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There are a few people in my life that I can't avoid because they're family, but that I do not care about at all. Yet, from time to time a parent or grandparent will start sharing things about these people, and I know it's polite to at least show some modicum of interest and sympathy, especially if the things I'm told about these people includes bad news.

So, for years now I've been doing the following:

  • Use backchannels to make people feel like I'm listening while they're sharing, and use some non-verbal communication like looking at the person talking and doing facial expressions.
  • Ask a question about the situation, something like 'and how is he/she doing now?' or 'what's next?', and listen to the answer, doing the same things as in 1 to pretend I'm interested in it.
  • Make a 'sympathy remark' about how the situation must suck for this person and/or that things will get better for them soon. This usually closes the conversation and moves it to a different topic.

The last few such conversations though, this approach failed. For example, with my mother, after I did the remark about how things must suck and would get better soon, and including a topic change, she just kept on talking about the situation. In the most recent case, it was a cousin that had a baby and trouble afterwards that landed her in hospital again. I followed the script, but after I did step 3 my mother would start reiterating things already told. I repeated step 3, but included a "You mentioned that, yes" before doing another sympathy remark.

At that point my mom called me out for acting disinterested. She knows I don't care about that cousin's side of the family and so I just reminded her of that, which mostly settled it, but she's still thinking I was rather impolite by letting the disinterest become visible. She wants me to improve on this, to avoid future trouble when in such conversations with other family members, because apparently they've been picking up on it as well and telling her.

Like I said, I don't care for these family members, and usually that would be enough to for me to just dismiss this. But that side of the family has caused me trouble with my mother before, they hold her responsible for my actions to some extent and I do not want any more trouble with my mother over this. So, given that I can't (and won't put in the effort) to do 'real sympathy' towards these people I do not care for at all:

How can I better fake my way through these conversations in a way that people will think I was genuinely interested and sympathizing?

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    Hey Tinkeringbell, are you specifically looking for an answer on how to fake interest or would you be interested in other potential solutions? One answer I'm toying with writing centres around discussing your disinterest with your mother, basically the opposite of faking it (at least with her) but I don't want to suggest that if your specifically looking for your bolded question. One other thing, when you say ".. I just reminded her of that" do you mean you literally reminded her, i.e. told her again, or did your act of being disinterested remind her that you didn't care? – RyanfaeScotland Nov 10 at 23:19
  • I understand you don't want to say bluntly let me alone with this to your mother. But on the other side why would you make that appear wrong to your mother? I know how stressful it can be to get lots of information about something you don't want to get, expecially if things get too complicated to follow. – puck Nov 11 at 6:11
  • @RyanfaeScotland I'm specifically looking for answers on faking this, as I said, there's other family members that might cause a stink if I don't get it right. And I can't tell these same family members the thing I repeated to my mom: That I don't care about them. That's also what I reminded my mom off: I told her again that she was telling me stuff about a side of the family I can't care about. – Tinkeringbell Nov 11 at 6:41
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    The formulaic approach you're taking seems to indicate a pretty strong reluctance to care for these people. Is there a particular reason? Have the family offended you in some way or do you perhaps struggle with emotions generally. The reason why will bring a better solution I suspect than the current "What formula can I use to reliably emulate human emotion" solution. – Lio Elbammalf Nov 12 at 13:40
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    @LioElbammalf Without going into too much details, this side of the family are in general crappy people that want life to go their way and don't take 'no' for an answer. Two of the mild cases are described here and here, those are honestly 'best possible' cases when dealing with them. There's more I won't put on the internet. I mostly only have contact with them because I have a relatively okay relationship with my grandparents and parents, and can't avoid them through that. – Tinkeringbell Nov 12 at 14:19
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I think the problem here could be that by acting disinterested about those family members, your mother feels like you are also acting disinterested about her feelings.

My mother does the exact same thing. I do in general also not really care about a large part of my family members. But the thing is that she does care. When something troublesome is happening with those family members, my mother gets upset as well. She wants to talk about it, and I expect that my father, like me, also doesn't really care and so she talks about it to me sometimes. She might be feeling alone in this. Acting like I do not care about those issues, gives her the feeling that I also do not care about my mom being upset about those issues. She doesn't want sympathy for those family members, she wants to share that she is upset. And you not empathizing with her might be the reason why she starts over again.

I use similar strategies as you do, but I add a fourth point to my 'script'. What I do is that I try to empathize with my mother after doing the first three points. When the cousin was hospitalized, ask her if she is going to visit. Ask her if she sent a card, or if she is losing sleep over worrying about the baby. This way you show interest in how your mother is dealing with those issues.

Final remark: calling it a script might itself already be tricky. I noticed that changing the order, not sticking to the same sequence every time, makes it sound more natural.

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  • Minor nitpick: this cousin wasn't my mother's niece, she's from the other side of the family. Which brings me to the second point: I'm also worried this may get weird really soon if done for family members my mother isn't that close with. She does show she's upset when talking about her brothers/sisters for example, but if there's no upset noticeable, does it still work for you or turn things weird? – Tinkeringbell Nov 10 at 8:48
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    I'll change the cousin part in my asnwer. In my case it is usually so that if the upset is not noticeable, then it is usually enough to do the head-nodding and hmm-hmm'ing thing. Then she just wants to vent/share, and the canned "sucks-to-be-them" answers are often sufficient. But even then, it never turns weird when trying this. It depends on how you approach this, if she's not noticeably upset you shouldn't go the 'have you visited yet?' route, but a smaller 'did you talk about this with dad?' might be sufficient. She can always say that she's fine, and that it doesn't bother her to much. – Jeroen Nov 10 at 9:05
  • This answer does not address the following part of the question: "apparently they've been picking up [that I don't care] and telling her. [..] They hold her responsible for my actions to some extent and I do not want any more trouble with my mother" – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Nov 10 at 20:32
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft That part of the question doesn't need 'addressing' because the question is how to handle these conversations better, not how to fix a shitty family. That information was only included to let people know why I want to actually fix this, despite not otherwise caring for these people: I care about my mother and my relationship with her, and these people sadly have the power to make that relationship worse. – Tinkeringbell Nov 11 at 10:43
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The idea that you can fake reasonably complex emotional responses with a kind of formula is illogical. Your mother, and probably no-one else, has probably never been fooled by your script, but this time got fed up and decided to press you on it.

Is there anyone you are genuinely interested in? How would such a conversation go in this case? What kind of things might you ask about them or the situation?

If you want to fake interest, you need to fake responses that might occur naturally in a conversation like this. This will not be possible to make into a 'sript'.

In response to comments, an example. My father recently informed me that a relative I have met once or twice (but with whom my father has a lot of contact) had caught Covid-19. In response I asked how he was. The answer was, he was not bad so far but had some symptoms. Next I asked about how he thought he caught it, an explanation was offered, that he thinks he caught it in a bar while having lunch despite sitting far from other people. I discussed some things about superspreaders, and other instances I had heard of people catching it due to air conditioning. My father told me that the relative suspected some particular other patrons as having been responsible as they had traveled from a locked down area in the UK. The conversation followed a natural ebb and flow and gradually moved on to other things.

Remember also that if you are obviously dismissing the concerns of your mother or others, by following some predefined script which they detect easily (and they appear to be detecting it easily), they will be insulted. This is because it is an implicit insult to their intelligence to so thinly veil your lack of interest.

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    Remarks about the claim that having a prepared approach is illogical and the answer suggesting the same approach as the question have been moved to chat. – Tinkeringbell Nov 11 at 12:56
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Here's the missing part of the script

From experience with my own mother, my guess is that your mother wants you to react in a certain way. If you don't, she keeps talking to try and make the story more dramatic in an attempt to convince you to feel the "right" way and therefore to react spontaneously.

You need a conclusion

Once you have used your main script, you have to have a definite end to the conversation.

This is:

I'm really sorry to hear about this. Please send my love/regards to X and say that I hope they will soon be well/get over this.

What does this do? It allows your mother to speak to X and say,

"My son/daughter was so sorry to hear about your problem and s/he sends her love and wishes for a speedy recovery."

This is what your mother wants. As part of her obligation to express sympathy, she needs those near her to do the same, thus fulfilling the social norms as she sees them.

Why does this work?

It is an express show of interest. Your mother can now tell all and sundry that you are not disinterested. You are in fact interested and sympathetic.

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    Hi chasly! I seem to remember it being pointed out to you before, but on IPS claims in answers need to be backed up with either personal experience or research, as per the citation expectations. What personal experience do you have that makes you claim this is what my mother and other family members need to hear? Also, how is your suggestion different from the 'sympathy remark' I mention as a third point of my approach, where I mention I already express this sucks for the person in question and that I hope things get better for them soon? – Tinkeringbell Nov 13 at 11:02
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    (1) I've added some anecdotal evidence. It just didn't seem worthwhile because I haven't done any in-depth research on the subject so I can't answer authoritatively. (2) Your sympathy remark was not explicit. Just saying "It sucks and will get better", shows no interest or feeling whatsoever. It sounds dismissive and a brush-off. By contrast, sending good wishes is a direct expression of sympathy that your mother can pass on. (3) I suggest you try it rather than complaining about the strict form of my answer. In life and science, experimenting is what confirms claims - not mere argument. – chasly - supports Monica Nov 13 at 11:11
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    1) Please take a look at the citation expectations again. You have added nothing more than "from my experience", while those expectations explain we need to know how this approach has worked for you in the past, how has this helped you convincingly feign interest when there's none? For 3) the citation expectations exist on this site: you're expected to have done the experiment at least once already, not just put forth a hypothesis for others to try. – Tinkeringbell Nov 13 at 11:27
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    @Tinkeringbell: "I know" seems too strong here. All people I know (myself included) appreciate (as far as I know) love and regards from people who are close to one's relatives/friends/knowns. – guest Nov 13 at 15:20
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    @Tinkeringbell: I meant people who are close to your friends. So if I am sick, we two are friends, I would be more than happy to hear regards from your mother/your best friend/partner etc even if I don't know them. It may be that Dutch culture is here completely different - then you should maybe add exactly that this is different in Dutch culture so that other readers may still take this good advice. – guest Nov 13 at 15:54

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