Words of Comfort for an Unfortunate Event Other Than a Death

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: more advice about expressions of sympathy.

RS: Last month, English teacher Lida Baker talked about things to say. Now we move on to writing.  

Lida Baker
LIDA BAKER: "I think if you're writing someone a personal note, you would write the same things that you would say to a person. 'I'm so sorry for your loss.' 'My condolences.' If you're picking out a card to send to a person, look for a card that has on it either the word condolences or the word sympathy. For example: 'Our heartfelt sympathy.' 'My deepest sympathies on your loss.'

"So those are things that are appropriate to say as well as to write when someone has died."

RS: "And to go beyond that, if you know the person that died, you can add a few personal notes to make the note a little bit more personal."

AA: "An anecdote about a memory or something, or a fond memory."

RS: "Right."

AA: "What about -- "

LIDA BAKER: "Absolutely."

AA: " -- an e-mail. How do you feel about (it)? I mean: it offers immediacy, but is it really appropriate?"

LIDA BAKER: "I suppose that there are people who would say that an e-mail is too casual or too informal and that you really should send a handwritten note. But I would rather receive an e-mail than nothing, wouldn't you?"

RS: "Absolutely."

AA: "Sure."

RS: "Is this something you can teach in the classroom?"

LIDA BAKER: "Normally, when we're teaching functions of this sort, the standard classroom activity is to have students role-play. But dealing with this topic, which is so sensitive, probably I would not push my students to role-play expressing condolences to somebody if they didn't feel comfortable.

"On the other hand, it is a topic that is worth spending some time on because in real life this is a skill that we all have to have. We have to know how to express condolences. So maybe instead of role-playing, perhaps bring in a scene from a movie, a funeral scene, or a little section of a book or a play. Or the teacher can write her own short, little script -- just a very natural conversation that might take place at the home of a person that you're visiting after there's been a death in the family."

AA: "Let me ask you one more question. Let's talk for a second just about a different kind of loss -- let's say, the loss of a job. When you find out, let's say, that a friend or someone you know has lost a job, any thoughts on what is appropriate to say in, let's say, an e-mail or a handwritten note or a phone call?"

LIDA BAKER: "To my knowledge, we don't have any set phrases for expressing sympathy in the event of a loss which is not a death. In other words, when someone has died, we have phrases that everyone in our culture is familiar with -- such as 'I'm so sorry for your loss' or 'My condolences.' You would never use the word condolences when someone has suffered, let's say, a job loss or if they've had a car accident or some other unfortunate event.

"The words sympathy and condolences really are only used in the event of a death. But if someone has had another unfortunate event happen to them, I think I would say something like 'I'm sorry for what happened. Is there anything that I can do to help?' What would you say?"

RS: "'What can I do to help' or 'I'm sorry' ... "

AA: "'Thinking of you.'"

LIDA BAKER: "'I heard what happened. How can I help?' Again, I don't think we have any set phrase for a situation like that."

RS: "You try to be optimistic while being -- showing some sort of sense of reality."

AA: "Actually, in fact, that saying, 'I heard the news,' that's what I wrote recently to someone who'd had some cuts where he worked and I said 'I just heard the news and I was very sorry to hear that.'"

RS: "I think the point of all of this is just to communicate and to tell people what you're thinking, because I think that that helps on any level, whatever the loss is."

AA: "Transcends language, right?"

LIDA BAKER: "Right, and I think the phrase 'I'm sorry,' when it comes from your heart, is appropriate in any situation. And, you know, people are going to hear the intention, the kindness in your words. And remember that even if you make a grammar mistake, or if you accidentally use the wrong word, it's your kindness and your intention that comes across and that, you know, people will remember."

RS: The first part of our conversation with English teacher Lida Baker in Los Angeles is on our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster.

AA: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.