Calm Down & Cheer Up

28 Mar Calm Down & Cheer Up

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 28.3.2


While I very much believe in science, I still have questions about the speed of human evolution. Maybe I’m impatient (I am impatient) but there are behaviours we persist with even though they are relentlessly unsuccessful.

Take the wolf-whistle specifically, or the more general “shouting at women from a distance”. I once wrote a whole book about how people meet and fall in love and in none of my research did I meet a couple whose passion was ignited by “phwoar, nice tits”. You’d think at some point there’d be a conversation along the lines of, “Trust me, son, we tried it in the 70s – no dice. You and your mates will have to think of something else.”

Asking around, other things people prefer not to hear out loud are the sort you might put on a bumper sticker – collections of words that sound like helping but feel more like someone rang your doorbell and ran away. None of us really know what to say when someone dies, for example, but it’s not, “They’re in a better place now” (only helpful if you have the address) or “Everything happens for a reason” (unless you can provide specifics of the upside and this will always be too soon).

And honestly, no-one likes, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”. It puts the onus on the person who is already stressed or heartbroken to produce a list of things that need doing and match it inside their fuzzy head to another list they have to make of your talents and skills. Dream up helpful things yourself. Drop off a casserole or mow their lawn (depending on your personal skill set) in the firm knowledge that everyone always needs food and shorter grass.

Let’s also evolve past, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” because there are in fact lots of things you might not die from that leave you weaker, like cancer, heart attacks, lung disease and Long Covid. Daft phrase really and I don’t know how it caught on.

I have never had my mood improved by someone telling me to “cheer up”.  I mean, I’d love it – I think we all would – if that was all it took to banish worry about the future or sadness for the past. But being instructed – often out of the blue and in a shouty voice – to change your mood to something you are clearly not feeling or they wouldn’t have mentioned it is about as uplifting as being slapped in the face with a three-day-old fish. I love fish, but not like that.

Similarly, I doubt anyone has ever achieved a state of inner peace as the result of someone telling them to, “calm down, love.” I don’t know why anyone still says this. It’s not like we have endless examples of people being angry or upset and then being told – most likely by the person they are angry or upset with – to be a different thing and voila, instant Zen. Generally the opposite. It’s one of the reasons we have gun laws.

“Cheer up” and “calm down” are great examples of advice that effectively achieves the opposite of what it says on the box. See also, “You should smile more”, “Don’t be so sensitive” and “You’re overthinking it” – unsolicited advice which really means, “It would be better for me if you behaved in a way that’s different from the way you feel.” Maybe we should try saying that? See how that goes. If it’s a disaster, you’ll get over it.