Whether you've just had a baby, two weeks of flu, or a death in the family, someone is bound to say it: "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help!"
You're left wondering whether they're for real or not. And what sort of help do they mean? Are they talking about getting your water while you breastfeed, or washing a sink full of dishes? Would they research recommended babysitters, or take your kids themselves for a few hours? Or maybe all they really mean is "take care, I'll be thinking of you"?
Clinical psychologist Dr Annie Cantwell-Bartl has made a career out of working with people dealing with tough experiences, and she's not a fan of the phrase. "Some people are sincere about wanting to help and others aren't," she says. "People often say 'if there's anything I can do, let me know', but that's hard to address if they're not talking about something specific. And then it's hard to say 'Oh, well actually I'd like someone to come and do my vacuuming','" she says.
Dr Cantwell-Bartl would rather see us make specific offers to friends in need. "It's much easier if someone will offer something concrete," she says. Better still, she says, offer several concrete things so they can choose. For example: "I'd be happy to mow the lawn, take you out for coffee, or walk the dog, would that be useful?" After all, when you're experiencing one of life's rough patches, the last thing you feel like is listing what you need done and finding people to ask.
Parenting blogger Michaela Fox likes the intentions behind the phrase, but last year, during a time of grief and loss, she found it more helpful when people just did things.
"I found it hard to accept the general, often vague offers," she says. "What was particularly helpful was when friends and family members simply cooked meals without asking. One close friend asked me to send her my timetable for the week, and she then sent it back with all the times she would drop my kids to school and extra curricular activities, and said she would continue to do this until I told her to stop. It was exactly what I needed as I would never have asked for that level of support.
"Another friend arrived on my doorstep one day with a delivery of food essentials. Realising that I might not be in the mood for a chat she simply delivered the food, gave me a hug, and was on her way. This meant so much to me."
Blogger and author Constance Hall encourages us all to jump in and help each other through everyday life, not just during tough times. She's a fan of forming the collaborative "village" vital for raising children. On her facebook page, Constance shows us what this means in her life: "Most days I leave school with someone else's kids, someone always has some of mine. I stop by a friend's house and she will scoop some of the curry from her pot into a container for my family while I'm changing her baby's nappy."
But perhaps you honestly have no idea what your friend might need, or you don't want her to feel self-conscious about that sink full of dishes. Dr Cantwell-Bartl suggests a subtle but powerful change of wording if you do want to make a general offer – asking someone "Is there anything you'd particularly like me to do?" is an easier offer for most people to accept.
If there are no specific offers forthcoming, you can certainly take responsibility for your needs and go ahead and ask anyway. Whenever someone does say, "Let me know if there's anything I can do!" the best thing you can do is to bravely assume they mean it. Correct answer: "YES, there is actually." For starters, you can reply with, "Could you get that washing in off the line? Could you come with me to the doctor? Could you take bub for a walk so I can sleep?" Then let your friend take responsibility for declining if they're not able to help in that way.
Hopefully, your example will then help your friend feel more comfortable to let you know exactly what she needs when it's her turn to catch one of life's curve balls.