What To Say When … • ep. 081

A tween or teen girl with brown skin and black hair wearing a light pink shirt holds a speech bubble as if she is about to say something.

This is Awkward

Have you ever been with people–friends, extended family, adult acquaintances, strangers in public–and someone makes a comment that catches you off guard and you don’t know how to respond? It can feel awkward and even uncomfortable when someone abruptly puts you on the spot.

There may be situations when you DO want to talk with someone who is willing and capable of having a meaningful discussion. But what if it’s someone who carelessly just says whatever they’re thinking, or who only speaks AT you and won’t listen TO you, or who clearly just wants to be controversial or start a debate?

You don’t have to further a discussion you don’t want to have, or join an argument with someone who only wants to tell you why they think they’re right. You don’t have to share or even HAVE an opinion on every single thing. And if someone makes a jarring comment around you or about you, you don’t have to placate them and accept it. You are allowed to hold your boundaries when someone attempts to cross them. Remember, boundaries aren’t mean or rude. You can be assertive without being salty.

What To Say When …

I think it’s important for you to have language for these situations. Here are some suggestions for what to say when stuff like that happens. I have four suggestions for each scenario: Draw a boundary, Ask a question, Share your shock, and Inform.

Note: These are for in-person conversations. I do not encourage arguing with people over text/comments/DMs, especially strangers on the internet. For that, please refer to episode 68 Deal with Trolls.

Comments About You/Your Body, Clothes, Food

Say someone makes a harsh comment about you, your body, what you’re eating, or what you’re wearing, what can you say?

  • Draw a boundary: “Please don’t make comments like that about me/my body/clothes/food.” Be direct. If they try to justify themselves by saying it’s because they care about you, then say that they can show they care by showing you respect for your boundaries.
  • Ask a question: “What did you mean by that?” This will likely put them on the spot because they didn’t expect they’d have to explain their criticism, and hopefully they won’t do it again.
  • Share your shock: “Wow!” or “Ouch!” or “What an odd thing to say to me.” You don’t need to say anything else, just shut it down.
  • Inform: “Oh I’m no longer supporting diet culture; instead I’m practicing body positivity and neutrality.” If they seem willing to listen, you can educate them on the difference.

Too-Personal Questions

If someone asks you a question that is too-personal, you can reply …

  • Draw a boundary: “That’s not something I can talk about with you.” Say it matter of factly and change the subject.
  • Ask a question: “Why do you ask?” The person may be surprised by the redirect, and then rethink their need to ask you that.
  • Share your shock: “That’s a very personal question!” Which it is, and none of their business, so switch to another topic.
  • Inform: “I can see you’re concerned, I’ll let you know if there’s something you should be aware of.” And change the subject. 

Something Offensive

How about when someone says something offensive–crude language, about groups of people–how can you respond?

  • Draw a boundary. “I would appreciate you using different language around me.” And if they won’t, you don’t have to stick around.
  • Ask a question: “What did you mean by that?” Again, the person will probably squirm trying to excuse their comment because they didn’t think anyone would push back.
  • Share your shock: “I don’t know how to respond to that.” Which is true. And it hopefully will cause them to think about what they said.
  • Inform: “That was offensive/inappropriate.” Call it out. They may try to justify themselves or say they were joking, and you can respond that it wasn’t funny.

Debate Starter

When someone tries to start a debate you don’t want to have (about issues, events, politics, celebrities), what can you say?

  • Draw a boundary. “I don’t know enough about that right now to discuss it.” And if the person tries to force feed info/their opinion on you, inform them it’s not something you can weigh in on, and change the subject.
  • Ask a question: “Oh, that reminds me …” and then ask about a different topic that person would be interested in, “how is (insert after school activity) going?” or “did you know that (insert fun fact)?” or “have you heard (insert trendy band)’s new song?” or “did you see last night’s episode?” Segue into a topic you both can discuss.
  • Share your shock: “There’s so much going on in the world right now!” A valid statement, and it helps bring that tangent to a close so you can move on to something else.
  • Inform: “I don’t think I feel the same way about that as you do, and that’s ok.” Respectfully acknowledging that people can have different opinions is a good reminder for you both.

Sharon McMahon–who was a guest in episode 36, Turn Confrontations into Conversations–also shared these suggestions on Insta.

  • “Some people love it/that/her/him/them.” You can recognize how others feel without having to say whether you agree.
  • “I heard/saw that.” You don’t need to share your thoughts, just let them know you already know about it, and then move on.
  • “It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.” Which it is, but you don’t have to discuss it further.

Now You Know

While having meaningful conversations and listening to others’ perspectives is an important part of personal growth, not everyone is capable of doing it and you don’t have to engage with them. I hope these suggestions help you the next time you find yourself in an awkward situation so you’ll know what to say.

What To Say When Poster Printable

To help you remember all of this, I created a “What To Say When” poster for you to print out, personalize, and post on your wall where you’ll see it, remember it, practice it, and believe it — that’s the important part.



If you have a topic suggestion, I’d love to hear from you! Send an email (tweens get the OK from your parents) to hello@EmpowerfulGirls.com .

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