I've had this friend for a while, whom I'd describe as a "very close stranger". Since we live kinda far apart from each other and have absolutely no common acquaintances etc., it's easy to share all sorts of things with each other. I know all about her weird quirks, secrets, family, friends and work, but have never met any of them and vice-versa. We meet maybe once or twice a year for lunch or dinner, but write/phone about once a week (it's actually mostly less emotions and more problem-solving oriented). It might be similar to a two-way therapist relationship without any of us being a therapist and there is a lot of trust in each other.

We've helped each other over the years proof-reading papers and theses from a non-specialized point of view, so I'm well aware of her writing style and skills, which I consider is kinda ornate for the academic field. I absolutely have no understanding of her professional field though, so I'm not ruling out the possibility that scientist in this field write different than in mine. (I myself am probably just average myself as well, upper average at best.)


She gave me a call the other day in tears and totally enraged. She just handed in her PHD thesis and apparently it got trashed. Her advisor, whom she hasn't been getting along with since the beginning anyway, judged it lacked in many things, among them scientific writing quality. She obviously doesn't agree.


I was kinda in a loss at what to do in this situation. I haven't read her work this time (didn't have the time to), but from the way she talks and past writing, I do think there's a realistic chance that at least in this point her advisor might have a point. I feared telling her that could have make her explode, she was already very upset. So in the end I just said kinda mirrored her opinion on her advisor and the situation (advisor is an ass and of course her work is good). But I felt kinda guilty because I didn't indicate that there might be actually something wrong. She said others have read it and if the language was insufficient, somebody would have pointed it out. From how she describes her other friends, I doubt that though cause they seem rather meek and she's a rather dominant character.

I only know her from her interactions with me. I have the impression she's not as uncensored/real with others. So she could actually be much more reserved with others.

She really believes her work is more than sufficient and compared it to a colleague's work (different advisor though), who got the title. On the other hand, her advisor is a professor (duh) and I suppose he should know better than her? Or, since she is "just a very close stranger", is it maybe not my problem to deal with and keeping silent and giving her a shoulder to cry on was perfectly what was to be expected?

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    The question in the title doesn't seem to be the questions you are asking in the body. What question do you want answered?
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:21
  • I wasn't sure if I was called because she wanted me to read her work and confirm that it's well written or just wanted me to listen. Should I have offered to read the corrected version? Something else? I do think it's ok to keep silent sometimes, but where to draw the line when to keep silent? An obvious example would be I don't think it matters much if I don't tell her the red top doesn't suit her much. Should I risk falling out over something as opinionated as her writing style that is affecting her future, though? Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:33
  • So you want the title questions answered: How to judge if somebody needs advice or just a shoulder to cry on during a conversation?
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:36
  • I think so. But I also have the impression you realised something I haven't...? Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:39
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    Possible duplicate of How to tell when a friend wants advice regarding their complaint?
    – Vylix
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 16:02

2 Answers 2


In my opinion when someone is upset and emotional about something, it's (almost) never a good a idea to confront them with something they disagree with on the same subject. They will most likely get defensive or don't want to talk to you on the subject anymore.

So listen and be supportive when someone calls you and they're upset. You don't have to go along with name-calling the other subject in question (the teacher in this case). A simple:

I understand what you're going through! Professors can be really strict and have their own set of rules. It's really annoying to deal with.

So in my opinion you handled it correctly, be the shoulder to cry on.

As for the next steps. Measure if the subject is still too sensitive if it isn't:

You don't have to tell her the professor might be right, but that he's making the rules and however hard it is, if she wants to finish the PHD, she has rules to comply to. If you'd like, you can also offer help to work through the feedback.

If it is still too sensitive then simply ask what her next steps are and if you can help with them.

  • Thanks, also for reminding I actually don't have to (shoudln't) go along with the name-calling. I was a little too confused handle this more gracefully, she has never been this emotional. I'll see how things will progress and offer help, when things cool down a bit. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 15:17

Part of being a good friend is speaking the truth, even when that truth hurts. God knows that my best friends have pointed out some dumb decisions of mine on more than one occasion, and not only has this benefited me, but our friendship has grown stronger for it.

This doesn't mean that you can't be diplomatic about it, however you shouldn't feel like you can't speak your mind to her. If that's the case, then you're not really friends at all.

During that first interaction, when she's simply upset, sure, you can be the "shoulder to cry on", and simply listen. However, once the initial shock has passed (whether it be hours, or days later), I would have a little chat with her. Start by reinforcing that you care for her, then dig into the heart of the matter:

"Listen, you know I care for you, and I've been there for you over the years. I'm really sorry that you're going through this right now, and this is going to sound a little harsh, but maybe your professor has a point."

Then speak your piece. If she chooses to cut ties with you over it, then move on with your life, and let that be the end of it.

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    @Kevin - read my answer again, and you'll see that I said the exact same thing. I added some clarification.
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:23
  • you're right. Read too quickly. I am sorry. Something I would is that I would ask how she feels about the issue at the moment. So you can determine how your approach should be.
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:33
  • Just moving on is not easy, we've been each others therapist for years. The might be some emotional co-dependence. I actually would like to talk to her after a few days after the initial shock, as you called it. Should I wait for hear to breach the topic? Or is it ok to ask about it? Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:36
  • @LuisaW.Sc. - I'm pretty sure the topic will come up again. That will be your opportunity
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:47

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