The Conventional Politeness of Congratulations

by admin on January 29, 2013

I have been a long-time reader of your wonderful site, and have often shaken my head at the cluelessness of some of the individuals discussed in the submitted stories. However, as it stands, I find that I may be one of the clueless. If I am, please let me know, as I truly don’t know what to do in situations like I have encountered.

First, a tiny bit of back story about myself. I am a childless adult, both by virtue of being a homosexual male (and the troubles involved with same-sex adoption in my state, especially by men), and by choice (I don’t really wish to have children, even if I could have them the “old fashioned” way). However, I hold no animosity toward children or parents, and my own nephews and nieces are the shining lights of my life. Now, that said, I am afraid that I may have inadvertently severed a decent friendship recently.

A friend of mine, who I will call “Sally” for the sake of the story, recently announced that she and her husband, here to be known as “Jim,” were expecting their first child. Sally and Jim were not trying for a child, and had actually planned on waiting a bit longer before having children. However, as Sally put it, “sometimes Mother Nature changes your plans.” Though the child-to-come is a surprise to them, they are quite excited. Once Sally and Jim had shared the news with their families, they began to share the news with the rest of their friends. I was told amidst a group of five other friends when Sally joined us all for our social circle’s monthly night out to dinner.

Immediately, the chorus of “Congratulations” echoed around the table, immediately followed by the barrage of “When are you due?” and “Are you going to find out the child’s sex?” It was baby-palooza at our dinner table, and I was perfectly fine with it all. I asked my own questions, participated in the conversation, and had a wonderful time discussing Sally’s news. At the end of the meal, Sally handed each of us an invitation to a celebratory barbecue to be hosted by her mother a few weeks down the line. It was not a baby shower, and the invitation made that clear. Rather, it was a party for family and friends – a chance to get together, have some good food, and share in Sally and Jim’s baby excitement at the treat of Sally’s mother. This child is to be the first grandchild, and Sally’s mother is over-the-moon with excitement.

After dinner, once I was back home and had filled out the RSVP card to be mailed to Sally’s mother the next day, I received an uncomfortable phone call from Sally. It seems, after we had gone our separate ways following dinner, “Rachel,” with whom Sally had carpooled to the restaurant, informed Sally that I had committed a serious violation of etiquette. Though I hugged Sally, asked her plenty of questions regarding her expected child, and commented upon how lovely the barbecue was sure to be, I had neglected to say the one word that, apparently, I was socially obligated to say: “Congratulations.” Sally, at Rachel’s behest, wanted to know why.

I did not lie to her. It is true, I did not say the magic word. I rarely say “Congratulations” to expectant parents for two reasons, both of which I communicated to Sally when she asked. First, when a person, or a couple, is expecting a child that is unplanned, I find “Congratulations” to be a bit awkward. I can understand saying it to the woman, or couple, who had been attempting to conceive but who had been having a rough go of it. However, when the child is unplanned, I feel like it is an out of place remark. This leads to the second reason I don’t say it. It is out of place because, in the end, I feel like all I am saying is “Congratulations on having functioning reproductive organs,” or even worse, I feel like I am congratulating them for having enjoyed the activity required to make the baby. Neither of those situations is, to me, is worthy of congratulations.

But, I did also explain to Sally that I am happy because she is happy. As her friend, I want her to be happy. So, when a situation arises, planned or unplanned, in which a friend finds themselves in a happy place, I am happy for them.

Apparently, this wasn’t enough for Sally. Through tears, and with Rachel’s voice audible in the background, Sally stated that I had deeply hurt her. She then offered the opinion that I am, perhaps, jaded about babies and pregnancy because my sexual orientation leaves me unable to have a child with my romantic partner. I was, in Sally’s words, “a jealous man who couldn’t be happy for her.” She then, rather abruptly, withdrew the invitation to her mother’s barbecue and hung up on me.

After getting off the phone with her, I stewed in my own anger for a while. I truly was happy for her, but I didn’t feel that I needed to be socially pressured in to saying some magic word to her just because everyone else was saying it. But, as my anger subsided, I began to focus on Sally’s accusation. I don’t consider myself to be jealous or jaded when it comes to pregnancy or babies. As I said, I am childless partially by circumstance of sexual orientation and partially by choice.

Please help me. Am I in the wrong here? Did I break a social contract by not saying “congratulations” to Sally? Did I, in an oafish way, truly hurt someone I did, and still do, consider a friend? 0128-13

First point of business – Get yourself a copy of “Miss Manners’ Basic Training:  The Right Thing To Say”.   It is out of print but there are still used copies for sale online and occasionally Ehell gives away copies.   In the first chapter, Judith Martin explains the importance of “conventional politeness” in response to other people’s good (and sometimes bad) news.

Etiquette can provide people with the right thing to say -but not because its so adorably creative (although heaven knows it sometimes has to be to get through the situations people throw at it nowadays).   It is because it expresses its feelings in the time-tested ways that it knows will be appreciated and understood.

I underlined “understood” because when people announce significant life events, they do have a deeply engrained, culture expectation of hearing responses they will understand as being supportive.    Judith Martin writes further,

People whose lives are being enriched often take the simple view that if life is good, one should be happy – and the outrageous view that their friends should be happy for them.  They would enjoy hearing their friends say so, in those highly conventional ways.

Unfortunately you used the happy occasion of your friend’s pregnancy to not focus on their good news but rather to gird up your beliefs as to why you cannot utter the word “congratulations”.    To put it bluntly,  you were selfish and only thought of your own opinion rather than laying them aside to genuinely wish someone, in the conventional politeness they would understand, congratulations on this new season of their lives.  And then you deepened the problem by actually defending your actions to Sally when discretionary restraint would have been a wiser choice.    It is not lying to be discreet in your choice of words.    Later in the book, Martin addresses what to say upon hearing the news of a most unexpected pregnancy or one you think is not a good idea.  It’s one word – “Congratulations.”

Rachel doesn’t get off the hook.  She took offense at something that was not hers to take up and etiquette doesn’t give much grace to secondhand offendees.   She is a troublemaker who created drama and conflict that could have been easily avoided by simply ignoring your lack of graciousness.    My imagination takes me to the point where you, confronted on the phone by Sally, could have said, “Did I? Forgive my oversight!  Many congratulations to you!  I am excited for you!”, and Rachel would have looked like an meddling idiot and this whole drama utterly diffused.  Good heavens, you played right into Rachel’s hand on this one whereas if you had used conventional etiquette to congratulate Sally in the first place, you would have never ceded any power to a rude boor.

As for Sally, two words. “Pregnancy hormones”.   It doesn’t excuse her selfish demand that you must be happy for her and her rude insistence that you will explain yourself but it does explain the high emotions.

How to fix the friendship?  Here on Etiquette Hell, we understand that we cannot change the behaviors of others but we can change our own by taking ownership of our actions.   If you want to heal the friendship, I suggest arranging to meet Sally AND JIM to offer no excuses for your behavior but rather to humble apologize for your part of this debacle.   I emphasize her husband because you need someone who is not influenced by pregnancy hormones to hear your words and who will remind Sally later of what you really did say.   Here is what you would say,

“Sally, you were right.  I did not use the word, ‘congratulations’ upon hearing your good news.   I was selfishly thinking of my own reasons why I prefer to not use the word and not focusing on your happy news.   I do apologize for that.  I am very happy for both of you and look forward to meeting the newest member of your family.” 

Whatever you say, always bring the focus back to Sally, husband and the baby and do not give in to any desires to explain yourself further.


{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

joye January 29, 2013 at 4:06 am

Assuming the best possible interpretation of the OP’s motivations, here, OP, is how Sally interpreted your remarks (I am pretty sure, as I am also pregnant and this is how I would interpret them if someone said what you said to me):
Sally: Why didn’t you congratulate me?
You: You don’t deserve congratulations. To rub it in, here is pretentious reasoning why, during which I will slight the pregnancy for being unplanned [whether you meant it as a slight or not, you ranked planned pregnancies as an “accomplishment” compared to unplanned], and make blunt remarks about sexual organs and the function thereof. But I’m SO happy you’re happy about this pregnancy which doesn’t deserve any congratulations. Really.

I’m with Sally. Relationship over at that point. The vehemence of her lashing back was probably hormones. I cried over a cartoon my toddler was watching today.

FYI, congratulations is “an expression of joy in the success or good fortune of another” according to Wikipedia, which in this case is spot on. Would you not congratulate a lottery winner because random chance isn’t an accomplishment?

It comes from the Latin “congratulutori” meaning “wishing joy”.

In conclusion, before you get up on your high horse about a word, maybe look the word up in the dictionary.


Marozia January 29, 2013 at 5:01 am

What Admin said is completely true. The words ‘congratulations’ is not passe and should always be used – old and jaded as it may be for you.
Sally & Rachel did overreact as well, which is inexcusable. You must also remember that while pregnancy ‘takes two to tango’, it is still regarded as a womans’ thing, to be cooed over by women. The fact that you are a gay gentleman probably intruded on their sensibilities and they just had to pick on the slightest etiquette slip-up.
At least you have the decency to front up, to realise the problem and ask for help. Go for Admin’s advice.


Pen^3 January 29, 2013 at 5:14 am

Etiquette is, in essence, the act of making others feel comfortable and unoffended. To this end, we often find ourselves in positions where our own beliefs or preferences of habit are challenged. If one person prefers to act in a way that others find offensive or unpleasant, it is polite to change the actions as much as is realistic. In the same vein, although I agree that saying “congratulations” on getting pregnant is somewhat of a strange tradition in my view, I don’t think for a moment that my own personal beliefs or views should be used to refuse to make someone comfortable, especially over such a small thing.

Sally sounds like Rachael (or maybe just circumstance) caused her to get tremendously worked up, and what she said about being jealous was nothing more than an insult. Nevertheless, the gracious thing to do, even if you don’t want to have anything more to do with someone like Sally, would be to apologise for putting your own preferences before others’.


Bint January 29, 2013 at 5:16 am

“Though I hugged Sally, asked her plenty of questions regarding her expected child, and commented upon how lovely the barbecue was sure to be, I had neglected to say the one word that, apparently, I was socially obligated to say: “Congratulations.”

This is a sad story. So he didn’t say ‘congratulations’. But he did everything right. One little word and Sally is so massively hurt?

It’s also a shame the OP explained *why* he hadn’t said it, because that seemed to justify Sally into saying she was so hurt, when she was being absolutely ridiculous. Far better to do as Admin suggested – ‘oh, I’m sorry! Of course, congratulations!’ I’d have lied and said, ‘I thought I’d said it!’

All this from one word? I don’t think the OP was selfish. I think he was misguided to explain himself, but he was put on the spot and he gave his reasons – not tactful, but he’d *already done everything he was supposed to*. He was conventional. He’d shown he was really happy for them, he asked loads of questions, he showed he cared, but somehow without one little word all that counts for nothing? I think that’s awful. I don’t think social convention comes down to whether you say ‘congratulations’ or not. As if all his kind attention before that counted for nothing. “Oh, he was so happy for us, but he didn’t say congratulations! Clearly all the rest is a total lie!!!”

Pregnancy hormones or not, I think it’s shameful that Sally gets away with valuing one single word over the OP’s obviously being happy for her, uninviting him to the bbq and above all her horrible, vicious accusations about his own position. Imagine if the OP were a woman and she said that. Appalling. I hope Jim tells her off. I certainly hope she accepts the OP’s apology if he gives it, because what she and Rachel did was far more hurtful than his failure to say one word and then his admittedly misguided attempt to explain himself.

Incidentally, Rachel’s actions in this just reek of spite.


Carol January 29, 2013 at 5:57 am

While I agree that the best thing to do when she phoned you was to say ‘Oh, didn’t I? I thought I had. Congratulations’, I can appreciate the fact that you honestly didn’t think telling her the actual truth was going to be an issue, and hindsight is always 20/20. However, I lay the blame here on that Rachel person because…seriously? Who does that? If you sat at the lunch looking grouchy and unhappy, and didn’t take part in any of the conversation than MAYBE I could see someone saying something, but to focus on whether or not you said one particular word is petty beyond the telling of it. I sense maybe this Rachel has issues with you, perhaps?

I agree with the Admin about trying to repair the friendship, but honestly, if I had a friend who was willing to cut me off because of her interpretation of my behaviour, I’d need a cooling-off period before talking to her, because I would then feel that our friendship wasn’t that important to HER if she’s so willing to cut me off for one perceived slight.


Merrilee January 29, 2013 at 6:16 am

I disagree slightly with Admin here – the OP was happy for her, explained that he was happy for her, and asked her questions. I think it’s silly for Sally to focus on the one word and actually wondering if Rachel didn’t have a grudge against the OP – honestly, was she keeping score? Why would she even have noticed or cared about that? And why would she bring that up to a hormonal pregnant lady to begin with?

I agree that the OP should have just apologized for the oversight and said, “congratulations!” to smooth things over instead of going into a lengthy explanation, but for Sally to have withdrawn the invitation to the celebratory BBQ was also a huge etiquette blunder and I’m not sure I can entirely excuse that due to pregnancy hormones over the use of one word. Particularly when the OP participated in the discussion and told her he was very happy for Sally and her spouse. It’s not like he was sitting there scowling in the corner and making disparaging remarks toward parents or new babies.

I don’t think anyone gets off scot-free here. I do agree with the fixing of the friendship part and think that is a wonderful idea on part of Admin – and please don’t forget to use the word “congratulations” in your apology 🙂


Mer January 29, 2013 at 7:44 am

I agree with other posters that no-one really showed best of them in this incident. Joye said it well about congratulations. All languages have these kind of phrases which have gained “phrase-like quality” and if you tear them apart saying them seems very pointless. An example from my language, the thing we said for grieving person after loss would have literal translation of “I participate in your sorrow”. Of course we do not participate in the actual sorrow. We might not even know the late person and we are not grieving. But over time the phrase has became the safe expression of sympathy towards someone who has lost a loved one. As well as congratulations is the safe expression for wishing joy to someone on a happy occasion. The only case “congratulations” is not acceptable when talking about pregnancy is the situation where pregnant one is treating the situation as a massive catastrophe.

However, from Sally’s and Rachel’s part, getting worked over one word is, well, stupid and tacky. Using the “condolences” example again here, even if I said that we have a word for safe expression of sympathy, one does also see other expressions, for example friend might write a little poem of condolence or something like that. How crass would it be to point out that person did not use the exact word if it was otherwise perfectly clear that they were sympathizing.

But as uttering a single word to make friend happy (especially when the word does not require anything else from you) is not too much of a bother, good answer would be, like admin suggested, something close to “Oh, I thought I have said, I must have been so exited about this that my brains forgot to notify my mouth. Congratulations!” (I can easily to understand that if situation is hassle and all are congratulating and asking questions and all that, I might actually think that I already said congratulations and move straight to fussing about the topic.)


PhDeath January 29, 2013 at 7:55 am

I am befuddled at Rachel’s part in the story: was she keeping a mental tally of who did/did not specifically say “Congratulations”?


Oh Joy January 29, 2013 at 7:58 am

Poor OP, and poor Sally for getting all twisted around by Rachel. I think this is a textbook case of ‘if you look for an insult, you will always find it.’ Our OP immediately expressed joy through action, expression, and word. That is all that is required, not one magic word.

Normally, people remember how you made them feel, not what word you used (until the Rachels of the world intervene). I recall a story of a preacher whose congregations’ new parents all recalled him saying wonderful things about their baby. It turned out his ‘policy’ was to always say with a big smile ‘Now, that’s a baby!’

Best wishes to our OP.


Abby January 29, 2013 at 8:13 am

I think Rachel was wrong to interfere, and Sally was definitely wrong to take such offense at the lack of the word (I mean, it’s not like he insulted her- and if 5 people said congratulations at dinner maybe he felt redundant saying so), but I definitely agree with Admin that OP really screwed things up during Sally’s phone call. I don’t think failing to say “congratulations” is anything to get upset over if he otherwise expressed happiness and excitement for her, but to explain in detail that he didn’t congratulate her because 1. It was unplanned, and 2. Getting knocked up isn’t really an accomplishment anyways was a BIG oops.

OP, yes, you could use a clue when it comes to social niceties. Now, had Sally tearfully told you she was pregnant and that she didn’t know what she was going to do, yes then a congratulations might be a little awkward. But you knew she was excited about it, you knew she considered this a good thing, and the only appropriate response is “congratulations”. If for some reason you don’t say it, and she calls you on it (which I found a little weird) just blame it on an oversight and say of course you want to congratulate her. I can’t really get behind Sally making the phone call in the first place (if you’re telling the truth that you were acting excited for her and asking her questions and all that), but you definitely made the worse error.


Shannon January 29, 2013 at 8:17 am

I think Sally and Rachel are ridiculous drama queens, and the OP is well shot of them. OP should have just coddled Sally and said, “Oops, I forgot. Congratulations!” instead of further fanning the flames, but overall this is just the stupidest, most childish and petty reason I’ve ever seen to withdraw an invitation or bawl someone out.

Frankly, if Sally is that emotional and suggestible already, she is going to be a hysterical ninny by the time the baby arrives.


Binne January 29, 2013 at 8:20 am

What a muddle! I’m with the OP, up to a point. We want our friends to wish us well when we are happy — that’s why we share good news. But we cannot script their remarks from them. And to fault them for not toeing the line — a line we have set up unilaterally, and that they may or may not be aware of — is controlling behavior of the worst sort. I think there’s no question that the OP wishes the best for his friend, ‘wishes her joy,’ in Joye’s words. I’m reminded of poor King Lear, who disowned his youngest daughter, the only one of his offspring to truly love and support him, for not telling him she loved him in the way he wanted to hear.

One of the burdens of etiquette is to forgive or overlook failures of etiquette in our friends. As Alexander Pope said, ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine.’ There’s a lot of nit-picking and hair-splitting going on in this nasty little incident, and OP would perhaps serve himself and the friendship well if he just overlooks Sally’s reaction to a perceived slight. It’s also important for Sally to realize that it is only ‘perceived’ — she probably wouldn’t even have noticed it if not for Rachel’s meddling.

We may not agree with or support our friends’ decisions, but it is not our job, as friends, to point out every failure of judgment. We wish them well; and we tell them that, without the codicil that says ‘I wish you well but I think you’re making a huge mistake here.’ It’s a fine line to walk. I think Rachel is the ‘wicked witch at the birthday party’ here. There’s no polite way to say ‘butt out,’ but Rachel needs to mind her own business. If she has a history of manipulating situations, I would be very careful around her.


CaffeineKatie January 29, 2013 at 8:29 am

I agree with Bint. And if any friendships should be severed–Sally should really look into distancing herself from Rachel–what a troublemaker!
Etiquette/guides to good manners exist to help people find the words when they don’t know what to say, and not to act as an absolute script for every occassion. Sally was perfectly happy with the OP’s response until Rachel dripped poison in her ear!


KarenK January 29, 2013 at 8:37 am

I’m with Shannon on this. What a ridiculous situation. As far as the OP’s explanation why he didn’t say “Congratulations!”, well, Sally asked for it.

Rachel is a real piece of work as well. Although I might want to repair the relationship with Sally, Rachel would be permanently out of my life. That was the most mean-spirited thing I’ve read on this site in a long time.


Lo January 29, 2013 at 8:44 am

The admin has it right about pregnancy hormones.

You’re overthinking this.

You’ve got to give a little for the pregnancy horomones. Hormones make people a crazy. Is she acting like a lunatic for you not saying congratulations? Absolutely. In fact I’d take a lot of offense to her bringing your sexual orientation into it.

But you’re supposed to say “Congratulations.”

You ALWAYS congratulate a pregnancy. Even as a woman who wants nothing to do with children, I know better than to rain on a new mom’s parade by not sharing in the congratulations. Even if you don’t care you have to fake it. You’re socially obligated to fake it. I’ve congratulated long awaited pregnancies and suddenly unexpected but joyful pregnancies and even the pregnancy of a friend which was an accident but she decided to keep the baby, and so a congratulations was due for the new life coming into her world. My “blegh” attitude towards children puts me in the minority. No reason to clue parents-to-be into it, causing drama where none needs to be.


Shoegal January 29, 2013 at 8:52 am

The OP’s explanation was a really poor one – never should have said one word of that. You may think it but please don’t say it. With that said – Rachel to me is the villian in this story – yes, I agree – who does that?!?!?! Did she carefully watch you throughout the dinner – and mentally took a tally to see who did or didn’t say congratulations??! And then, I dare say, concocted a story as to why that was and then fed her malicious theory to Sally who then promptly got on the phone to confront you??!?!? You asked questions – participated in the baby talk – acted appropriately – and expressed how wonderful it would to celebrate with everyone at the barbecue – I think it is a little much to call you out for the one word you didn’t say. Hormones or not – I blame Sally as well – she fell for Rachel’s accusations instead of seeing the best in you.


Erin January 29, 2013 at 8:59 am

Rachel sounds like a real prize. “Hey, woman with raging pregnancy hormones, here’s an excuse to hate your friend!”


aka Cat January 29, 2013 at 9:01 am

The OP was fine until he decided to explain why he didn’t say congratulations, rather than just passing it off with a “oh, didn’t I say it? Well, congratulations of course!”

If you’ve got a thing about saying a particular socially conventional word, that’s ok. But if someone notices and feels slighted, don’t ever, ever try to explain the “why” to them. They’re going to be emotionally involved, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that they won’t be able to see the situation from their POV. Instead, just apologize and brush it off, and go on.

Note that this even goes for the “slighted” third-party Rachel. Either she’s really emotionally involved, or she’s looking to stir up trouble. Either way, an enthusiastic apology is the way to go.


esh January 29, 2013 at 9:03 am

While I certainly understand the value of the conventional phrase, I also find that when people use other phrasing expressing the same essential idea it often comes off as more sincere. Evidently, Sally had no issue with OP until Rachel invented one. The real problem here is 2-fold: 1. Rachel is not a very nice girl, as demonstrated by her keeping tabs on what words came from each of the supper attendees’ mouths and then reporting her findings back to Sally, and 2. OP’s need for full disclosure. It took me a longer than I really care to admit, but I did finally figure out that when someone asks you a question, you don’t have to tell everything you know. Discretion is the better part of valor, don’t you know? And I won’t fully discount pregnancy as a reason for Sally’s emotional reaction, but I do grow weary of pregnancy being used as an excuse for all sorts of histrionics and other bad behavior. And yes, I have been pregnant – 3 times. It seems to me that OP should perhaps consider the whole incident done and over, and just be cordial to Sally the next time he encounters her. After some time to sleep on it, Sally may be (really should be) a bit embarrassed by her part in this.


Huh January 29, 2013 at 9:04 am

I agree with pretty much everyone on here, that while the OP shouldn’t have gone on a lengthy diatribe about why he didn’t say “congratulations” to expectant parents and should have just said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I did! Congratuations!” when Sally called, Rachel/Sally were looking for reasons to pick a fight with the OP. The OP did express happiness for Sally, hugging her and asking questions about the baby. I know when a good friend tells me news like this, I’m all excited for them, and asking lots of baby-related questions like names and the like. I hope to God I remembered to tell all of them congratulations between all the “OMG, a baby, how exciting!!!” babble.

I would really watch out for Rachel. Anyone who watches all of their “friends” to look for what they perceive as slights is someone I would perceive as looking for a fight/drama all the time and would have a hard time trusting.


Bea January 29, 2013 at 9:08 am

I find myself wondering, though, whether OP’s not saying ‘congratulations’ was more obvious than he thinks it was, because how did Rachel notice, provided his tone was warm and friendly and he supposedly said all the (other) right things? Surely she wasn’t hanging on waiting for everyone to say that one word. I’m a little confused as to why she 1) noticed, and 2) called it out to the MTB. The OP never said Rachel was incorrect; he DIDN’T say it. How on earth did she notice if his only sin was not saying one particular word?


--Lia January 29, 2013 at 9:10 am

Count me on the OP’s side. Congratulations is one word. I can’t help thinking that Rachel has been saving up slights and finally let loose on this one. If the OP owes Sally an apology for not saying congratulations, she certainly owes an apology for coming up with a great number of conclusions about gay men being jaded and their opinions about babies. If nothing else, Sally owes an apology for being willing to let go of a great friendship over something like this. Rachel, I think, is beyond hope. Things can be patched up with Sally. I’d avoid Rachel forever.

In this case, I wouldn’t call to own up to the mistake. I’d send a card: a big fancy one with all the right words already preprinted on it, something that says “Congratulations” and has a picture of a stork. Then include a personal note saying that you’re sorry you didn’t have the card ready when the news was announced.


Jenn50 January 29, 2013 at 9:23 am

If I had announced one of my pregnancies to a group of friends, I can assure you, I couldn’t have kept a tally of who said what to me at the time unless one person was markedly rude or withdrawn. Any expression of support and happiness would do. I feel as though Rachel was manufacturing drama and Sally allowed herself to be swept along. A tearful, accusatory phone call over semantics is rather precious. OP should probably have skipped the explanation, as it was unlikely to soothe, and if he really felt unable to use the word, he could have simply said “I’m sorry you were hurt by my choice of words. I AM thrilled for you, and do wish the best for you and your family. ” If I were OP though, *I* would be rather hurt by someone assuming such negativity of me simply because my route to biological children was more complicated than theirs.


LR January 29, 2013 at 9:23 am

Would the answer be different if OP had not explained his rationale behind not saying “congratulations”? If he had simply explained something like “Oh, I’m sorry, what I actually said was ‘I’m so happy for you’ (or) ‘How wonderful!’, and I sincerely meant it!”, would that have been acceptable? I find the pregnant friend’s reaction to be juvenile and self-entitled, but OP’s response is equally offensive.


Gen Xer January 29, 2013 at 9:28 am

The etiquette breaches are shared by all three of the main players here…..although frankly Rachel and Sally are the worst.

OP may not have expressly said “congratulations” but he seems genuinely happy and interested for his friend. Where he did go wrong was getting all tedious and self-important about what the word means to him and why he didn’t say it. That kind of behaviour is off-putting….but…he should never have been called out about it in the first place.

Rachel was just looking for trouble for whatever reasons of her own. What so many people seem to forget is that pointing out or correcting other adults mistakes is one of the worst etiquette sins going ( how I wish my MIL would understand that ) ?

Sally was just as rude as Rachel for jumping on the bandwagon at Rachel’s urging when she should have told Rachel to drop it. And spare me the pregnancy hormones excuse for being rude, dramatic and overemotional. Why do women continue to use it as carte blanche to act like an entitled idiot?


Twik January 29, 2013 at 9:39 am

I agree with most people here. Unless the parents are obviously distraught about the pregnancy, one says “congratulations!” to the news of a baby coming. And in this case, it appears that the baby was very welcome, just coming earlier than expected.

One is entitled to have political/sociological/philosophical reasons why one will not take part in such common courtesies as saying “Congratulations!” to friends who happily announce they are expecting. However, if you choose not to do so, there is a price, that the friendship may be damaged. And if you try to justify it by saying, “Well, I’d congratulate *some* pregnancies, but this one just doesn’t meet my standards,” it’s definitely offensive.

Of course, Rachel and Sally were very, very wrong in noticing the lack, and taking the OP to task for it. I do agree with Bea, that perhaps the OP was giving out some sort of disapproving vibe, because otherwise, it sounds as if Rachel had a checklist going on all the guests’ conversations.


Viktor January 29, 2013 at 9:41 am

Great thoughts!


WildIrishRose January 29, 2013 at 9:44 am

OP should not have explained why he didn’t say the word “congratulations.” No need for anyone to hear a reason for that. You have your reasons and they are your own–just keep them to yourself in situations like this.

Rachel is a troublemaker, period. Even if OP hadn’t said anything at all in response to Sally’s news, what did Rachel hope to gain by pointing out his failure to say “congratulations”? How did that affect HER life? All she did was stir the pot and get Sally upset, with the end result that a friendship that didn’t even involve her has been damaged.

As for Sally, I disagree with Admin. regarding pregnancy hormones. That is NO excuse for rudeness or bad behavior. I felt like death warmed over during both my pregnancies, but I would never have treated a friend this way even at the worst of times. Either you control your behavior or it controls you. Sally needs to apologize to OP, who needs to apologize to Sally. And Rachel needs to be a thing of the past.


Kay L January 29, 2013 at 9:45 am

I have a hard time believing that Rachel only reacted to the OP not saying Congratulations. I feel that the OP is leaving something out–possibly that he shared some of his views with the people around him.

Normally one doesnt pick up on someone not saying something unless they suspect that it belies some other agenda. For the OP to claim that he did everything right is disengenuous. He did not. Ad apparently others picked up on it. No surprising given the borishness of the attitude.

And if Rachel were aware of the OPs agenda, it is the right thing as her friend to reveal it. Perhaps Sally just needed to hear the reaoning from the horse’s mouth and he didnt disappoint.


JWH January 29, 2013 at 9:48 am

Saying “congratulations” would not have been any skin off of the OP’s nose. That said, I question whether Sally and Rachel are worth keeping as friends.


Swerve January 29, 2013 at 9:50 am

I agree that the OP should have just played it off with something like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I had said it. Congratulations! I’m happy for both of you.” And as others have said, Rachel sounds like a drama queen and is probably best avoided in future.

As for Sally, I can accept pregnancy hormones as an explanation for her behavior, but not as an excuse. Especially given that she told the OP that he’s just jealous because he’s gay and gay men can’t have babies. Setting aside the fact that the OP and his partner could certainly adopt a baby or conceive one with a surrogate if they wanted to (although they obviously could not conceive one *together*), this is an inherently homophobic remark. It is appalling that someone would make that sort of comment at all, let alone to a so-called friend. People don’t just say things like that out of the blue; in my experience, it often means that some sort of prejudice has been bubbling under the surface for some time.

Pregnancy hormones and the OP’s insensitivity in choosing to explain himself may explain why Sally is so upset, but they can neither account for nor excuse her choosing to express herself in that way. I think the OP should definitely apologize to Sally, but should also think seriously about whether he really wants to rekindle the friendship.


Angela January 29, 2013 at 9:59 am

I’m wondering if everyone in this story is about 14 years old. Yeah, the OP should have sucked it up and said “Congratulations” but I cannot believe Rachel was present on a happy occasion and took it upon herself to ruin it for Sally by pointing out something that another person did. That’s pretty middle school. And Sally revoking the invitation because the OP awkwardly explained an idiosyncratic opposition to a word? That’s pretty middle school too.


Yikes January 29, 2013 at 10:08 am

Yikes, Rachel must not like you, at all. Who sits at a party and keep tabs on who has or hasn’t said “Congratulations”? I think it was sneaky and sketchy of her to kind of “tattle tale” on you, but in the end, just saying something like “Oh, I didn’t?? Well, Congrats! I must’ve forgotten I didn’t say it!” would have just ended the dispute and made Rachel look like an idiot. I don’t think this was a time to show your view on pregnancy, etc., but what happened happened and I think Admin’s advice on how to fix it is the right way to go.


SweetPea January 29, 2013 at 10:11 am

To get so upset over one missing word, specifically when all the congratulatory guestures (hugging, excitement, etc.) are obviously displayed seems increadibly foolish. I too have a friend who recently became pregnant unexpectedly, and while they are thrilled, there was the initial awkwardness of not knowing if “congratulations” would be appropriate. I agree with the OP in that nothing in that initial conversation was wrong.

To explain exactly why congratulations wasn’t said in a phone call where the friend is obviously hurt (regardless of this other friends involvement or not) was foolish and frankly, came off very snotty to me. You already expressed those congratulatory guestures mentioned above. Simply saying something along the lines of “I’m sorry, I thought I had! I am thrilled for you!” would’ve been much more appropriate than an explanation on why you thought it never needed to be said. Why bring the focus on you and yourself, when a friend is upset, and you legitimately are happy for them?


Abby January 29, 2013 at 10:13 am

“Though I hugged Sally, asked her plenty of questions regarding her expected child, and commented upon how lovely the barbecue was sure to be, I had neglected to say the one word that, apparently, I was socially obligated to say: “Congratulations.” ”

I am wondering if perhaps one of the “questions” OP asked regarding Sally’s pregnancy was, wow, Sally, I thought you and your husband decided to wait a few years? Or, how are you going to afford a kid after you just spent all that money renovating your house? Comments like that, combined with a lack of congratulations, might have led Rachel to conclude OP was judging Sally. However, Sally clearly didn’t feel slighted until Rachel pointed it out to her.

I too am wondering just how Rachel knew that OP didn’t congratulate Sally. Perhaps he said it quietly to her while hugging her goodbye? (I mean, as far as Rachel knew?). Either Rachel was watching OP like a hawk (and within earshot of *everything* he said that evening), or Rachel asked Sally flat out, did OP actually say congratulations to you? Which Sally would have said, come to think of it, no. So, one of two things: either Rachel REALLY has an axe to grind with OP, and is looking for any way to disparage him, or OP was a little less supportive during the dinner than he is letting on here. The fact that OP felt the need to be honest during his phone conversation makes me wonder if perhaps OP doesn’t make a habit of saying hurtful/judgmental things under the guise of “just being honest”.

Anyways, Rachel is a troublemaking buttinsky, Sally massively overreacted, and OP was clearly offensive in his explanation over why he didn’t say the magic word.


Mae January 29, 2013 at 10:17 am

Shannon’s comment (#11) is pretty much the same thing I was thinking. Explaining your reasons just put fuel on the fire and, sometimes, it’s best to just say what the want/need to hear and let it go. I feel for Sally’s husband if her hormones are this severe already.

I wanted to add that, IMO, Rachel is the biggest violater because Sally did not notice that congratulations was “missing” until Rachel pointed it out. Why is Rachel putting her nose in everyone’s business and stirring the pot? When Sally stated that OP was “a jealous man who couldn’t be happy for her” – I would bet a million bucks that Rachel was the one who said that and urged Sally to tell OP that. Sounds like Rachel has something personal against OP.

OP- have you ever noticed Rachel stirring up drama specifically related to you before?


livvy17 January 29, 2013 at 10:25 am

Poor Sally – That she’s been latched on to by that evil Svengali Rachel. Hopefully she’ll see what a negative force that woman is before too long.
OP, I agree with the Admin on how to patch it up, if that’s what you want. I sincerely hope that Sally will have now had a more lucid moment to think about this, and will be very receptive to fixing things between you.


SKM January 29, 2013 at 10:30 am

Wow … I just recently found out that I’m unexpectedly pregnant (yes, I know where babies come from; yes, I’m happy – but what a wonderful shock). I told my best gay friend that I’m expecting and I didn’t get a congratulations – I got a gigantic hug that spoke volumes of our longtime friendship and the unspoken understanding that he’s supportive of me and my family. I’m appalled at Sally and Rachel. Sure – OP has some interesting opinions on the whole “congratulations” thing, but I wonder if this friendship is better left severed. Sally sounds like she’s going to be an over hormonal drama queen for the entirety of her child’s gestation.

And I say this with the full confession that hearing “Puff the Magic Dragon” made me weep like a little girl the other day.


Robert January 29, 2013 at 10:45 am

Hello all. OP here!

First, for those who have offered up their takes on the situation, I say “Thank you.” I was hoping for some good advice on how to handle this situation, and the wonderful people of e-hell, as well as the lovely Admin, did not disappoint. Thank you all.

Now, as for the situation at hand…

There is a follow-up email that I received this morning from Sally, which is at the bottom of my comment.

But, before that, I really don’t think I was entirely in the right in this situation. That is part of the reason I wrote to the Admin for her wise advice. I truly do feel that I acted appropriately when I was AT the dinner, participating in baby talk, asking questions, hugging Sally and wishing her and Jim the best. A few have speculated that I may have let out an anti-baby vibe during dinner. If that was the case, it was a vibe that was so subtle as to be beyond my noticing. I was, and still am, happy for Sally and made my happiness known. Much laughter was shared by all, myself included, and many well-wishes were granted. I won’t discount the possibility that I gave off a vibe I hadn’t intended to, but if that is the case then I certainly didn’t notice nor intend it.

Now, where I fully admit that I DID go wrong was with explaining my views on the word “Congratulations” once Sally pressed me for why I hadn’t said the word. As others have said, discretion was called for, being the better part of valor and all, and I utterly failed. I accept that I allowed my personal take on a cultural trend, and my desire to always be honest with friends, override common sense and etiquette. It was a blunder on my part, and I make no excuses for that. I screwed up, and I will gladly serve my stint in the “open mouth, insert foot” corner of e-hell for this.

As for Rachel, I certainly don’t know why she kept a tally on who said what during dinner. If there is an internal motivation there, be it animosity toward me or just a general sense that she is the keeper of protocol, I do not know what it is. However, this situation has shown me that Rachel is someone I am best to be wary of. I will, of course, be cordial to her in any shared social gatherings (such as our social circle’s monthly dinner), but it does give me an insight in to her that I find rather ugly.

Now, as to Sally’s email, this is what I woke up to this morning (names changed to protect the innocent, and not-so-innocent)…

“Robert, I am VERY sorry about how I acted on the phone the other night. When I told Jim what happened, he took your side (well…sorta…but, I needed to hear it). So, you didn’t say “Congratulations?” As Jim put it, “big whoop!” I know you. I know that you are happy for us. And I know that you are a good friend who has always been there when I needed you. I don’t know why I listened to Rachel, or why she was butting in. I shouldn’t have. I hope you will accept my apology, and come over for coffee some night this week. Give me or Jim a call, because we both would like to see you.

All the best to you,


I will admit, I was surprised and touched that Sally was the one to reach out first. I will be calling her later today, and accepting her invitation to coffee. I fully accept Sally’s apology, and I want to communicate that to her. As well, I want to take the opportunity to apologize to her, and to Jim (as the Admin suggested), for my boorish blunder. Our friendship can be saved, and it seems Sally wants that as much as I do.

As for Rachel…well, that is a horse of a different color.


Lerah99 January 29, 2013 at 10:50 am

Here I am, ready to offer another unpopular opinion.

I am with the OP on not using “congratulations” for pregnancies.
Instead I use phrases like “That’s wonderful!” “I’m so happy for you!” “You must be so excited” and if I know the pregnant woman is religous “What a blessing!”

I was always taught that from days when men were the main breadwinner, to congratulate a recently engaged woman is basically saying “Your scheming paid off and you’ve convinced this man to marry you. Way to go!”
Which is why the appropriate response is “Best wishes to both of you on your upcoming marriage! This is wonderful! You must be so excited. Etc…”

And that, for me, has bled over into “congratulating” women for becoming pregnant. It seems to be the same sort of “You’ve become pregnant. He’ll have to stick around now! Well done” message. So instead I use other words.

Now, if a pregnant friend called me upset that I didn’t use the word congratulations, I would like to think I would just say “Of course I’m happy for you. This is wonderful news. Congratulations”.

However, if I were truly put on the spot like the OP, I might have made the same stumbling error of defending my word choice rather than placating the upset pregnant woman. When surpised and feeling attacked, people often become defensive and try to explain rather than apologize.

OP, I would suggest you call your friend after she has time to cool off. Let her know that you are sorry you hurt her feelings. Apologize. Congratulate her. And then invite her out to lunch or a movie so you can mend fences. It is silly to lose a friend over something as small as prefered word choice.

As for Rachel, that woman is a drama queeen and trouble maker. Stay away from her. She will only cause unhappiness and chaos where ever she goes.


Miss Alex January 29, 2013 at 10:51 am

I think Rachel is the one who’s primarily at fault here. OP shared his opinions when he really shouldn’t have (and I say this as someone who has similar opinions on the word ‘congratulations’), but Rachel started it. She was the one who got Sally all riled up when she might not have noticed otherwise. I think OP’s actions spoke louder than his words, and that they shouldn’t be mad at him for not saying one word.


NicoleK January 29, 2013 at 10:54 am

There’s gotta be a backstory. Was he grouchy during the lunch? Does he have a history of making drmatic ChildFree speeches about how much he doesn’t like kids?

There’s a backstory.


Tricia January 29, 2013 at 11:11 am

I don’t agree with the admin on this one (and that shocks me a bit!).

The OP stated he was happy for her and hugged her. I understand the hesitation to use the word “congratulations” for an unplanned pregnancy. I don’t think he was “selfishly” refraining from using the word, I think he was actually trying to avoid discomfort for both himself and the friend. Etiquette is all about making everyone comfortable.

I do agree with the admin that when the meddling friend, acting as an evil ventriloquist, had the friend call to say how hurt she was, he reacted poorly. It sounds as if the friend wasn’t even upset until the meddler decided that she SHOULD be upset that congratulations wasn’t said. The young man played right into their hands by being defensive, rather than diffusing the situation and saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought I did. Congratulations! I’m so happy for you!”.

I don’t agree with being “required” to say a script of any kind when expressing feelings about someone’s news. I do understand putting personal feelings about our own lives and struggles aside to be happy for our friend. (Case in point – allllll of your friends around you get married and you are the last one left….it might be hard to choke out that “Congratulations” when the last friend gets engaged.)
A good friend puts their own issues aside and is happy for their friend. A script though? No, never. Say Congratulations or don’t – either way, the point is to express being happy for your friend and their news.


Otter January 29, 2013 at 11:13 am

What a silly ado about nothing! If the OP had just said, “Oh I didn’t? Well congratulations then! I thought I’d already said it,” rather than launching into a diatribe, he would still have his friend. Plus, Rachel the troublemaker would have been deflated. Instead, the whole group might be turned against the OP now. Sometimes a polite lie is appropriate to avoid playing into a drama llamas hands. OP now has a giant mess to deal with. So unnecessary for the OP and for the mom to be.


Ergala January 29, 2013 at 11:19 am

Ah the Rachels of the world. I’ve lost a few friends to “rachel” in the past. And usually the troublemaker was doing it to make herself appear more “desirable” in the eyes of our mutual friend. One of them even tried to mess with my marriage by pointing out my husband never ever says Bless You when I sneeze. Not once in 10 years has he ever said it. I say it out of reflex and it does kind of bug me he doesn’t. But it’s not a hill I am willing to die on. This “friend” told me that she was concerned he couldn’t be bothered to perform that simple courtesy and it made her wonder what else he was holding back. Luckily my husband and I talk all the time and that was not the case.

I imagine Rachel doesn’t like OP….and part of me wonders if it has to do with his sexual orientation. Let me explain why. The op states he heard Rachel in the background feeding Sally stuff to be upset about when the fact he is gay came up. If I was in Sally’s situation minus Rachel that train of thought never would have crossed my mind.

I remember my hormones when pregnant with my youngest and oldest. I was a raging lunatic by the time I was 6 months along. I once cried over eggs. I actually sat there and sobbed over eggs.


Daisy January 29, 2013 at 11:19 am

Oh, dear! Much ado about nothing, in my view. Rachel must be a very toxic person to be around, if she has nothing better to do than point out other people’s lapses. Personally, I never say “Congratulations!” to a woman, but rather to men only. I say “Best wishes!” to women. That’s how I was taught, many long years ago, and the lesson stuck. That being so, if Sally was upset enough about it to mention it, I’d have said “Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry! Of course I’m terribly happy for you – congratulations!” Where OP erred wasn’t by failing to say the magic word, but instead by trying to justify his omission. At this point, if he values the friendship, excessive measures may be required. I’d write her a note, explaining that it was well known that I only opened my mouth to change feet, and that I was terribly sorry to have made such an idiotic mistake. I’d have it delivered with a lovely arrangement of daisies from the local florist, and then I’d hope for the best. (I’d have to resist the impulse to send Rachel a bouquet of stinkweed – luckily, it’s out of season!)


Politrix January 29, 2013 at 11:20 am

I’m not pregnant anymore and I STILL cry when I hear “Puff The Magic Dragon” lol.
To be honest I’m not sure how deep of an etiquette breach was really committed — all the cases for and against, as presented above, seem pretty valid — but I CAN give you a good suggestion for repairing the friendship with Sally, if that’s what you want to do:
Be there for her. Let her know you’re going to support and encourage her throughout the pregnancy, and just as importantly, once she becomes a new mom. She’s going to need it. I found out who my real friends were pretty fast after I had my daughter — they were the ones who visited regularly, encouraged me to sleep while they cleaned my apartment, brought me cooked meals, and tended to the baby, the ones who let me cry on their shoulders when I was feeling overwhelmed, and the ones who said, “You’re doing a great job, keep your chin up, it gets easier with time!” when I felt like a complete failure.
Something tells me Rachel is NOT going to be that kind of friend. However, if YOU can step up and help Sally where it matters most, then — if she’s is any kind of worthwhile human being — not only will she forgive you for a minor etiquette faux pas, she’ll also feel like a fool for ever doubting you.


Goldie January 29, 2013 at 11:34 am

On first reading, I naively thought the OP was explaining his beliefs to us. I then went back to re-read and no, he actually said these things to an expectant mother. “It is out of place because, in the end, I feel like all I am saying is “Congratulations on having functioning reproductive organs,” or even worse, I feel like I am congratulating them for having enjoyed the activity required to make the baby.” Wow! Talk about a giant slap in the face!

I have a few acquaintances that are childfree by choice and I want to say that it’s comments like this that make the entire CF community look bad. They are very few and far between — most CF folks I know are very gracious and tactful, and recognize the fact that not everyone shares their life choices, and that choosing to be a parent (or not) is an incredibly delicate subject that is never ever up for discussion. But every so often, I’ll run into someone, that will insist on presenting their POV in the worst way possible, like OP did in this story. In my opinion, one’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with it — I’ve only seen this happen when a person’s decision not to be a parent goes hand in hand with looking down on anyone that chose differently. This is a decision every person makes for themselves; there’s never any need to proselytize. Especially when you’re talking to someone who is already a parent, because, last I checked, one cannot become childfree retroactively!

I agree that everyone looks bad in this story. Sally shouldn’t have said what she did to OP; OP shouldn’t have preached his CF sermon to a pregnant woman; but most importantly, had Rachel kept her mouth shut, none of this would have happened! Not only that, but it sounds like Rachel refused to get off Sally’s back until Sally called OP and demanded to know why congratulations hadn’t been extended. How was that any of Rachel’s business??? That said, OP and Sally seem like nice people and good friends who both got carried away and said things they shouldn’t have. I suggest that the two of them apologize profusely to each other, try to rekindle the friendship as much as it is possible, and phase Rachel out of their lives, because no one needs a divisive busybody for their friend.


Bint January 29, 2013 at 11:36 am

“I have a hard time believing that Rachel only reacted to the OP not saying Congratulations. I feel that the OP is leaving something out”

I have a hard time believing Rachel doesn’t have issues with the OP, possibly as a gay man or just as someone she dislikes. If he were so rude, why isn’t it brought up instead of this ludicrous accusation, and why are Sally and Jim absolutely fine until Rachel sticks her oar in afterwards?

“And if Rachel were aware of the OP’s agenda, it is the right thing as her friend to reveal it.”

You don’t actually say what this mysterious ‘agenda’ is. Whatever the OP’s opinion on this pregnancy, he clearly showed he was happy for them. And whatever agendas he may hold are none of Rachel’s business, let alone excuses to behave with Sally like a ridiculous pair of drama queens.


Ellen January 29, 2013 at 11:36 am

Pregnancy is not an “accomplishment”. It is a miracle – yes, a common miracle in the grand scheme of things, but one couple in apparently good health cannot conceive after years of hoping, another may be “surprised”despite using birth control, and yet another may find they are pregnant after being told by their doctors it is impossible. To equate conception with accomplishment is to brand the infertile as “failures”. How horrid.

If a couple is announcing a pregnancy to their friends, obviously it is happy news. The proper response to happy news is “congratulations!” One would think that “I’m so happy for you” would be a perfectly fine synonym, but if it was important to your friend to hear the magic word, it is petty and mean-spirited to withold it on trumped-up philosophical grounds.

Failing to say the word congratulations amongst other expressions of joy, is not an offense, and it was childish and self-centered for the two ladies to make it an issue. However, to quibble with your friend over the “qualifications” of her pregnancy is extremely offensive.


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