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Cliches and Old Wives’ Tales: You Win Some and You Lose Some

By Martha Michael

Old Wives’ Tales

There’s a lot of truth to the idea that Mother knows best, such as her advice not to jump off a cliff just because your friends do. But just like sharing a meme today, leaning into yesterday’s wisdom can sometimes be misapplied, or in some cases, completely untrue.

Health-Related Platitudes

Whether true or false, many of the platitudes passed down through the centuries are related to health and wellness. Though some have been disproven with the evolution of science, they aren’t always removed from use by individuals in society. Their messages are often innocuous but adhering to them can cause you more hardship than necessary.

Johns Hopkins has an article about some of the “old wives’ tales” that aren’t true but are still in circulation:

Feed a cold, starve a fever - You lose fluids from both conditions, so it’s a good idea to drink liquids such as juice or water when you have either a cold or a fever. Making sure you eat is also a good idea, regardless of which illness you’re fighting.

Don’t swim until an hour after eating - In the case of a vigorous swim following a heavy meal, it’s best to wait until your digestive process begins, but an hour is not necessary.

Coffee will stunt your growth - Caffeine does not affect a person’s height, but it’s still a good idea for a child to avoid caffeinated drinks such as coffee. Large quantities of caffeine can prevent them from absorbing calcium and other nutrients.

You’ll catch a cold if you go outside with wet hair - Being cold doesn’t enhance the odds you’ll contract a virus. People tend to make this association due to the rise in frequency of colds during winter months, which is because viruses spread more easily indoors.

Reading in dim light will ruin your eyesight - You minimize eye fatigue when you read with the aid of strong lighting, but it doesn’t do long-term harm to your eyes to read when it’s dark.

If you cross your eyes they’ll stay that way - Strabismus is a disorder in which eyes are aligned so they appear to be crossing. Some children are born with the condition; it isn’t attained deliberately.

Mentally Harmful Responses

Although everyone fires back a cliché in social situations at times, an article in Psychology Today singles out platitudes that can do harm to the listener because they send an insensitive message, and in some cases are patently false.

Happiness is a choice - This comment assumes a person who’s bearing the weight of grief or sadness can flip a switch and choose to be happy. We can only control a fraction of our experiences and happiness depends on factors such as intentional activities, goals, and circumstances.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade - This came from Dale Carnegie with a message that every negative experience has a rosy life lesson. That’s not entirely true -- sometimes people are rebounding and simply need time to recover.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger - Originally from the pen of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and later confirmed by singer Kelly Clarkson, this statement is reductionist and misses the mark in cases where someone is weakened by an experience. People who can manage negative emotions easily will have better luck gaining strength from hardship.

Time heals all wounds - This adage isn’t always true, especially when dealing with the death of a loved one. A didactic message of this kind may cause self-doubt or shame when healing remains elusive.

Everything happens for a reason - The accuracy of this statement lies within the individual, so it can be offensive when forced into someone’s belief system. Negative circumstances often feel random.

Benefits to More Meaningful Conversation

Responding with an age-old bit of wisdom can be an automatic occurrence but finding a replacement for an overly simple comment can be challenging. A blog called “Blunt Therapy” by Randy Withers, LCMHC, offers alternatives to platitudes when replying to someone who’s facing an emotional challenge.

As a therapist, friend, or a confidante to someone expressing a painful experience, choosing the right words can provide support while also strengthening your relationship with them. Responding with a trite, uninspired phrase will often do the opposite -- and end the conversation early. “It’s not that people who use them are heartless, but platitudes have a way of angering those on the receiving end,” Withers says. “They don’t build trust, nor do they demonstrate empathy. Most people think they are useless sentiments.”

Withers considers some of them nonsensical, such as “it is what it is” and “good things come to those who wait.”

Psychologist Carl Rogers had a three-ingredient recipe for more intimate therapeutic-style relationships:

  • Unconditional positive regard - By using cheap cliches you don’t communicate to the other person that they have value
  • Genuineness - Platitudes tend to be disingenuous, as they’re the thoughts of someone else
  • Empathy - To fully engage with the other person you should deliver a bespoke response, not something canned

Try to put individual thought into your communication with others rather than drawing from tired, old adages that come with baggage from the past. The tendency to follow the crowd like a lemming with familiar, overused responses may feel like a safe bet, but it doesn’t always land the way you intended.

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