What do you do when you see someone in emotional distress?

When I see someone who is obviously upset about something, I do what I would like people to do to me, in the same situation: I smile and greet them cheerfully.

Sounds backwards, doesn’t it? Well, let me explain.

If someone’s weeping in public or semi-public, they’re apparently in too much of a fugue state to hide these extreme emotions. They may be in a panic. Or they may be depressed.

In the first case, someone greeting them, as if everything is normal, may give them that nudge that they need to pull themselves together and act normal, and then start sorting things out.

In the second case, when someone’s depressed, one of the many thoughts eating at them may be “Oh god…I am a blot on humanity…Everyone’s looking at me and I’m bringing them down…I wish I could act normal like everyone else but I can’t!” If someone gives them a smile and a kind word, they may be cheered with the knowledge that they’re not a spectacle after all (even if they are). They may be cheered to know that at least one person has enough regard for them to say hello, as if they’re as good as everyone else.

I just get offended when people ask “What’s wrong?” and then get impatient when you tell them. If you roll your eyes, sigh, or even walk away wordlessly before they finish (as someone once did to me. Hey, you asked, :wally), you’ve just given them another reason to feel bad. If you don’t want to hear it, don’t ask. It’d be different if I’d said “Can I talk to you”. And if someone does ask you that, don’t say “Yes” if you don’t have the time to listen.

If you’re not a therapist, or a very close friend, I think it’s a very bad idea to invite someone to tell you about a problem that you’re not qualified to help them solve. A kind gesture goes much further than armchair psychiatry. “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.”

So what do you think?

Usually I say something to make them laugh. It doesn’t solve anything but it takes the edge off the hurt.

I try to find out what’s wrong. A lot of times, they really need someone to talk to, and I try to be there for them. If they don’t want to talk, I’ll just accept that, though, and I won’t push.

If you don’t mind me adding something to this, Rilchiam, I think it would be interesting if we posted our age and sex, too, to see if males or females, young or old people, are more likely to act in a certain way.

I’m 16 and female, BTW.

The Société de transport de Montréal advises its clients, if they see someone in emotional distress in the metro, to call security, in order to prevent a possible suicide. I’ve had to do this a few times. Furthermore, trains coming into the station will be slowed down to the minimum as a precaution.

It depends, sometimes people just need to be left alone. If it’s like that, then I wait until a suitable time and try to cheer them up by being friendly, but mostly by trying to make them laugh.

I assume you’re talking about total strangers.

Depending on the overall creepiness factor and some other logistical conditions, I do one of two thigs. I either change direction to avoid the person altogether, or I walk up to thay and say, “Can I help?” Howver, if they ask for help I’m inwilling or unable to provide, I don’t hesitate to say so.

monica: I’m female and 33.

Yes, I posted a few days ago in a Pit thread that I was 32. But today is my birthday! Happy birthday, Rilch!

But the incident of someone walking away from me occurred when I was 18.

matt: That’s cool. Once again, Canadians beat Americans for kindness and thoughtfulness :dubious:

Boyo Jim: Not necessarily total strangers. I’m thinking of acquaintances: people who aren’t friends in the hanging-out sense, but know you to say hello to.

What I’m really getting at is, there are people who, if you had good news to share, and went bouncing up to them saying “I got an A! I got the only A! And I thought I would get a C at best!” would say, “Great, whatever,” and turn away indifferently, adding sotto voce to their companions if any, or just to themselves, “I hardly know her! What makes her think I care?”. But if they see you in tears, all of a sudden they’re solicitous and understanding.

I guess they’re doing it for the karma points. Perhaps that’s only a subconscious decision, but it does seem like they’re only expressing concern because they think it’s the thing to do; not because they really are concerned. And I really don’t like the people who, when you go back to them to say, “Thanks for listening…I did this and that, and I think I have the problem worked out now”, look at you like you have two heads, because they don’t even remember what you’d been upset about earlier. Yes, that has happened to me.

Semi-funny anecdote: When I was 16 and a sophomore, one morning I came down with the flu. Or something. All I know is, when I left the house I was fine, but during first hour, I started feeling like I was seasick. During second hour, I left the room at a run, and didn’t even make it to the washroom: I had to avail myself of the (indoor) flowerbed by the main office.

One of the deans happened by as I was staggering away, headed for the nurse’s office. I was okay, for the moment, but I’d thrown up with such locomotive force that my eyes were streaming with…I guess you still call them tears, even if they weren’t triggered by emotions, and my nose was packed with mucus. Well, he asked me what was wrong, and what I wanted to say was “I’m not crying; I just threw up”, but because of my condition, I could only say, “Ibgzt…trw…Izik…”.

Well, he looked over my shoulder and saw the flowerbed, summoned a custodian, and got an office helper to escort me to the nurse’s office. But I was mortally embarrassed, because this was someone whose respect I wanted to cultivate, and I didn’t want him to think that I was some big baby who cried over being sick. I did track him down later and explain, and he was okay with it. Though I was never really sure if he’d thought I’d been crying or not.

I suppose that doesn’t really count: after all, a dean should be concerned for his students. But it ties in with what I was saying earlier: sometimes people have a problem, but you don’t want to know what it is.

Rilchiam, I think this is an interesting question, but I’m not sure about your particular method.

I know that the few times I’ve let my emotions overcome me in public the last thing I would want is for anyone to even approach me, especially a stranger. But that might just be my own personal quirk. It would appear to me, at the time at least, as just another hollow gesture, someone trying to be a do-gooder. In a rational state I can understand your reasoning for it, but if I were in such a heady emotional state to begin with, I might not make that same assessment.

I think the “are you okay?” approach works well, even if you can’t really be of assistance. The expectation is there that you might be in trouble, physically hurt, etc. and that there might be a need to call emergency services. If someone were to approach me and ask if I was okay, it would give me the impression that I needed to get a grip on myself so that others don’t feel the need to fret over me.


XJET, you’ve just said basically the same things I’ve said, only reworded slightly.

errr… if someone is crying/weeping/upset…

I don’t do a heck of a lot to change their mood. why should i, unless they ask me to?

i hate to hear people tell others to “stop crying” or “don’t cry” or to “cheer up”. Screw that.

Feel what you’re feeling. It’s all part of life.

Indeed, MissBungle. If you don’t have a vested interest in this person’s well-being, it’s better to stay out of it, rather than potentially make things worse.

even if i do have a “vested interest in this person’s well being”…I’d still let them cry.
crying is natural… being upset is natural… being mad is natural.

i’d rather let someone “cry it out” …being there ready for when/if they want to talk it out.

Well, if you’re my Dad, you yell at the person to shut up, because someone else’s emotional distress is far too much to cope with.

I’d offer them comfort. Maybe a hug. Then, if they wanted, I’d try to help them out.

Life’s sook, that’s me.

see someone crying
did I cause it/ does it affect me? --yes-> attempt to address the issue
keep walking.

Now bear in mind that the emotional state of people I care about does affect me, so I’d stop to help a friend. But not any random stranger.

I am a therapist, and I’m usually not willing to engage in such a discussion unless I’m getting paid to do so (more acurately, have contracted to do so).
A very bad idea? That all depends on what your motivation is for engaging this person.

I’ve done so on one occasion:

I was driving on a mountain road, saw a guy throttling a young woman by the hair, he drove off, I stopped, gave her a ride, listened to her story (boyfriend, father of her child, often abusive to her), helped her file a police report, call a friend, I stayed with her till I thought I was no longer useful. I wished her well, and have resisted the urge to think about it since.

Cause chances are, she went back to the guy.
As much as I wanted to rescue her, she does have free will, and I have to respect that. To expect, or even hope for her to make what I believe to be the right decision is disrespectful to her and dangerous to me.
So I let myself believe that I did one good thing on one afternoon, and I try not to pat myself on the back too much about it.
I haven’t even spoken of it to anyone till now come to think of it.

So anyway, your policy of engaging the person is a good one. Simple eye contact, a smile.
Be careful going any deeper than that.

Maybe I misunderstood the OP.

What I should have made clearer is that it is the cheerful greeting that I find questionable. Like I said earlier, if someone came up to me and greeted me cheerily, I would likely feel as though their concern weren’t genuine. It would turn me off immediately to anything they might have to say.

I’m just the opposite. I think that I would prefer someone ask “What’s wrong”, even if they didn’t mean it. At least they are acknowledging that there’s a problem, and usually hearing that will make me realize how foolish I must look for them to bother asking.

Hope that clears up the confusion.

Yeah, “Are you OK?” is what I intended to ask …

I was on a payphone in Irving, and a young woman walked past me to the other phone beside it. She’d obviously been crying for a while, and after dialing the phone, said a couple words, listen for a moment, then slammed the receiver down and burst into serious tears.

I finished my call as quickly as I could, then went around the corner after her, but she had vanished.

I really hope she’s OK. Maybe I’m hypersensitive from my bouts with serious depression, but she really seemed to me to be in a dangerous state of mind.

Oh yeah, this was on the fourteenth of last month. Happy Valentine’s Day, eh?