Is showing sympathy with humor powerful, or just inappropriate?
Sympathy and “get well soon” cards have always been one of the most somber and sensitive sections of the greeting card aisle. They tend to carry gentle messages like “thinking of you,” written in soft cursive on calming colors like lavender or pale blue. Many are religious in nature; others have flowers or sweet animals.
Some card designers are bucking these unwritten rules for sympathy cards. These cards often contain curse words, slang, puns, and comical spins on classic sympathy card phrases. For example, imagine opening up an envelope and seeing the phrase, “With sympathy, this f***ing sucks.”
That’s one of the cards made by Michelle Bingham, who runs the Etsy shop LouiseLauret. “When most people are confronted with difficult situations, they want honesty and understanding, not a poem stating ‘everything happens for a reason,’” says Bingham.
Bingham, who has been making cards since she was a kid but starting her business about two years ago, says her goal was to make people laugh and empower them. “While many of my cards feature swear words, I always aim to use them empathetically or to take the power away from something, like cancer, death, infertility, or depression,” says Bingham.
Lacey Race, who has been selling comical sympathy cards under her Etsy shop Red Headed Stepchild Paper Co. since 2016, agrees, saying the goal of her business to to spread joy, encouragement, and laughter.
“Sometimes sappy sentiments or encouraging words just aren’t the right fit for an occasion. Once in a while, you just need to acknowledge that a situation really sucks!” says Race.
Behind the Appeal of Potty-Mouthed Sympathy Cards
Race knows firsthand the appeal of more blunt (and less sentimental) cards. She launched her company after dealing with a loss of a loved one, and she wanted to design cards for situations in life “where a Hallmark card just wasn’t going to cut it.”
Her card selection includes humorous sayings like, “When life gives you lemons, put them in your bra to make your boobs look bigger,” and “chin up and straighten that crown!”
Along with other card designers, the two women might be tapping into a legitimate stress reliever: Laughter therapy is an actual type of therapy that uses humor to cope with pain and stress, according to the National Cancer Institute. It has been found to help people relax, sleep, and even reduce their chances of heart disease and stroke.
“Life is tough. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that you or someone you know is being dealt a really crappy hand, and that life is just unfair in that moment,” says Race. “If we can’t smile or find something to laugh about, then life is going to be a hell of a lot tougher on us than it needs to be.”
Bingham also believes that the popularity of witty sympathy cards may represent a cultural shift, and expressing emotions is more encouraged than it used to be. For younger generations who are more accustomed to sharing their thoughts and feelings online and in person, the standard sympathy card phrases may come across as inauthentic.
While not everyone may be a fan of the funny cards (Race calls them an “acquired taste”), they tend to strike a chord with many people. Race sells her cards at local craft fairs and enjoys watching people’s faces as they browse her selection. “People find designs that remind them of friends or family members. There is always a lot of laughter,” she says.
Both Race and Bingham get a lot of satisfaction from creating cards that help people get through low points in their lives. “My customers are fantastic and they have given me some of the ideas for my cards,” says Bingham. “I have gotten multiple emails from people thanking me for having a card perfect for their situation, and that it provided laughs to the receiver in a difficult time.”
“I love connecting with people in general, but when it’s because of something that I have designed that speaks to them, it’s an incredible feeling,” says Race.