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Breaking Bad News Gently

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"Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent."
Lord Summerisle, The Wicker Man (1973)

Bad news is of course hard to tell to other people (unless someone is feeling malicious), which means it's preferable in those circumstances to try to break the news as gently as possible.

There are several methods. One of the most common in fiction is to tell the recipient to sit down before hearing the news, often in case the news is upsetting enough to cause them to faint. Often, to show how tough or badass they are, the listener usually says, through clenched jaws, "I think I'll stand" or "I prefer to stand" or some variation thereof.

Regardless of the delivery, how the recipient reacts can vary, before and after hearing the news. Before, some might be so anxious, they can shout "Just Tell Me!", while others might ask for a minute to prep themselves. After, some can be happy (if the news was actually in their favor without the bearer knowing it), and some can react even worse than the bearer feared.

A staple trope of both the Police Procedural and the Medical Drama, in which breaking the news of a loved one's death is regularly portrayed as the most difficult part of a cop's/doctor's job.

A Dramatic Sit-Down is likely at some point.

And it should be noted that methods have been around long enough for many to be discredited. Expect many instances of this trope to be Played for Laughs. One common gag is Bad News, Irrelevant News.

A Sub-Trope of Bearer of Bad News. A Super-Trope to Bad News in a Good Way, Good News, Bad News. Compare Dinner and a Breakup.

Has nothing to do with Breaking Bad.


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  • Played with in an old ad for Playtex tampons. When the endorser addresses the audience with a gentle, grave-sounding, "You'd better sit down," she is referring to the fact that the competing brand becomes longer when wet, and is therefore less comfortable and inconspicuous while the wearer is standing or in motion.

    Asian Animation 
  • Happy Heroes: In Season 7 episode 28, Little M. tries to bring Big M.'s attention to a slip stating he's lost his job as a general by indirectly giving it to him, so as not to witness him having a heart attack over it. His attempts fail due to various outside factors distracting Big M. from noticing the note.

    Comic Strips 
  • A Pearls Before Swine strip has Pig call Goat to ask if he's sitting down. Goat freaks out and asks what's happened, and Pig replies: "Oh, it's just comfy."

    Fan Works 
  • In The Keys Stand Alone: The Soft World, after the four meet and de-curse the Last Wizard but still don't know what's going on, she very gently explains:
    The Wizard sighed deeply. "Ever since you have returned here, you have been distracted, tricked, betrayed in so deep and subtle a fashion that I am almost ashamed to tell you what happened, for it was partially my doing, though my involvement in it was opportunistic rather than initiatory. I protected you from something far worse, and I would have stopped it all had I the power. Please understand that I am deeply and permanently grateful to you for breaking my curse, and I profoundly regret that what I am about to say will cause you distress. It is my fervent hope that once you are fully cognizant of your circumstances, we can work together to alleviate them."
    "Right," said John after a short, unhappy silence, "we're no strangers to bad news and betrayal, so bring it on, let's get it over with."
  • In All This Sh*t is Twice as Weird, Dorian shoulders the burden of informing Cullen that the Inquisitors and some of their companions have fallen into a Fade rift. He's pretty sure he fails at the 'gently' part, judging by the reaction.

    Films — Animated 
  • One of the most iconic ones comes from Snoopy, Come Home, when Linus tries to tell Charlie Brown that Snoopy had a previous owner.
    Linus: Are you ready for a shock?
    (Charlie Brown faints)
    Linus: He wasn't ready for a shock.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Enforced in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. After King John is told that the Sheriff of Rottingham has bad news, the corrupt Prince John orders the Sheriff to "tell me the Bad News in a Good Way." So the Sheriff puts on an overly affected cackle to tell of how Robin Hood is back from the Crusades, defeated the Sheriff's men, and is coming to see Prince John hanged.
    "What are you, crazy?! Why are you laughing?! This is terrible news!"
  • Used in Facing the Giants, when Coach Grant Taylor gets a call informing him that his team will be allowed into the playoffs after all because the team they lost to in the last game cheated. You only hear Grant's end of the conversation, but he repeats the callers question of "Am I sitting down?" with obvious confusion.
  • Played straight in La Bamba. Donna enters the room after the news of Ritchie's death has been announced. She missed it but wants to know why everyone is so upset. Her sobbing friend warns her, "You'd better sit down, Donna."
  • In 7 Zwerge, the Magic Mirror is reluctant to tell the Queen that Snow White is still alive.
    Mirror: You are the fairest my Queen... although well, when one considers it globally, then...
    Queen: What? I'm the fairest of them all!
    Mirror: Yes, well, "of them all" is currently... a bit exaggerated. Now when you exclude the dwarven lands... then sure... But beyond the seven mountains by the seven dwarves... there is this Snow White and well...
  • Inverted in Independence Day: When the President can't bear to tell his daughter about her mom's death, she breaks the bad news gently to herself by sadly asking, "Is Mommy sleeping?" The President quietly responds, "Yeah," and hugs her.
  • Scary Movie 3: Parodied when George informs Sue about the death of Brenda, who was her teacher. It seems like he'll be considerate in telling her this news, since she's only a child. Instead he just loudly screams in her face and tells her he ran over her dog too. ("EVERYONE you love around you is DYING!")
  • Attempted in Captain America: The First Avenger, with Steve Rogers waking up in a room set up to appear like his familiar 1940s setting in order to give him time to rest before being told that seven decades have gone by. Unfortunately, he sees through the setup and makes a run for it, running smack into present-day New York City.
  • Averted in Voyage of the Rock Aliens.
    Sheriff: Am I speaking to the widow of John S. Lamont?
    Mrs. Lamont: You must be mistaken. I'm not a widow.
    Sheriff: The hell you're not. [hangs up]

  • A man goes on vacation and his friend is watching his cat. A few days in the man calls to check up, and the friend says "Your cat fell off the roof and died." The man says, "Ouch! Couldn't you have said it more gently, like 'Your cat climbed up on the roof, there was a loose tile, she fell, I rushed her to the vet, but there was nothing they could do'?" The friend apologizes and a few months go by. The man goes away again, and calls to check in. His friend says "Your mother climbed up on the roof..."
  • A Remittance Man is arrested and hanged for stealing cattle out West. The lawyer charged with informing his father agonizes for some time about how to best break this news to the family, finally settling on "Dear sir, I regret to inform you of the death of your son. He was participating in a public function when the platform fell out from under him."

  • Famously, in David Copperfield, Mrs. Creakle, the kindhearted wife of Sadist Teacher Mr. Creakle, tries to gently tell David that his mother has died.
    I might have been surprised by the feeling tone in which he spoke, if I had given it a thought; but I gave it none until afterwards. I hurried away to the parlour; and there I found Mr. Creakle, sitting at his breakfast with the cane and a newspaper before him, and Mrs. Creakle with an opened letter in her hand. But no hamper.

    'David Copperfield,' said Mrs. Creakle, leading me to a sofa, and sitting down beside me. 'I want to speak to you very particularly. I have something to tell you, my child.'

    Mr. Creakle, at whom of course I looked, shook his head without looking at me, and stopped up a sigh with a very large piece of buttered toast.

    'You are too young to know how the world changes every day,' said Mrs. Creakle, 'and how the people in it pass away. But we all have to learn it, David; some of us when we are young, some of us when we are old, some of us at all times of our lives.'

    I looked at her earnestly.

    'When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,' said Mrs. Creakle, after a pause, 'were they all well?' After another pause, 'Was your mama well?'

    I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her earnestly, making no attempt to answer.

    'Because,' said she, 'I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning your mama is very ill.'

    A mist rose between Mrs. Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down my face, and it was steady again.

    'She is very dangerously ill,' she added.

    I knew all now.

    'She is dead.'

    There was no need to tell me so. I had already broken out into a desolate cry, and felt an orphan in the wide world.

  • In one of the sequels to The Princess Diaries, Mia's mother calls this "Cat on the Roof"ing. She explains that, if she had to tell Mia, living away from home, that her beloved cat had died, she would do it over a series of calls. She'd start by saying that she'd left the window open and Louie had gotten onto the roof (hence the name). Then she'd explain that she hadn't been able to catch him yet. And eventually, she'd explain that he'd died. Mia is horrified by the idea and spends her time Comically Missing the Point trying to explain better ways to lure Louie back home. Her mother's point is that, since Mia knows in advance that she has a scheduling conflict between her royal duties and a prearranged date with her boyfriend, she should begin hinting that something might come up, that maybe they should reschedule, so that she's not either leading him on or hurting his feelings by bluntly telling him she can't make it. Mia tries it, but finds it isn't her style.
  • It's not quite "you should sit down", but in Thud! when Willikins the butler is reading Commander Vimes the Ankh-Morpork Times, while Vimes shaves himself, he advises Vimes to put down the razor before reading the headline about a vampire joining the Watch. When Vimes asks about the editorial cartoon, Willikins asks if Vimes has picked the razor back up, and then suggests stepping away from the sink.

    Live-Action TV 
  • On The Andy Griffith Show, Andy once had to call a woman and tell her that her husband, whom they presumed dead and held a funeral for 2 years ago, has turned up alive. Knowing this will be a huge shock, he tries to get her to sit down.
    Andy: I think you should sit down. No really, please sit down. Well ma'am, you can have it your own way. Don't sit down. All right: your husband is alive... hello? Hello? (hangs up) I believe she's sat down.
  • In The Big Bang Theory episode "The Spaghetti Catalyst," Sheldon tells Leonard to sit down. Leonard informs Sheldon that he's already lying in bed, which should be good enough.
  • One episode of Criminal Minds has JJ helping a young local sheriff with his first time notifying a victim's family. The rules she lays out are: Expect a physical reaction and try to get them to sit (she once had someone pass out and hit her head, then needed to repeat the news at the hospital). Be prepared to provide proof (to help with the 'denial' stage). Don't be afraid to show emotion and empathize with the person (they'll feel more validated if the authorities share their grief). The sheriff scoffs at the last one, but he winds up shedding a few tears.
  • Played with in the Quantum Leap episode "Miss Deep South," in which Sam has leapt into a beauty pageant contestant. Al comes bearing bad news, and insists that Sam sit down before he hears it. Sam sits down and his skirt's crinoline cage hits him in the face. Al relents, "I think you better stand up, Sam."
  • Dexter did this in the 2010 season opener when presenting news of his wife's death.
  • Dateline NBC:
    Chris Hansen: Why don't you take a seat over there?
  • Sometimes happens on the PBS show Ghostwriter, as people tend to be freaked out upon seeing the titular character for the first time and receiving his outgoing, friendly greeting.
  • M*A*S*H has this exchange over the phone:
    General-of-the-week: Are you sitting down, Henry?
    Henry Blake: [stands up] No sir!
    GOTW: Maybe you should, I have some exciting news.
    Henry: [sits down] Yes sir!
    Hawkeye: They're giving you calisthenics over the phone?
  • The police officers of Law & Order frequently ask relatives of victims to sit down.
  • In Off Centre, Chau says that bad news can be softened by ending it with making your voice high and making it seem like a question. Later, Mike's girlfriend breaks up with him trying the same thing.
  • In the World War II Mini Series The Sinking of the Laconia, Captain Sharp says tells Junior Officer Thomas Mortimer "You better sit down," before presenting him with a telegram. Mortimer doesn't sit down; he merely asks, "All of them, sir?" As one can probably guess, his wife and children have all been killed in an air raid.
  • On ER whenever a doctor has to break the news of a patient's death. Results vary.
  • In Horrible Histories, none of the courtiers, for obvious reasons, want to tell Henry VIII his wife is unfaithful, so they call on the court jester to deliver the news. The jester manages to do so in a way that keeps Henry from reacting until the jester's out of the room. "Hmm, do you think he was trying to tell me something?"
  • In the S Club 7 TV show, one of the other band members finds out that Paul is leaving and is unsure how to break it to the others, so she chooses to do so via a game of charades. The others are so relieved to finally figure it out and get back to their siesta that it takes a moment for the news to actually sink in.
  • In Three's Company, Jack lies to his grandfather about being a doctor to impress him and uses this to guilt Terri into letting him use an empty office at the hospital to maintain the charade.
  • In Gossip Girl Dorota asks Blair if she wants to hear the bad news or the good news first. She considers, then says she wants to hear the good news first so that she can fully appreciate it. The good news, "There is a replacement," however, doesn't make sense without hearing the bad news first (her prom dress is ruined).
  • In the The Phantom of the Opera (1990) Mini Series, when Eric approaches Christine, he gushes about her Beautiful Singing Voice and effusively praises her, then apologizes as he hesitantly tells her the one flawó"forgive me, but it is obviously untrained", this leading into his offer to be her tutor.
  • In Victorious, at Sikowitz's request, Cat and Robbie create a business where they write upbeat songs to deliver bad news to people. The idea is that the recipient will be so impressed with the music that it'll take a second for the bad news to sink in. For example, they sing the first song to tell Sikowitz's kid neighbor that his go-kart was run over:
    Robbie: This kind of news is always hard to tell someone.
    Cat: And we really hope it doesn't break your heart.
    Robbie: But somebody ran,
    Cat: Yeah, somebody ran,
    Robbie: A woman or a man,
    Cat: Maybe in a van,
    Both: Somebody ran over your go-cart!

  • Tout Va Très Bien Madame La Marquise: A marquise calls her servants to ask how things are going. They tell her that all is well (tout va très bien), except her horse died. Then they describe the series of events that led to this calamity, with each link in the chain more horrible than the one before it.
    • The horse died in the stable fire, the stable caught fire because the castle was on fire, the castle was on fire because the marquis knocked over a candle, he knocked over a candle because he'd shot himself, he'd shot himself because he learned he was bankrupt. But other than that, everything's going fine.
  • "Break It To Them Gently" by Burton Cummings is sung from the perspective of a young man who "fell in with strangers" and did something (likely murder) that means he will spend the rest of his days as a fugitive with a gun. He asks a friend to let his family know, his parents, his sister, and his grandmother, who always knew he would end up "wild and bad".

  • Done in The Navy Lark between Mister Phillips and the ship's Chaplain in a very confused conversation about a pregnant racehorse (which the Chaplain thinks is a girl Phillips has got knocked up due to how Phillips broached the subject), with the Chaplain being so shocked that after having had to sit down he declares "I think I better stand up again."

    Web Animation 
  • Red vs. Blue: Grif couldn't sit down because both of his kneecaps were shattered, so Sarge ordered Simmons to prepare catching him when they had to explain (again) that his Sister had died.

    Web Comics 
  • In Champions of Far'aus, the city guard who had to tell Wila that her sister and brother-in-law are dead, and that she'll have to take care of her nephew, nervously tries to lead into the news.
    Wila: Why is my nephew with you?
    City Guard: Well uh, Ma'am we understand you haven't talked to your sister or her husband in a long time and well — Unfortunately...
  • During one page of Friendly Hostility, Fox and Colin are given some heavy news. Fox says he needs to sit down, to which Colin replies "You already are."
  • In The Order of the Stick, Haley has some difficulty trying to figure out how to tell Celia that her boyfriend is dead (albeit only temporarily), which unfortunately is complicated by Celia being Literal-Minded over her metaphors. Sick of wasting time, Belkar decides it is best to just shout it in the bluntest manner possible.
    Belkar: OK, that's IT! I can't take the euphemisms any more! Roy is dead!
  • Questionable Content: Played for Laughs after Roko the robot is Squashed Flat. An AI counselor tries to ease her into the news that her previous body was unrecoverable, but...
    Lemon: says in your file that you're a bread enthusiast. How do you feel about... pancakes? Or, um, crepes?

    Web Original 
  • The title of this article includes this trope in its name.
  • Don't Make Mommy Cry is a flash quiz game, where the player picks the most gentle option of something shocking. Usually deflecting blame onto something else.

    Web Videos 

    Western Animation 
  • 6teen has an episode where Marlowe wants to break up with Wyatt, so Jonesy offers to tell Wyatt for her. He tries to do this, but it backfires when he takes Wyatt to a parlour where people break up and everyone in there thinks they're a gay couple breaking up.
  • Captain Planet and the Planeteers: In the episode "Heat Wave", Gaia initially tells the Planeteers not to worry about her, but is eventually forced to admit how badly Dr. Blight's heat wave is affecting her. Still, she starts by just saying she's not well, revealing the whole truth only when Ma-Ti presses the matter.
  • In Dragons: Riders of Berk, Astrid calls it "the honey and the hatchet." First you say something nice to soften the blow, then you hit them with the bad news. When Hiccup tries it on his dad, Stoic sees right through it.
  • Barbara Gordon does this in The New Batman Adventures episode where she fear-toxin hallucinated that Gordon had turned against Batman and gotten both of them killed after she died in the tights. She intends to tell him the truth, and has him sit down before she starts. He cuts her off to maintain deniability, though, as it's implied he already knew.
  • Played with in The Proud Family, where Oscar says they shouldn't bother sitting down 'cause they're just gonna stand up again before revealing something exciting.
  • Spoofed in the TaleSpin episode "Bearly Alive", when Rebbecca got a call about a broken plane part. The guy on the other line said she should sit down, but she already was. The guy told her to stand up, and then sit down.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): You Better Sit Down


Fake Tickets

When Homer and Wally's Super Bowl tickets turn out to be fake (which they failed to notice), Homer tries to let his gang of friends down easily. Unfortunately, they immediately see through the whitewash and flip out.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (11 votes)

Example of:

Main / PowderKegCrowd

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