“You hurt my feelings.” “I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Those kinds of comments are commonplace. We know that hurt feelings are unpleasant, but somehow the matter of hurting someone’s feelings seems like a small thing. We assume we can empathize or apologize or do whatever seems appropriate, then move on to more important matters.
I think we are wrong about that. Hurt feelings can be powerful and perilous.
I’ve thought a lot about hurt feelings both in the writing I do about single life and in my other research on deceiving and detecting deceit. When I write about singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single), readers get it when I point to the big ways in which single people are treated unfairly. Economic disadvantages, less access to affordable health insurance, discrimination in the housing market – all that is understandable.
When I describe ways in which single people get their feelings hurt, some readers scoff at the insignificance of it all. Why should single people care, they wonder, when they are excluded from social events by formerly single friends who are currently paired up? So what if other people think that single people don’t have a life? What’s the big deal when single people get assigned to the kids’ table?
These everyday slights, though, can be painful. Over the past decade or so, social scientists have begun to study hurt feelings in earnest. They are examining the implications of hurt feelings for interpersonal conflict, aggression and violence, loyalty and infidelity, and health and well-being. They have found that hurt feelings are not just something we can brush off and forget about.
In my research on deception, I found that the desire to avoid hurting another person’s feelings can be a powerful impediment to the truth. Imagine, for example, that there is a painting in front of you that you detest. A person walks into the room, points to the painting, and says: “That’s one of my paintings. What do you think of it?”
My colleagues and I staged studies like this, and we found that people just could not bring themselves to tell the whole truth. They stonewalled, they said things that were purposefully misleading, and they soft-pedaled their true feelings. They did not tell the whole truth even in variations of the research in which we urged them to be honest, saying that the art students needed to learn what others really thought of their work. It was even worse when the art student was someone they liked – then their feedback was even further from the truth. (You can read about those studies and about what happens when the value of telling the truth clashes with the wish not to hurt another person’s feelings in When the truth hurts: Lying to be kind.)
When people are trying to be polite and avoid hurting another person’s feelings, it can be hard to tell how they really do feel. Sometimes that is exactly the point – the person who hates the painting doesn’t want the artist to understand her true feelings. Researchers from France and the UK have extended research on our attempts to be polite into situations in which misunderstandings can be deadly. They have found that people can be overly polite about what they mean, and therefore confusing, even in such risky situations as advising patients on treatment options and flying planes in treacherous conditions. Our inclinations to avoid hurting feelings may be far more powerful and perilous than we realize.
Reference: Bonnefon, J.-F., Feeney, A., & De Neys, W. (2011). The risk of polite misunderstandings. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 321-324.
Woman hurting image available from Shutterstock.