Science Finds the Best Way to Dump Someone

One of my family's favorite jokes goes like this:

A man calls his brother for their weekly phone chat, and asks about the family cat: "How's Hector?"

"Hector died," says the brother.

"Holy jeez!" shouts the man. "You don't just blurt that out. You have to ease into it. Like, you should have said, 'Hector's on the roof.' Then, the next time I call, say 'Hector fell off the roof and isn't doing well.' And the third time, say 'Hector didn't make it.'"

The brother agrees this could have been handled better and apologizes. After the guy calms down, he asks, "How's Mom?"

The brother thinks a moment and says, "Mom's on the roof."

I was reminded of the joke last week when I read that researchers at Brigham Young University have determined the best way to break up with someone, according to science: despite what our guy from the joke wanted, most people prefer to receive bad news quickly and directly.

The researchers recommend just yanking the Band-Aid off as a way to minimize the psychological damage and pain a breakup might cause. No hemming and hawing, no lengthy explanations, no final dinner at a fancy restaurant. Unless the other person is buying, in which case you should totally get the lobster.

I always thought you should make it a little game of it so the other person could have a little bit of fun before having their heart broken.

"Okay, everyone raise your hands if you're involved in a happy, loving relationship. Oops, not so fast, honey. We need to talk."

Apparently, this is the wrong way to do it.

The researchers presented two different scenarios to 145 people, the direct approach and the indirect approach, and asked them which they preferred. When it came to breakups, a full 74 percent of people favored the direct approach. It sounds something like this:

Significant other: We need to talk.

You: What about?

SO: I don't think we should date any longer.

You: Mother said you would do this. She said you were a harlot and a floozy, but I told her, 'Mother, I'm 35, I'm a grown man, and I need to start living my own life.'


Notice that little "we need to talk" opener? BYU researchers recommend slipping this little "explanatory buffer" into the conversation before you actually deliver the final blow. Sort of the left jab of emotion before the big right hook.

This gives the other person a couple seconds to process that their life is going to come crashing down around them just because you have commitment issues, and refuse to let anything permanent in your life. You never really even gave us a chance and had one eye on the front door the entire time we were together. But I ignored all the warning signs and let you into my heart—

Uh, that was in the article. The very scientific academic article about science-y things and was not an emotional flashback at all. Because it's science.

The same approach is also true when receiving other bad news, such as a bad medical diagnosis. They want the doctor to spit the diagnosis outright rather than talk around the issue or try to soften the blow.

You: So what did the tests say, doctor?

Doctor: The tests show you've got cancer.

You: Jeez, what else can go wrong? First, my girlfriend breaks up with me and now this?

The researchers also suggest this direct approach to managers who need to fire an employee, or even lay off several employees. Having been on the receiving end of more than one of these conversations — "Hands up, who's got a good paying job they actually like? Oops, not so fast Erik" — I can tell you that the direct approach is certainly a lot better than a lengthy explanation about finances and the economy and cash flow issues and how you're going to "right size the company and cut the workforce by 10 percent," but you're still going to get your million dollar executive bonus.

It's a difficult time for the employers, of course. They're going to ruin the lives of many employees, while they figure out a way to preserve their own high six-figure job and that of their executive cronies, so we should cut them some slack.

CEO: Hands up if you have a mortgage you can barely afford. Great! You're all fired, the rest of you get back to work.

You: What the hell, man? First, my girlfriend dumps me, and now I've got cancer. I just want to call my brother and see how my cat is doing.

Photo credit: Linda Tanner (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

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