Don't Say This to a Single Person

What Not to Say to Someone Who's Single

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What's a guaranteed way to alienate your single friends, family members, and colleagues? Just ask them what not to say to a single person, especially if you are what Bridget Jones brilliantly called a smug married, like me. But, being that Saturday, the day after Valentine's, is "Singles Awareness Day," I recently leaped into the wasps' nest anyway and found that once all the stinging is over, people actually have a whole lot to say about the topic.

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First, let's clarify who we mean when we say "single." By single person, we mean woman. Of course some men are single and they certainly have complex feelings about being single, but No. 1, they aren't judged in the same way as their female counterparts, and No. 2, they don't really want to talk about it anyway. "It's changing, but the stigma is still mainly on women," Karen Ruskin, a psychotherapist and relationship expert, told me. Furthermore, she says that perceptions can be extremely harsh. "Starting in your mid-20s, if you are single, people wonder what's wrong with you. In your 30s, they don't wonder; they believe. By your early 40s, they start to assume you are mentally ill."

Unfortunately, some of the worst comments about singleton status come from people who would identify themselves as well-meaning — that is, close friends and family. "People act like being single is shameful," a talented, beautiful, loving — and divorced — writer buddy told me. "My mother does this all the time; she'll refer to someone as a loser and drop in that they are single … conveniently forgetting that I am as well." Other common clunkers fall under general themes:

Tick tock. Your biological or physical attractiveness clock is running down and you have very little time left before you become shriveled and unlovable. "Don't wait too long to start dating" is a favorite admonishment. A closely related phrase that cuts to the chase is "Are you planning on freezing your eggs?" So, now that you are feeling scared and insecure, people like to offer…

Dating tips. Concerned citizens are brimming with helpful suggestions like "Have you tried online dating?" or simply, "Are you out there looking?" Since you obviously had never thought of those things (because you are still pitifully alone), the next step would be to…

Just date anyone. "The suggestion is that there is something deeply, skin-crawlingly wrong with you if you are on your own and not seeking a mate like a salmon swimming upstream," a neighbor of mine vented. Couples can feel very uncomfortable about singles — to a certain extent because it challenges the assumed superiority of their own relationship status — and advise that "you should give [that unsuitable person who you don't like] a chance." This theme can also manifest in supposedly hilarious comments such as "Why don't you date him?" — giggle, giggle — something an editor colleague says is a favorite "joke" made by her girlfriends about blatantly gay waiters or her elderly building superintendent. Now that it has been determined that you are terminally choosy and probably undatable anyway, family members, in particular, like to ruminate on…

Why you broke up. "Are you sure that was the right thing to do?" is a query of moms around the globe even if they hated your significant other when you were together. Others admonish that "chemistry isn't important; look at Grandma and Grandpa, they were married for 60 years and barely knew each other before their wedding day." Once it has been irrevocably established (in the minds of certain people) that you will never be in another relationship, they start to extol your life as a single with riotous encouragement…

You go, girl. This comes in two flavors, the humblebrag, "Enjoy it now, because once you are in a relationship ... sigh," or what comedian Morgan Murphy calls the "Woo!" In one of her standup routines, she opens with "Where my single ladies at?" to which the audience screams, "Woo!" "Why is that always the response when people ask that?" she wonders out loud. "Look, I'm a single lady, I've been a single lady for a very long time, and 'woo' is never how it's felt."

It's easier for some people to imagine that being single is a festival of fabulous parties, zipline vacations, and uncomplicated hookups instead of being richly complicated with highs, lows, and lots of in-betweens. You know, like life.

What not to say to a single person? Ultimately, anything that suggests that their character and worth (or yours) is a function of relationship status.

— Sarah B. Weir

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