A good friend of mine called recently to check in and catch up. We hadn't talked for awhile.
"I've been out," she said carefully.
"But you're back now. That's good. Are you okay?"
"Getting there. I'll fill you in later. I'm in the office and there a lot of nosy people in here, let me tell you."
Some of the nosy people, apparently, had walked up to her and inquired "why were you gone?" and "are you sick?" and "How come you were gone so long."
I could just about hear her rolling her eyes over the phone. "Don't they realize if I'd have wanted them in my business I would have said something?"
Apparently not. So to avoid being one of those Terribly Nosy People, consider this:
1) If a friend of colleague returns to the office after a long absence, just tell them how glad you are to see them. If they want to fill you in, they will.
2) If they offer a brief explanation—"I had to have a whole bunch of tests, and it took a little time" just respond with something neutral: "well, it's good you're back. I can tell you what you missed later on if you want." Do NOT ask for test results if they aren't offered, and don't probe: "Oh, so it is really serious?" Uh uh.
3) If you get a response like "well, it could have been better. It's really serious but they caught it early", express hope that the treatment, the operation, whatever, will be successful: "it's great that they found whatever it is before it got bigger. And there are so many more treatment options now then there were ten years ago…"
4) If people are receptive to support, offer it—and follow up if it's needed. Sometimes it's just a couple of hang-out hours were you don't talk about what they've just been through. Sometimes it's running an errand for them when they're not up to it, or doing something they would have done if they'd been feeling better (taking Grandmom to the doctor, hosting their 6 year-old's Brownie meeting, etc.)
5) DON'T ask the question so many people seem to think it's their right to know: "So how sick are you?" or "Is it terminal?" For one thing, that's up to your friend to share—or not. For another: would you welcome a similar inquiry? Think about it.
When you're battling illness or coping with a scary diagnosis, what you want are friends who say "you don't have to tell me anything, let's just have some lunch/go to a movie/take a walk/do something that will please you. Let's make it all about you—in the way that you want it to be—for a few hours."
Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).