotational content.

    Primary example: “I’m sorry.” Literally taken, it’s a statement of self-degradation, but that’s clearly not what’s intended in most cases. It’s an apology and somewhat like an expression of regret, but I don’t think it’s meant to literally mean the same thing as “I regret the current situation,” any more than “It’s okay,” is intended to be identical in meaning to “I want to comfort you.”

    Secondary example: “Excuse me.” This has the form of an imperative, apparently demanding (or requesting) that the person being addressed exempt the speaker from some sort of obligation (often a breach of manners). As in the “I’m sorry” case, this is related to but not the same as the actual use of the phrase, which seems to be (in some cases) to draw attention to the fact that the speaker would like the adressee to take some (usually minor) action or (in other cases) as an apology devoid of much (if any) personal culpability. Again, I would claim that “Excuse me,” does not mean the same thing as the declaration of fact “I want you to do something,” nor the imperative request “Please pay attention to what I am doing.”

    Not all such niceties evolve with their structure entirely in tact. “Howdy” comes from the question “How do you do?” only after some modification. Depending on who is doing the speaking, it may be an actual question, albeit one that’s asked mostly out of habit or a desire to be social. Often, though, it is just a greeting with no intended response, similar to the slightly harder-to-etymologize “Hello.”

    Linguistics as it was taught to me in high school, otherwise known as “grammar,” categorizes sentences as either declarative, interrogative, imperative, or exclamatory. I might not have been told outright that “Never mind” doesn’t count as a sentence unless it’s a command to someone indicating that they should not ever pay attention to something, but that’s the subconscious conclusion I’d arrived at. I didn’t even realize that I’d come to that conclusion until I started writing this comment, but I think that may be one of the roots of the problem.

    Another source of the problem (and I won’t go into too much detail at the moment) is that someone who is upset will often lash out at anything and everyone. So anyone talking to someone who needs comforting runs the risk of having their words picked apart reflexively. Saying “It’ll be okay,” may result in a nasty “No, it won’t!” “I’m sorry,” might engender a teary “Don’t be sorry; it’s not your fault.” In fact, even if there were a phrase* intended precisely for comforting without an obvious origin that can be interpreted literally, any user of the phrase runs the risk of getting chewed out for relying on cliches. This may be the true reason why we find it difficult to think of something comforting to say.

    * Incidentally, about half of the way through this comment, I thought of such a phrase: “There, there…” As with the other phrases I mentioned, it may have denotational origins, but it clearly has a meaning of its own that, in my opinion, exactly serves the purpose we were discussing.

  • David J. Balan

    “There there” is a great example, but it seems like it is almost always spoken to a child, and also almost always said along with touching of some kind.

  • Awww…

    Too bad.

    I’m sorry.

    Wish I could do something.

    I love you.

    I feel your pain. 😉

    I know.

    And a ton of non-verbal ways, of course.

  • Perhaps the factual bias is a costly signal. I’ve speculated that we bond to a group with strange religious and political beliefs, because that ties us together and shows we were willing to pay a price to join. Similarly, your friend could be comforted by the fact that you were willing to distort your beliefs in order be their friend. When they challenge the factual support for your beliefs, they could be challenging you to dig deeper into the delusion, to show deeper ties to them.

  • I see that you’ve broken your left leg. The chances that you will get hit by lightning right about now are pretty slim.

    There is comfort to be found in humor, and geeky humor which is based completely on fact, non-sequitur that it might be, can be employed to great comforting effect. It works even better if the injured party has a sick and twisted sense of humor.

    You all might consider what soldiers tell each other in the trenches.

  • I find this, and a range of similar problems, excruciatingly annoying. I haven’t even been able to train myself to stop saying “Oh my God!” – an expression that, in the context of the fictional source material, ought properly to carry the same connotations as “Oh my Sauron!” – because I haven’t been able to find an alternative phrase that expresses the same sentiment.

    I also despise the question “Hi! How are you doing?” because it’s almost impossible to respond politely without lying. I usually respond just “Oh, hello!” or, if permitted, “The usual.”

    English seems to be a language built to force you to lie, and I suspect this property is universal or nearly so among languages.

  • Doug S.

    If you have a problem with “Oh my God!” just leave the g uncapitalized and decide that it refers to some god other than the “God” of the Old Testament. Perhaps Zeus, Odin, or Ahura Mazda is a deity more to your liking? 😉

  • Doug, it ain’t just Jehovah who’s the problem.

  • Rob Spear

    God is representative of the moral structure of the universe – what people “should” do with their lives. If you fell that “overcoming bias” is a worthwhile activity, then another way of expressing that is to say that “God wants you to overcome bias”. If you read beyond kindergarten theology, you will realize that the idea that God is a beardy man in the sky is not an actual part of the Judeo-Christian world view. Saying “Oh my God” is therefore invoking your moral beliefs, whereas “Oh my Sauron” just shows you’ve read too much Tolkein.

  • Nick

    I disagree with the premise. I think there are factual statements that can help people to feel better. It’s important to remember that in times of trouble people are grappling with the emotional fallout of whatever event befell them. Consequently talking about the emotions can be particularly comforting. Consider the example exchange below:

    A: “I just found out I’ve lost my job and I’m really pissed!”
    B: “Wow, that sucks. I can/cannot imagine how that must feel” (depending upon whether B has lost a job before)
    A: “Yeah, it REALLY sucks. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”
    B: “That would make me angry too. I think I’d also be frightened at the prospect of not having an income and be worried about how I was going to make ends meet.”
    A: “yeah, exactly”
    B: “Ya know I can always lend you some money to help you get by if things get tight”
    A: “thanks, I appreciate that”
    B: “I can also imagine that my ego would feel bruised too; a lot of people, well, at least some, define themselves in large part by the work they do. So, to be let go from a job probably reflects somewhat on your identity; on your sense of self-worth”
    A: “Yeah, you’re right; it’s really depressing; I feel ‘unwanted’; kind of ‘useless’ in way”
    B: “i think that’s probably normal under these circumstances. At the same time I know you to be a very bright, resourceful person and I’m confident you’ll find a new job that you enjoy as much, if not more than this one. If nothing else you get to explore some career options that you may not have considered before…”

    This is an abbreviated version of how the exchange would actually go. The arc is basically:
    – Acknowledge the first order emotions (“i’d be angry too”)
    – Help explore some other, 2nd order, emotions that might be below the surface but fertilizing the first order emotions (worry about making ends meet; deflated self-worth);
    – Offer help (“i can always lend you money”)
    – Bring perspective/objectivity (I know you to be a resourceful, intelligent person…)

    The dialogue focuses exclusively on acknowledging the person’s emotions and is also factual because the emotions ARE real. I think the fact that people find comfort in this speaks to our innate desire to connect with others; to be part of a group/community (even, in this case, if it’s only a community of two).


  • Tom Crispin

    Factual statements are comforting in the sense that they provide solutions; persons injured or sad are functioning with reduced competence perceptually and cognitively. Before he lost that high-paid technical job in Oregon, he didn’t consider relocating. Without a gentle nudge of the obvious, he still may not.

    “Yeah, the tech job market sucks here in Oregon, but they’re hiring in Texas” really does help but the equally true “You’ll eventually get a job” does not.

    So maybe a factual statement is comforting proportionally to the amount of useful information it delivers?

  • TGGP

    Speaking of atheists saying OMG, when I was a kid my dad would very frequently utter “Judas Priest!” as a substitute for “Good grief!”. When I asked him about the phrase he told me it was the name of a heavy metal band. It seems most likely to me now that the phrase was common before the band formed, but it still seems odd for someone who was listening to Crosby, Sinatra and the Statler Brothers when his peers were hip to that far-out Hendrix fella and probably could not name a single Judas Priest song.

  • I did a quick search through this thread for the words, “Communication”, “Style”, “Mars”, “Venus”, “Woman”, “Women”, “Female” to see if anyone mentioned the different communication styles between the sexes and indeed the different reasons men and women communicate one on one. Interestingly, not one of the above words appeared in the thread up to this point. The absence of the last three are quite telling.

  • Riz Hassan

    What’s wrong with just saying “I’m here for you”? An expression of solidarity to comfort the individual without reference to the unkown future outcome?

  • Lily

    For some reason me and my friends comfort each other with completely meaningless phrases, which generally consist of double words, such as “there, there”, “come, come” and “now, now”. Patting hair/hand is optional.

    I don’t know why that happens, or why it works.