Coulda? Shoulda? Woulda? but…Debating How to Handle a Thorny Situation

Don’t you wish we could say at times what we’re really thinking? Imagine the trouble we’d get into if we did. We know, however, that it’s not okay to do so in polite society.

Deep down, we try not to hurt anyone’s feelings even if we’re ticked off or feel slighted, make assumptions and try to be patient while, at the same time, consider our own feelings and needs. Some situations challenge us more than others, and often blindside us to the point that we don’t know what to do or say.  

Actually, that’s not completely accurate. We know what we want to say and do, but the truth can leave a bad taste on the tongue. “That could be our undoing with friends and family,” we decide. Therefore, our tack is to think through the consequences of that route and stop ourselves in our tracks. We sit on it and then skip to plan B, maybe call each other, explain what happened and ask for advice. We play out different options, laugh, chicken out or get bold. Sometimes, processing something that troubles us out loud to the other helps diffuse it and clarifies what we should or should not do. “Yes, that would be a bit mean,” we think, or “too judgmental” or “not thoughtful,” we conclude.   

So, we resist saying anything, consider the consequences if we were to open our big mouths, and then stew inside. Or, if we think quickly enough, we offer a tactful version on the spot to keep the peace. We don’t really want to chase away anyone in our lives possibly permanently.

What’s the right thing to do? There is no definitive answer. Right now, especially when we’re living through the pandemic, many of us are feeling extra stress and sensitivity. That’s why we urge thinking harder about a response or action and putting it in the context of how you might feel if the tables were turned. Here are a few hypothetical situations to help you understand our message and why consequences are a powerful guide. 


Scenario: A friend doesn’t send a gift for your special occasion.

Immediate feeling: You’re disappointed, hurt, annoyed, and maybe it escalates to anger. You think to yourself, “what a jerk (or worse),” but you say nothing.

Potential responses: Irrational: You want to give them a piece of your mind and grab instead a piece of paper to draw up a list all the gifts you’ve sent along with the price of each. Tit for tat. How tacky, but it’s a great fantasy get-even scenario. Of course, you’re not going to be so crass. You know from all those etiquette columns you read that nobody has to send a gift, even if attending a wedding and eating that $200 dinner with pricey wedding cake ($20 a serving). You’ve read too that technically their presence is really acceptable as the gift. This leaves you with some tough choices:

  1. Ignore it and hold a grudge. And every time you see or hear from them, you’ll think—“They never sent a wedding gift. No gift. No gift.” Your thoughts are on a loop.
  2. Hedge the situation and say or email, “Oh, I got a gift without a name. Might that blue box from Tiffany be from you? We just love it.” You also know it’s wrong to lie, even a white lie. Shame on you, you know better.
  3. You could be a bit blunt and say, “I know this is tacky, but I don’t think you sent a gift and wonder if you’re upset or annoyed about something?” A bit too blunt for us, perhaps.
  4. You could simply avoid asking, know that they might not feel a gift was necessary, don’t have the money (doubtful) or just are cheap. Bingo!
  5. Then there’s the option to cut them some slack. Hey, remember that a person usually has a year to send a gift. Start counting. You take out that tasteless Zoo calendar with the hyenas on it that you received in the mail and start marking off the days. Then you come to your senses and realize this is a waste of your precious time. You throw out this idea along with the calendar featuring hyenas that are the most unpopular animals due to their weird mannerisms, sounds and reputation of being scavengers.

Consequences: Ah ha. The get-even moment arrives when you’re invited to a function for them. You don’t have to send a gift, or you adhere to Michelle Obama’s lesson and go higher. Be a lady and send a gift, but an inexpensive one, or simply mail a beautiful and expensive Papyrus card. Then call it a day.


Scenario: A friend errs in not including you but includes others you know, so you know there was a gathering, especially since you heard it or saw pictures on Facebook.

Immediate feeling: You’re hurt, really hurt about being left out, wondering when you became chopped liver. (We actually love chopped liver so this may not be the best analogy.)

Potential responses: Once again, you can take the direct approach and be upfront. Call and say you were hurt. Nobody can argue with your feelings.

Other choices:

  1. Email and ask if they forgot to include you.
  2. Play the coward card and tell a friend who you know was there who you know also will tell the host promptly—most of us have a friend like this. If you don’t, get one in your life fast.
  3. Ignore it and hope it doesn’t happen again, then be sure not to include them at your next gathering. Once you come to your senses, rise to the occasion and remember that two wrongs don’t make a right even if it makes you feel good. In these situations, we like to follow Margaret’s mother’s advice who taught us always to be inclusive. We also hope if the person finds out that she inadvertently left you out, they apologize. This calls for a true apology, a short statement that cuts to the quick and offers no rationale, but says, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” Period. The End.

Consequences: If you speak up directly, you risk being told it was a small gathering and you didn’t fit in. That might really hurt your feelings even more. Also, you may fracture the relationship by speaking up, though you may not care. At the same time, you may have taught them an important lesson. Don’t leave anybody out on purpose. Ever.


Scenario: A friend or family member never initiates a phone call or rarely emails you.

Immediate feeling: You wonder if you matter in their life.

Potential responses:

  1. You can offer a teaching moment and tell the person by phone. email or in person that you miss hearing from them.
  2. If it becomes chronic, you could let them know that good communication works both ways, and that you feel you’re not communicating equally. Flatter them and say that you’d love to hear from them without always feeling you must initiate the contact.
  3. You can be even more direct and say what you’ve been thinking: “Do I still matter in your life?” It’s an honest question if this has been going on for months and even years.
  4. And then you can also try a more caring approach. Ask if they’re OK? Maybe, there’s a good reason, including sickness or depression, that they haven’t reached out to you. We all have off or difficult periods in our lives.

Consequences: Be prepared to hear an apology, probably with a rationale of how busy they are (work, volunteering, doing something healthy for mind and body are acceptable; spending time getting laser treatments, Botox and fillers, are not okay. Oh my.) Maybe they’ve been too sick to pick up the phone or type an email, or they don’t like long phone conversations because it gives them cauliflower ear (that vanity thing again). Most likely if you confront them, they’ll tell you that “yes, you matter greatly.” Then after weeks or months, if they once again pull the silent treatment, you have your answer. It may hurt, but you know in their book, you’re not worth the effort. Of course, if you don’t want them to disappear in your life, you can still be the one to continue to initiate contact.


Scenario: A friend never listens to what you’re saying because they make comments that don’t relate, or you hear them typing in the background or, if in person, they’re staring at their cell phone or glancing at the TV or newspaper.

Immediate feeling: You feel discounted.

Potential responses:

  1. You can be coy and say, “What is that clack clacking I hear?” knowing full well they are typing something and not listening to you at all. Or you hear the sound of munching and cellophane crackling because they’re deep into their junk stash, again.
  2. You take the direct approach and say, “Is that the sound of typing or eating?”
  3. If you want to really dig in the fact that they’re not listening to you, ask them to repeat what you said (without food in their mouth). Start with a “Would you mind, repeating what I said because I don’t think you were listening?” Then ask them politely to put down their phone or newspaper, turn off the TV, stop their typing or lip smacking until your conversation is over.

Consequences: Again, look at it this way, if you speak up about this, you may be doing the person a favor. Figure if they do this with you, they probably do it with others. We know we’re guilty of doing this at times and need a polite reminder to stop. It is rude. We’re sorry and know we can do better. We try not to get defensive when others remind us, we apologize and mean it—at least in the moment. And if you’re reading our blog and doing something else simultaneously, well…you know the drill. 

In any of these situations and others when you feel offended, we suggest writing out your plan, sleeping on it, mulling it over and sharing it with a friend. Bear in mind the potential recipient’s personality, since work colleagues, friends, very close friends and family will react differently. Consider the consequences of what action you take. What you say or do can come back to bite you in the you-know-where. Enough said.


1 comment

  • Phyllis

    Tough stuff that we all face regularly!

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