The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Readers offer advice on nosy questions and compassion


While I’m away, readers give the advice.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

On a perfect thing to say when you don’t know what to say:

The nicest handwritten note I received from a pupil read, “Mrs. [K.], I don’t know what to say in light of your recent loss, but I was taught always to say something in such a case, so, ‘I’m sorry.’ ” I still have it 17 years later. It was such a small gesture, but the kindest of all.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

On finding compassion for the awkward neighbor kid:

Parents of young children often look harshly at the behavior of older children out of inexperience. Much like the childless couple who judge the parenting of others, parents of 5-and-unders may not realize their little sweeties will be 9 someday, too, and 9-year-olds are awkward and just learning to handle social skills with much independence. A kid may be a brat or he may just be not acting his best in your yard. Having friends in different stages of parenting can be a treasured source of learning experiences.

— S.

On “Are you dating/getting married/having children/having another child”-type questions:

A friend once suggested the greatest reply to all loaded questions, “It is on the to-do list.” I use it frequently.


On the prevalence of sexual assault:

The Jan. 7 column included a lovely, supportive letter to a rape survivor that also stated, “I have not been raped, nor do I know anyone who has.”

YES, YOU DO. Sexual assault and sexual violence is visited on a quarter to a third of the women in this country. Saying you don’t know anyone who has survived sexual assault is willful blindness. Implying this is unusual also inadvertently distances and isolates the survivor.

We all know survivors of sexual assault. They might be your daughter, mother, colleague, boss, running partner, personal trainer, taxi driver. It is statistically impossible that you don’t.


On the stress of trying to plan parties amid a non-RSVPing epidemic:

I throw an annual open house and used to get very anxious when I hadn’t heard from everyone before notifying my caterer. I started making polite contacts with some of these invitees. I discovered that many had delayed replying because they were unsure of their plans.

This year I omitted “RSVP” on my invitation, and asked people to contact me by X date “even if you aren’t sure of your plans.” So far this simple change has had the desired results. Even though my attendance total will never be guaranteed, the whole point of my party is for my guests and me to have fun and be relaxed.

Unstressed Hostess

On the scrutiny that comes with illness:

After coronary surgery at age 39, I felt so conspicuous. I’d be doing okay, not thinking about it, and I’d get the widened eyes and the, “How ARE you?” that would ruin my day.

But I never felt comfortable saying I didn’t want to discuss it to kind people I barely knew.

One day, I accidentally found the solution: I snapped back, “I’m fine, how are YOU???” Fortunately, the person missed my upset tone and began talking about her own life.

From then on, I could ask calmly. No one ever changed the topic back to me afterward.

By the Way, How Are YOU

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at



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