In social interactions over the years, there’s one issue that comes up over and over again. Each time, there is an outcry that I couldn’t possibly mean something so unbelievable, so unreasonable, and so disrespectful to those around me.
Have I endorsed kicking puppies?
There’s one simple rule for interacting with me.
Don’t give me unsolicited advice.
Can you accept unsolicited advice for yourself because you appreciate it? Sure! Can you give unsolicited advice to your friends and family who want it? Sure, as long as you know they really are okay with it. Whatever happens amongst consenting adults…
Can you give your kids unsolicited advice because you’re the parent? Yes, that’s part of being a parent. If they hate you for it, well, that’s also parenthood. 😀
But can you give me unsolicited advice?
Of course, there are exceptions. Are you a professional or expert in the field I’m discussing, and have I sought your advice for other reasons? Do you have objective expert knowledge or qualifications in the specific issue in question? Do you and I have a long enough, close enough, and mutually respectful enough friendship that I’ll be sure to interpret your unsolicited advice as caring about me rather than forcing unwanted opinions?
Most of all, though: if I ask you to please back off with unsolicited advice, what is your response?
Will you say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that wasn’t okay. I’ll be more careful in the future.”
Or will you say, “You should be nicer to other people when they give you unsolicited advice. Don’t be defensive. I wasn’t really giving unsolicited advice. You should be nicer to me.”
If it’s the first, this probably doesn’t apply to you.
But if it’s the second, then yeah. If you want to interact with me (which, fair enough, you may not…but if so, why are you reading this post?), you’ll need to think hard about why you’re giving the unsolicited advice in the first place. What is your objective?
- I know how you should fix your problem, and listening to me will help you find a solution.
- I care about you, and I want you to validate this caring. It’s very important to me that you acknowledge that I care about you as I’m violating your often-stated boundary not to give unsolicited advice.
- I know that you don’t want unsolicited advice, but my comments are an exception. It’s an opinion/question/statement/sign of concern, but that is not unsolicited advice. I will argue with you over the legalities of whether my comments were advice or not.
- My intention is not to give unsolicited advice, and that matters more than whether it is received as unsolicited advice.
- I’ve got a difficult life/situation, and that means I should be allowed to speak to you however I want.
What is the common link of all these objectives?
They focus on the speaker, not the listener.
Yes, it’s pop psychology, but Pyschology Today has some interesting thoughts on the reasons people give unsolicited advice (spoiler alert! it’s not to show care and concern) and the often unconscious strategies behind giving unsolicited advice. HuffPost gives these suggestions for those who enjoy giving unsolicited advice.
Here is the basic script for unsolicited advice I’ve received over the years:
- The speaker makes assumptions about my situation, and these assumptions are rarely correct.
Why this is problematic: Advice must be tailored to the specific situation, and each person’s experience is different. If you had a border collie puppy 15 years ago while in a certain situation, that does not mean my current situation, puppy, and personality are suitable for how you handled your puppy. At best, this is annoying. At worst, it drains my resources (explaining to you why your advice is not helpful) at a time when I’m already exhausted dealing with the situation.
- The speaker will either phrase the advice in the form of a question (Why are you doing it that way?) or command (You should…).
Why this is problematic: Good advice always begins with good, careful listening. Why? So that you don’t make incorrect assumptions (see #1). If my child is struggling to read and you insist she must sit down for 30 minutes every day whether she wants to or not, you might not realize she has dyslexia and would do better with interactive or audio formats to encourage her interest…before tackling the hard work of written words. If you’re issuing commands or just asking questions to disguise your commands (Did you do x? Are you sure you didn’t do y?), you’ve stopped listening. How can you expect me to listen when you refuse to give me the same courtesy? Especially when you have been asked not to do exactly what you’re doing?
- The speaker will get defensive, either for his/her own sake or for the one who gave unsolicited advice. (You should realize that people care about you. They’re being nice. You shouldn’t get so upset. I wasn’t intending to give advice.)
Why this is problematic: My personal boundaries matter more than your hurt feelings. Should all women smile to make men happier? Should all girls and women wear skirts that are long or short enough to suit the tastes of boys and men around them? Should all women have sex with so-called “incels” to make them happy? At what point does consent matter more than pride? At what point are we (as humans, but especially as women) allowed to say NO, you may NOT violate my boundaries?
Bonus: This defensiveness is usually paired with doubling down on the original unsolicited advice. Not just telling me what to do once, but then telling me how to react to being told what to do!
- The speaker will then claim victimhood, shut down the conversation, and/or end the friendship.
Why this is problematic: If the unsolicited advice truly was based on care and concern, how does ending the friendship prove that? In effect, the ultimatum becomes: Do as I tell you, or I will no longer stay in your life. If this is about me destroying my life with incessant, excessive substance abuse, then of course there are appropriate times and places for an intervention. But if I’m not crossing the street in the exact manner you find acceptable, and you end the friendship because I will not allow you to tell me that I must do so…what kind of friend are you? Not one at all.
Here’s the thing.
- a lesbian
- a woman
- a person of color
- disowned by my family and church for being all three above
- an immigrant
- someone who has been homeless and is at risk of becoming homeless again
- someone who has experienced domestic abuse/violence
- someone who does not have a current, stable source of income
For all of these reasons, outsiders (and friends) feel entitled–nay, impelled–to give advice. What does this advice center on?
As a non-lesbian, non-woman, non-person of color, non-immigrant, non-homeless, with relative financial stability and/or someone whose relationship may or may not be similar to yours…
I know better than you how you should live your life.
When white people tell people of color how to live as a person of color in a white-dominated world…
When straight people tell queer people how to be queer…
When men tell women how to be women…
When those who don’t wake up each morning terrified of not having a place to sleep that night…
The list goes on.
When your visible identity is perceived as not the norm, your life is available for critique.
Paradoxically, it’s the very perception of sameness that fuels this critique.
I critique your life and choices (even though my situation is nothing like yours), because I perceive that my life situation is directly parallel to yours.
So, it’s a double act.
First, my status as “not-the-norm” means people want to give me advice how to live my life to be happier, more comfortable, or more successful. In other words, how to more closely align with their idea of what success, comfort, and happiness look like. You should conform, and my advice will help you to do so.
This can be lesbians telling me to forget my family because they forgot their own family. It might be someone in a previous abusive relationship who tells me to get a divorce because they divorced their own spouse. It might be an immigrant telling me to be grateful I’m in the UK, because they are grateful for themselves.
In other words:
Be like me.
If you follow my advice, you will become more like me.
Do you see the inherent self-focus in such a belief?
If you make the same choices that I would, you will succeed.
There’s something most people forget, though.
Helpful advice is precious, useful…and highly sought after.
That’s why we pay a fortune to doctors, vets, lawyers, accountants, consultants, plumbers, and professionals. Good advice costs a fortune, or it is given with great care in the context of a mutual respectful and caring relationship. So if you look up to your dad, as I did, and ask him for advice on how to maintain my car, the advice is worth a fortune. His childhood and adolescence working in his dad’s garage made him an expert.
While there are always exceptions, you get what you pay for. Free advice on hair from a friend who is a hairstylist and has worked long and hard on her career? A precious gift that you receive free but is worth a lot. Free advice from a random stranger who doesn’t know the first thing about you and hasn’t spent time with you? Not so much.
Second, the false equivalency (I’m a heterosexual white woman living in the country where I was born and am a citizen, but we are all human beings so I am qualified to tell you how to deal with the specific immigration regulations of a country I’ve never visited or lived in) of failing to recognize differences in situations (between mine and yours) is a form of egocentrism. That is, the inability to distinguish between your values, life experiences, situation, resources, etc. and mine.
Do you love to drink beer, go kayaking, and ignore advice you dislike?
Great for you!
You are entitled to do so, and I’m pleased it’s your life choice.
However, your life situation is not mine.
Your life decisions are not mine.
I am not you.
You are not me.
If you are talking to me, your advice is not valid for anyone besides yourself.
But that’s soooo mean! People just want to give you advice because they care about you! Why can’t you just smile and say thank you to make them feel better? You shouldn’t hurt people’s feelings when they’re trying to be nice.
The way to be nice is to respect a clearly stated boundary.
You don’t have to understand or agree, but you must respect it.
But I don’t care if people give me unsolicited advice. You shouldn’t let it bother you.
Ah. You do understand that’s giving more unsolicited advice, right?
You’re too fussy. You should stop trying to control what other people say. People can’t say anything around you.
No. It’s very simple. Don’t tell me what to do.
How do you feel about unsolicited advice? An informal poll earlier this year showed slightly more than half of respondents would accept unsolicited advice for themselves. A significant minority felt that unsolicited advice usually carried implicit criticism of their choices/actions/decisions.
What do you think?