How to Find the Perfect Thing to Say in Every Situation

Not sure what to say? From funny birthday wishes to thoughtful condolence messages, we have some advice—and actual scripts!—that will make your life a whole lot easier.

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Your co-worker had a baby, and congratulations are in order! But wait—the delivery was very difficult, and there were complications. Now what do you say? Or maybe your boss is leaving your company and you want to strike the right balance of thoughtfulness, professionalism and humor in your farewell message. It’s hard enough to know what to say in happy situations, let alone tricky ones. In almost any situation, a basic “Congrats!” or “I’m so sorry” follows etiquette rules and can suffice when the other person is just an acquaintance, but it often doesn’t feel like enough—especially if you are close to the person or want to build a closer relationship with them.

Rule No. 1 of knowing what to say for every occasion: Say something. The top etiquette mistake people make when trying to find the right thing to say is getting so hung up on finding the “perfect” response that they end up saying nothing, says etiquette expert Valerie Sokolosky, author of Do It Right, a comprehensive etiquette guide. “We’ve all been there! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stumbled over words, trying to find just the right combination of witty, intelligent and original—and I’ve written whole books about this. It’s not easy, even for the pros,” she says. “But people don’t need a perfect Hallmark quote. They need to know you care—and there are lots of ways to communicate that.”

In both happy and sad situations, your perfectly imperfect “wish” needs just three things, according to Fran Walfish, PsyD, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills. It should:

  1. Be appropriate to the situation
  2. Reflect your relationship with the other person
  3. Share a heartfelt, funny or sincere sentiment

No novels or dissertations required! To help you find the right words, we asked our experts to share some simple tips—and even an actual script for every situation, including congratulations messages, happy birthday messages, condolence messages and wedding wishes. How’s that for making things easy?

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What should you do when you don’t know what to say?

A woman makes eye contact with a man, looking at him kindly. He looks back at her.Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

We often don’t know what to say when the situation is out of our experience or comfort zone, but that is exactly when we do need to say something. “Silence leaves the other person feeling isolated,” says Walfish. “You can simply offer to listen and let them know you’re thinking about them.” Sokolosky adds that it’s OK to admit you don’t know what to say: “Just be honest and then focus on your love and/or concern for them.” Here are some other guidelines.

Listen first

Rule No. 2 of knowing what to say in every situation isn’t actually about speaking—it’s about hearing. Have you ever been thinking so hard about what you’ll say next that you realize the other person has stopped speaking and you have no idea what they just said? This fixation on speaking over listening is one of the most common communication mistakes that people make, says Walfish, and it’s a recipe for saying the wrong thing.

Ask open-ended questions

“Knowing the right thing to say has everything to do with being a good listener and very little to do with being a good speaker,” says Walfish. “Take your cues from them. Ask questions, preferably open-ended, about the situation. Once you know how they’re feeling, it becomes much easier to know what to say.”

Offer empathy

People like to know they’re not alone, in the good and bad times, says Sokolosky. Share their feelings with them, like “I’m so happy that you’re so happy!” or “My heart breaks with yours.”

Be sincere

Sincerity always trumps flowery words, says Walfish. Being overly syrupy or effusive comes across as inauthentic or, worse, like you’re making fun of them. That said, something as simple as “I’ve always admired your work ethic,” “I can see your happiness shining through your smile” or “You’re smart and strong” can take a basic message to the next level, says Sokolosky.

Avoid platitudes

Avoid saying things like: “I know everything is going to be just fine,” “Time heals all wounds” or “Everything always works out great for you!” First of all, those things are often not true (and how would you know anyway?), and they invalidate the other person’s feelings or experiences, says Walfish.

Be truthful

Not excited for their promotion and not jazzed about working with them more closely? Don’t say it! Offering fake sympathy or false congratulations hurts you and risks hurting them as well. And you can forget brutal honesty—that’s usually just an excuse to be rude. “There is usually a way to say something both kind and authentic,” Walfish says. In the aforementioned scenario, for instance, you can say something like: “Congratulations on your job promotion—you worked really hard for it.”

Send a small gift

One way to show a feeling you don’t know how to speak is through a thoughtful gift. It doesn’t have to be anything big; it just needs to be appropriate to the situation and bring a smile to their face. When in doubt, food and flowers generally work.

Keep it short

Some people ramble when they’re unsure what to say, but that confuses your point and gives you more opportunity to put your foot in your mouth, says Sokolosky. A short but heartfelt note is better than two pages of stream-of-consciousness writing.

Is there one foolproof response in any situation?

1 Foolproof Gettyimages, Getty Images

Reflective listening—repeating back what you heard the other person say—is every therapist’s secret weapon, and it works for regular folks too. “If you don’t know what to say, offer a compassionate reflection of what you hear the other person saying,” Walfish says. “This allows them to feel heard, validated and accepted, regardless of the situation.”

Couple reflective listening with a question or request for more information, and you have a foolproof response. For example, “It sounds like you’re really devastated about this. What are you feeling right now?” or “I can tell how excited you are! Tell me everything—I want all the details!”

Other great go-tos are the simplest:

  • I’m thinking about you.
  • I’m here for you.
  • I love you.
  • You’re amazing.

The best sentiments, however, are tailored to the specific situation. And our experts provided a script for each of those moments. Bookmark this page for the perfect thing to say in every situation.

What to say on someone’s birthday

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Birthdays are an important day to most people, and sending happy birthday wishes to a friend, relative, loved one or co-worker on their special day can really mean a lot. “In fact, remembering a birthday is a hallmark of true friendship,” Walfish says. And with modern technology like Google Calendar and Facebook reminders, there’s no reason to forget! P.S. Be sensitive when mentioning age. Some people are loud and proud about their number, while others prefer to keep it discreet.

Examples of birthday wishes:

  • As we celebrate your latest trip around the sun, I can’t help but think of the light you shine on my life. I hope this is your best birthday yet.
  • Don’t worry, I already know my present is your favorite. You should open the rest anyway—you know, to be polite. Have a fabulous birthday!
  • A great day to celebrate a great friend! Happy birthday, and cheers to many more.
  • Happy birthday to my favorite person in the whole world. May your day be filled with 10 times the joy you’ve provided others.
  • I may not be rich, but I definitely hit the jackpot with you. I’m so grateful for you and all we’ve experienced together. Have a wonderful birthday.

And that’s just the beginning of the options you can choose from when trying to figure out what to say in a birthday card or text. Here are more happy birthday wishes for the various people in your life, as well as some belated birthday wishes in case you missed the big day. (Whoops!)

What to say in a wedding card

3 Wedding Gettyimages, Getty Images

Getting engaged and married are two of the biggest events in a person’s life, so what to say doesn’t get more important than this! “This means your engagement and wedding wishes should be thoughtful, personal and authentic,” says Sokolosky. This isn’t the time to share advice or criticisms of their relationship. Instead, focus on sharing their happiness.

Examples of wedding and engagement wishes:

  • Congratulations on finding your person! #couplegoals
  • Wishing you more love and romance than a Taylor Swift song.
  • The best things in life only get better when enjoyed with someone else. Here’s to a lifetime of best times!
  • Congrats on finally finding someone to write in as your emergency contact on forms!
  • May your happy never have an ending!

Sweet but not quite right? We’ve got plenty more engagement wishes and wedding wishes for the happy couple. And if you need to say those wishes out loud, here’s how to give the perfect wedding toast.

What to say on an anniversary

4 Anniversary Gettyimages, Getty Images

Whether it’s the first or the 50th, every anniversary is a significant milestone in a couple’s relationship. “Taking the time to acknowledge this milestone shows that you’re really paying attention to your loved one and that you care about what’s important to them,” says Walfish. Happy anniversary messages are a great opportunity to include happy memories of the couple. And if it’s your big day? Share all the love in your heart with your partner (and don’t forget an anniversary gift).

Examples of anniversary wishes, to your partner or another couple:

  • I can’t believe I’m still finding more reasons to love you. You amaze me in new ways every day, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
  • You stole my heart, and I never want it back.
  • Thank you for all the wonderful memories. I can’t wait to make even more in our next year together!
  • There’s no one I’d rather sit on the couch and watch Netflix with. Even when you talk during the show.
  • May the happiness of this day linger forever.
  • It’s so awesome that you’ve been together for however long you’ve been together.
  • Nobody does life better than you two. I’ve been honored to watch you live it, and I hope we get many more years together.

For a laugh, send your happy anniversary message with one of these happy anniversary memes.

What to say when congratulations are in order

5 Congratulations Gettyimages, Getty Images

Whether it’s a new baby, a promotion, a new home, a retirement or some other wonderful event, you’ll want to share the moment with the perfectly crafted message. “It’s worth the effort,” says Walfish. “Sharing the excitement and joy of a Big Moment with someone else is one of the best parts of life. It’s the kind of joy that’s infectious, and you’ll feel happier too.”

Examples of congratulations wishes:

  • Not many occasions call for a dancing unicorn to serve champagne, but this one does. Great job!
  • I love an excuse to celebrate with cake. Thank you—er, I mean, congratulations!
  • This might be one of the best days of your life so far, but there are so many more to come. Well done!
  • You climbed a mountain of “nos” to get to the highest “yes.”
  • You’re a shining example of how to achieve anything through dedication and perseverance. Congratulations, superstar!

Need more inspo? Check out these congratulations messages and good luck wishes for any occasion.

Little gifts that will mean so much

Adding a gift to your message is the perfect little extra touch to show you care, says Walfish. Plus, it gives you something pretty or fun to attach the card to. Here are a few ideas that will brighten anyone’s day.

What to say when you’re thinking of someone

6 Thinking Of You Gettyimages, Getty Images

“Sometimes the most meaningful messages are the ones sent for no particular occasion but rather to say you’re just thinking about that person,” says Walfish. “Everyone loves to be remembered!”

Examples of “thinking of you” messages:

  • Thinking of you and all the ways you make my life brighter, happier and funner. (That’s not a word, but it should be!)
  • I know you’re busy, so I’ll keep this short: Thinking about you!
  • Remember that time we did that thing and couldn’t stop laughing? Best day ever.
  • In case I haven’t told you lately: You’re the best, and I love you.
  • You are the first thing I think of when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I go to sleep.
  • Sending you positive vibes, healing and protection today.

The best thing about “thinking of you” messages? They can be used as good night messages, good morning messages or messages anytime the impulse strikes to get in touch!

What to say when someone dies

7 Death Gettyimages, Getty Images

Death is an inevitable part of life, but many of us are still uncomfortable talking about it, leaving those left behind feeling even more heartbroken and isolated. Sending condolence messages will help them know they’re not alone. “You don’t have to fix it for them or ‘make it better,'” says Sokolosky. “Be sad with them, mourn with them and offer support, hugs and a listening ear.”

Examples of condolence messages:

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine your pain and grief at this time.
  • The world is a little darker today from the loss of his/her light.
  • I’m heartbroken for your loss and hoping you find peace during this trying time.
  • No one can prepare for this type of loss. Sending you strength at this time.
  • I can’t find the right words to say to you, and I’m afraid to say the wrong thing, so I’ll just tell you how much I love you and that I’m here to support you.

Depending on your relationship, you may also want to send a sympathy gift.

What to say when someone is sick

8 Sick Gettyimages, Getty Images

Get-well wishes can offer a bright spot for a loved one during a trying time—whether that’s after a surgery, a health scare or due to a chronic condition. “Feeling others’ support and care for you when you’re ill can help you feel better mentally and physically,” says Walfish. This is also a good time to use a little humor to lift their spirits. Laughter really can be the best medicine!

Examples of get-well wishes:

  • Get well soon, or I’ll be forced to come over and watch movies with you all day.
  • Laughter is the best medicine, so I’ve got 700 hilarious memes locked and loaded to send you.
  • Hugs, drugs or the Netflix password. Just say the word and I’m there!
  • If you wanted flowers, you could have just said so—you didn’t have to get sick!
  • I was heartbroken to hear about your diagnosis, and I am sending you all my love during treatment.
  • Know this: You are not alone. You’ve got all of us here to love and help you.
  • Get well soon, or we’re all buying stock in Kleenex.

Here are more thoughtful get-well wishes that show how much you care.

What to say when someone is having a rough day

9 Rough Day Gettyimages, Getty Images

Having a rough day? Sometimes just a few words of encouragement are all you need to make it through, says Sokolosky. And the best part about these positive sayings is that they’re great for happy times too, when you want to give your person a little extra happiness boost!

Examples of words of encouragement:

  • Look at it this way: You’ve already survived 100% of your worst days! You’ll get through this one too.
  • An optimist is someone who decides that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not failure—it’s salsa dancing! Who doesn’t love salsa dancing?
  • I’m proud of you for trying. Keep pushing forward.
  • If life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade. And then come to my house, because I have vodka. Oh, look—it’s a party!
  • You know how they always say: “You only get today once?” To that, I say: “Thank heavens!” (Tomorrow will be better, friend!)

For more ideas, check out another 100-plus messages of encouragement for a variety of different situations.

What to say when you want to thank someone

10 Thank You Gettyimages, Getty Images

“Showing gratitude, through writing thank-you messages, is one of the best and most rewarding acts of kindness you can do,” says Sokolosky. Plus, gratitude has powerful benefits for both the giver and receiver, whether you’re thanking someone for a gift or their help. Pro tip: Keep a pack of blank thank-you cards in your purse or car so you can write a heartfelt note as soon as the thought strikes!

Examples of thank-you messages:

  • You are a gift and a blessing in my life.
  • Thanks for always being the first one to help and the last one to leave.
  • Thank you for being such a great example and mentor to me. I will always look up to you!
  • Your heart is bigger than a triple-scoop sundae topped with whipped cream and awesome sauce.
  • You are the best gift I could ever ask for, but I appreciate this one too.
  • Your generosity is an inspiration to me and so many others.

Need a more specialized type of thank-you? Here’s how to write a thank-you note to a teacher. And if the occasion calls for a gift, check out this roundup of thank-you gifts that will perfectly express your gratitude.

What to say when you need to apologize

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Apologies are some of the toughest things to know how to say, but they’re also the most important—not just for the receiver but also for the giver. “Apologizing, properly and sincerely, is the first step to healing a broken relationship and a broken heart,” Walfish says.

Examples of apologies:

  • I’m so sorry I hurt you.
  • The mistake was all mine, and I hope you can forgive me.
  • Please accept my sincerest apologies.
  • I know this won’t make up for everything, but I want to start by saying I’m sorry.
  • Are we OK? I feel like something is off between us, and I’d love the chance to apologize if I’ve hurt you.

Here are more guidelines for how to apologize like you mean it. It’s information you’ll wish you knew sooner but will be so glad to have now.


Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a health, lifestyle and fitness expert and teacher. She covers all things wellness for Reader’s Digest and The Healthy. With dual masters degrees in information technology and education, she has been a journalist for 17 years and is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment. She lives in Denver with her husband, five kids and three pets.