Hearing the words “Why don’t you just?” makes you want to scream, smack somebody and then run away. I find those to be appropriate responses.
I don’t think anybody’s ever happy to hear “Why don’t you just?” no matter how that sentence ends. OK, maybe if it ends with “Why don’t you just take your winnings from the roulette table in stacks of hundreds?” that would be fine.
Apart from that, “Why don’t you just” is not an appropriate answer. It’s shorthand for “I have instantaneously solved your problem because I am The Solution Giver. Now let’s talk about something that interests me.”
It’s the “just” that does it: It emotionally diminishes and reduces the complexities of the other person’s situation. To the one who took a risk and trusted you with a personal story, to be met with a “Why don’t you just” is really to couch a kind of flippant injustice within that “just.”
We want a listener to offer comfort and to suggest that we can face a challenge if we figure out what’s at the heart of the problem. We’re relying on a friend to aid us in confronting our underlying issues and give us hope that not only will we survive the experience but that we’ll ultimately draw strength from it.
If we’ve been wrangling with a problem for 10 days, 10 months or 10 years, we’re not looking for a glib, easy and obvious solution that can be summed up in 10 words.
If a friend confesses he’s lonely, for example, saying, “Why don’t you just go out and meet some people?” makes it sound as if forging new intimate relationships never occurred to him. To be honest, he’d be better off with new people, if this is the best his current friends can suggest.
To tell a friend suffering from heartbreak, “Why don’t you just stop torturing yourself? Why don’t you just get over it already”? is like scribbling condolences on a Post-it note and sticking it on a car’s windshield outside the funeral parlor during viewing hours. It’s less than helpful, even if the intentions behind it are good. It’s dismissive, boxing up tough times and putting a bow on the package.
Another example: If a friend sighs “I feel fat,” he or she knows that putting down the fork is a possibility. But for some reason it’s not an option at the moment. Don’t toss off the easy responses, such as, “Why don’t you just lose weight?”; “Why don’t you just eat less?”; “Why don’t you, instead of enjoying creamy, delicious and freshly prepared fettuccine Alfredo, just eat beets?”
Worries about size, self-worth and attractiveness can’t be handled long term by superficial quick fixes. And if it were really that easy to eat only healthy foods, the whole country would be svelte, fit and trim which, if you’ve been to the mall lately, you know isn’t the case. Beets are nice, but they are rarely the cure.
Poet Bruce Cohen, my university colleague, was telling me about the boxes of “valuable” vinyl records he’s collected, none of which he’s listened to for a dozen years. He and his wife are trying to clear space in their house and so I asked, “Why don’t you just sell the records and do something with the money?” Bruce answered honestly: “I like knowing they’re there.” Bruce doesn’t want a solution because he doesn’t like to think there’s a problem.
We might not be sensible all the time, but we most certainly think other folks ought to be. We want to dispel our helplessness at our friend’s discomfort by telling them just what to do, but that’s merely a way to make ourselves feel better and not a way to offer solace.
Why don’t we just listen as carefully as we can? I will, if you will.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.