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There was the following paragraph in the article titled “How Russia wants to undermine the U.S. election” in Time magazine (October 10):

One day in June she (Arizona Secretary of state, Michele Reagan) was in her backyard in Phoenix when she got a call from her chief of staff. “Are you sitting down?” he asked. ---A group of hackers known as Fancy Bear was trying to sell a user name and password that belonged to someone in Arizona county election official’s office, which holds the personal data of almost 4 million people “My reaction was, well, this is like the worst thing that you want to hear,” Reagan recalls.

In other source – motherjones.com. (October 8), the phrase, “Are you sitting down?” is rephrased as “Can you sit down?'”:

Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan was in the backyard of her home last June when she got a call from her chief of staff. "The first words out of his mouth were, 'Can you sit down?'" Reagan told Mother Jones. He then said that her office had been "contacted by the FBI, and it looks like there's a computer password and username that belongs to our database for sale on the dark web." http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/10/state-election-hacks-undermine-voters-confidence

Are “Are you sitting down?” and “Can you sit down?” used to try somebody to brace for a shocking news, or calm down the other in advance?
What do they exactly mean? Are they very popular turn of phrases?

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    Yes, that's exactly what they're for. They're based on the assumption that it is easier to receive bad or shocking news if you're sitting down, because you're less likely to faint or crumble in a heap from the shock and despair of this news. I don't think there's much truth to that, but the mental image is there. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 5 '16 at 1:09
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    Yes, that's it. It's an introduction to bad news. "Are you sitting down? It means "be prepared for bad news". It's a reference to asking someone to sit down in case they faint because of unexpected news. – Centaurus Dec 5 '16 at 1:10
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    Yeah, "Are you sitting down?" basically means "Are you ready for some shocking news?" I've never heard "Can you sit down?" used in the same sense, though "You might want to sit down" is sometimes used. – Hot Licks Dec 5 '16 at 1:13
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    It would be better to have answers in the Your Answer box. – tchrist Dec 5 '16 at 1:17
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    @Centaurus - it's not always bad news; it could equally be used for unexpectedly good news. For example, I would easily imagine using this phrase if I was telling family members that I'd won the lottery. – Simba Dec 5 '16 at 10:19
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Yes, that's what it means: "be prepared for some bad or, paradoxically, very good news I'm about to break." It's an introduction to the news someone is about to break over the phone and a reference to the possibility one may faint or have any sort of untoward symptom when they experience intense surprise, fear or shock. If one is sitting down, they are less likely to get hurt.

Examples of cases where you'd ask "are you sitting down?" before breaking the news:

  • "Honey, I've just been held up and the son of a bitch ran away with all my money and credit cards!"
  • "I'm pregnant and you are the father, obviously."
  • "Remember that old coin you gave Jimmy? It was valuable and he sold it for $300."
  • "Mom, I've got full scholarship to Harvard Medical School."
  • "Mike and I got married in Vegas yesterday."
  • "The doctor said she has cancer."
  • "We'll have to cancel our trip to Hawaii. Mr. Clyne, my boss, says..."

As we can see from the examples, it has more to do with "intense surprise" than with the news being good or bad.

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    It might be helpful to note that the phrase is not used in circumstances most likely to lead to actual collapse—it would be somewhat callous to preface the news of a loved one's unexpected death this way, for example. In that case, you would give the news in person, so wouldn't need to ask about the person's state of seatedness, and would say something like "let's sit down" to get the person to sit. If you telegraph the bad news by saying "are you sitting down" or "you should sit" they might argue with you rather than sitting, thus leading to the dangerous situation you want to avoid. – 1006a Dec 5 '16 at 4:45
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    It's more about preparing the person for shock than specifically being about bad news. For example, the phrase would also be appropriate to prepare your spouse for news that you'd won the lottery. – MooseBoys Dec 5 '16 at 5:15
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    @1006a You're more than right. I've edited. – Centaurus Dec 5 '16 at 12:37
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    Indeed, I recall the midwife telling me to sit down before she presented me with my newborn daughter (my wife was still under anaesthetic). She'd probably seen a few new dads crumble in the same circumstances. But the formulation "are you sitting down" also implies that the speaker doesn't know, which implies they are speaking on the phone. – Michael Kay Dec 5 '16 at 15:18
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    @MichaelKay If you drop a newborn seated, s/he will probably land in your lap. If you drop a newborn standing, there's a greater chance of injury. Especially first-time new parents may not be all that familiar with the right way to hold a baby. @ 1006a, sometimes there is such great physical distance that big news must be delivered over the phone. @ Centaurus, the "I'm pregnant" news is probably a fit for the list regardless of who the father is. – WBT Dec 5 '16 at 17:10
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When is the phrase, "Are you sitting down?" used,

When you are about to tell someone shocking news.

and what does it exactly mean?

It means, "I'm about to tell you bad news." It implies, "If you aren't now sitting, please sit down."
It can be taken literally, and probably should, to avoid risk of injury from fainting at the bad news, or jumping and hitting one's head.

For a literary-graphic illustration of exactly this, listen to Ed Gavagan's Moth story "Golf Clubbing" (7min 44sec) about (spoliers hidden)

injuries sustained to him (if you faint easily, sit down for it), his drill-sergeant father on learning the news, and his mother (who was, fortunately, seated) on learning the news about his father.

Having heard this phrase for years, this story was the best illustration I'd heard of it.
(Adult content warning: not for the queasy; occasional uncensored obscenity.)

0

From my experience as a native Russian speaker, this phrase is mostly used to break very good news, not the bad news.

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The same and similar phrases are used when telling stories to a group of small children. "Are you sitting down? Then I'll begin." or "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin." These have the same idea of being prepared for something, but for children it tries to avoid them fidgeting or disturbing others as the story begins and so missing the beginning. The "comfortably" version was used on the children's radio program Listen with Mother.

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