What To Say Instead Of “Aren’t You Scared?”

Have you ever been asked 'Aren't you scared?" when you're about to travel solo? Or take a new job? Or move? Have you said that to someone else? Let's stop. Here's why
I was almost finished with my hash browns when my friend told me that she was flying to Somaliland and taking a Jeep five hours through the jungle to write an article about Frankincense farmers.

Instead of finishing my hash browns, I put down my fork, leaned forward and – like a concerned mother hen – clucked “Aren’t you scared!?”

I myself have been on the receiving end of these questions for the last 15 years. “Aren’t you afraid of being self-employed? What are you going to do about health insurance?” “Aren’t you concerned that if you keep traveling you’ll never meet a nice guy and settle down?” “Aren’t you scared of traveling alone? Aren’t you worried about getting raped/robbed/murdered?”

My hackles go up every time some sweet, well-intentioned human asks me this, but I’ve never been able to articulate why; I’d sort of grit my teeth, explain myself and then forget about it. But now that I was on the other side of the table (literally), I had a bit of insight into why – exactly – this line of questioning is problematic.

Before I shiver “Aren’t you scared?!” at another soul, I vow to figure out what my question actually means and then talk to my brave, adventurous friend in a productive and meaningful way.

Why “Aren’t your scared?” is an unhelpful question

1. It’s patronizing

When we say “Aren’t you scared?” we’re acting like they haven’t thought through this decision – which is pretty condescending. Most decisions that elicit “Aren’t you scared?” are significant; we don’t ask people if they’re afraid of switching to T-Mobile or getting a CSA subscription.

We ask this when people leave jobs, start or end relationships, make big medical decisions. Generally speaking, people think long and hard about these types of decisions and they’re aware of the repercussions. They don’t need us to remind them.

2. It’s a downer, dude

My friend was super excited about her amazing assignment in Somaliland – as she should be! But instead of asking her about who she’d be interviewing, where the piece would be published, how it could affect trade organizations, I pointed our conversation toward all the things that could possibly go wrong.

3. It’s unproductive

Even if we think a decision is ridiculous or inadvisable, asking them if they’re scared isn’t particularly productive.

Let’s say you have a friend who is leaving his wife and twin toddlers for a year of backpacking through Syria and the Ukraine. You have another friend who’s decided to cut back on his spending so he can save for a house. These are two very different decisions, but I would guess that these two people are equally convinced that they’re doing what’s right for them.

4. It makes the conversation about you instead of your friend and what they’re doing

When we ask “Aren’t you scared?” we’re saying “You’re doing something I wouldn’t do Click To TweetWhen we ask “Aren’t you scared?” what we’re really saying is “You’re doing something I wouldn’t do. We’re now going to talk about all the ways I feel nervous about decisions and behavior that doesn’t affect me or the reasons I wouldn’t do what you’re doing.”

But what if we actually want to know if our friend is scared? What if we’re worried about them and we selfishly want assurance that they’ve thought this through?

Well, if we really must bring it up, the more charming, clever people in my life have successfully used these two tactics on me:

1) Flattery. Tell them they’re brave, that you are too chicken to do something like that, and then ask how they can be so fearless.

2) Try a more supportive question first, like, “Awesome! How do you even get ready for something like that?” Then you can ask them “Is there anything that you’re nervous about?”

This gives your friend the space to be positive and excited and if they are nervous, they can decide if they want to talk about it and tell you what precautions they’ve taken. They don’t need another well-intentioned friend clucking at them over cold hash browns.

We all want to be helpful, supportive friends, right? We want to cheer our friends’ adventures and crash in their guest rooms once they’ve relocated to Somaliland! A few little tweaks to our questions can help our friends feel supported while calming our own nerves.

Have you ever “Aren’t you scared?” someone? Or been asked that yourself? What do you do or say when your friends do ‘scary’ things? 

P.S. 5 ways to stop caring what people think

Photo by Leio McLaren (@leiomclaren) on Unsplash

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  1. Abbie

    I am, admittedly, a scaredy-cat. A Nervous Nellie. An Anxious Abbie, if you will. And I’ve asked that question of my braver friends and acquaintances often, but for me it’s more of a way to express the awe I feel. Like, clearly they’re scared, and they’re doing it anyway. Which is amazing. It’s more that I want to know how they got past that inevitable fear and decided to take the leap. I want to know where that bravery came from. I hope I’ve never asked it in a way that sounded judge-y or patronizing, and I’m glad you provided some different (better…) ways for me to frame my awe in the future.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      If you’re coming from a place of awe and support, I’m sure that comes across in your question 🙂

  2. Tiffany D.

    I love this post! I’m about to move halfway across the country for a new job and it really is a stumbling block in conversation when people ask me if I’m nervous or scared. Now that I’m on the receiving end of those kinds of questions, I know how to frame those same questions for my friends a little better.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Congrats on your move!

  3. Phyll

    i LOVE this!! especially the end portion about how to genuinely ask… very helpful!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So glad you liked it, Phyll!

  4. Marielle

    I just came back of 3 months solo backpacking, and I have been asked this question so many times. I see it as an opportunity though to talk about how I believe that you shouldn’t let yourself be hold back by your fears if you want to make your dreams come true. I also think that the only way to build confidence is by doing things that make you scared and ending them with good results. Then you see that you can do it, and you can face a bigger challenge next time. But the questions about fears about making a living doing what i love still freak me out a little, because I haven’t quite tackled those fears yet. Still, I respond that I rather try and fail than have regrets at the end of my life of not pursuing what I want to do most.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! A friend and I were just talking about how sometimes the best response is “Yes, I’m scared but I’m doing it because this is important to me.”

  5. Anne

    “Aren’t you concerned that if you keep traveling you’ll never meet a nice guy and settle down?”
    Could you make a post on that?

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      My go-to response is a smile and “Not really, that’s just not a priority for me right now” and then change the subject back to them 🙂

  6. Beth

    Thanks for another super articulate article. I’ve certainly been frustrated by this question but not reflected in why.

    Further to what you said, I think the question priviledges the life choices of the asker over those of the person being asked. One could just as easily ask- aren’t you scared of settling down in the one place, of only being with one person, of working in an office and not experiencing the breath of human potential…. But that would be rude.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      YES. And in those situations it’s sooooo hard not respond with something snarky!

  7. Josie

    When I told friends and family that I was moving to Mexico City I got questions and statements along this line of thinking. A lot of it comes from ignorance and I just brush it off and tell them that yes I know what I am doing. It is pretty annoying but I think as long as I am traveling, I am going to have people I care about say things like that. I only hope over time that they trust me and try to expand their perspectives about the world.

  8. Emma

    To be honest I don’t think it’s a question I have asked too often, I will ask questions when friends are doing something new and amazing like if they are moving across the world to travel I will ask what they are planning on doing for money, if they have places sorted to stay but I don’t think I’ve directly said aren’t you scared?!

    I did my first ever skydive a few years ago, I am terrified of heights and the first question everyone asked me is aren’t you scared? What if the parachute breaks and you die? You know I read a story about a woman who that happened to! I wanted to shout at them – what part of this conversation is exactly helpful? Please tell me because you are really not helping! Yes I am scared but do you know what I am doing it for a damn good cause and I wish you’d just say that’s cool, I couldn’t do it but good for you.

    I think more of us could do with reading this post and just being a bit more supportive to our awesomely brave friends and family who want new adventures or horizons instead of questioning the fears that might hold us back!

    Hope it’s ok to link back to your post in my sunday favourites.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I’d be honored if you linked to it!

  9. siiri

    Few years ago I announced to my friend that I’, moving abroad – from one EU country to another, so nothing too “exotic”. She asked me “aren’t you scared that someone will rob you and steal your passport and credit card and money?”
    Well, no. I could happen, of course, and it would be sad. I could also be hit by a car tomorrow morning, but it doesn’t stop be for going to work. You can live your life fully, if you only think all the possible bad things that might happen, if you try to – well, live.

  10. creole wisdom

    Preach! I have a very radical belief about fear in general, aside from healthy fear {i.e. I don’t want to get run over by a car so I’m going to wait for the crosswalk to turn green} I don’t believe it has any place in our lives. It’s one of the best aspects that the Christian faith teachers. I think we are often so prone to making decisions out of fear, living in fear, and also using it against others– instead let’s just be brave and open! You are right, saying to someone else “aren’t you afraid?” isn’t productive. It’s just rude.

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