Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 3/4, August 2005 (
Some Consequences for Helpers Who Deliver
“Cold Comfort”: Why it’s Worse for Women than Men
to be Inept When Providing Emotional Support
Amanda J. Holmstrom,
Brant R. Burleson,
and Susanne M. Jones
Two experiments were conducted to assess whether responses to helpers who used insensitive
emotional support vary as a function of the interaction between sex of participant and helper.
We hypothesized that women would evaluate an insensitive female helper and her behavior
more negatively than they would an insensitive male helper. In Experiment 1, participants
(N = 137) read conversations in which male or female helpers sought to comfort emotionally
distressed friends. In Experiment 2, participants (N = 87) engaged in face-to-face interac-
tions in which they were comforted by either a male or female helper who used insensitive
comforting messages. Overall, the results imply that women with deﬁcient emotional support
skills may be at high risk of rejection by same-sex peers.
KEY WORDS: emotional support; comforting; women’s friendships; gender role expectations; social
skills; heuristic information processing.
Emotional support is viewed by both theorists
and laypersons as a basic provision of close per-
sonal relationships (Cunningham & Barbee, 2000;
Weiss, 1974), and it is an important determinant
of satisfaction within these relationships (Acitelli,
1996; Samter, 1994). When emotional support is pro-
vided skillfully (i.e., is experienced as sensitive and
helpful), it can yield numerous beneﬁts for the re-
cipient, including improvements in emotional states
(Burleson & Goldsmith, 1998), coping (Stroebe &
Stroebe, 1996), and even health (Wills & Fegan,
2001). Unfortunately, research indicates that many
A preliminary report of Experiment 1 was presented at the bi-
ennial meeting of the International Association for Relationship
Research, Madison, WI, July, 2004.
Department of Communication, Purdue University, Indiana.
Department of Communication Studies, University of Min-
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of
Communication, Purdue University, 100 N. University Avenue,
Beering Hall 2114, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907-2098; e-mail:
attempts to provide emotional support are not expe-
rienced as sensitive and helpful by recipients. There
is a burgeoning literature concerned with “support
attempts that fail” (Lehman & Hemphill, 1990),
“miscarried helping” (Coyne, Wortman, & Lehman,
1988), and “cold comfort” (Burleson, 2003a), which
shows that well-meaning, but insensitive, attempts to
provide emotional support can be quite harmful to
recipients, intensifying their emotional hurt, under-
mining their coping, and even damaging their health.
But what are the consequences for the helpers who
provide “cold comfort”? So far, this question has re-
ceived little research attention. Moreover, the few
studies that have addressed this issue have mostly fo-
cused on the consequences of providing cold com-
fort for male helpers because men are generally
less skilled at providing emotional support than are
women (e.g., MacGeorge, Gillihan, Samter, & Clark,
2003). However, there are reasons to think that the
consequences of providing cold comfort for female
helpers may be particularly severe, especially when
their inept efforts at providing support are directed
toward other women.
2005 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.