Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Unsolicited advice: why bother?

Never have I met a person who appreciates unsolicited advice. So, why do we continue to offer it? Is this just one more pointless human activity, like when someone yells at you and you yell back at them, or when you carry on philosophical conversations with your dog? There is no explanation for why we do such things. We know they don’t serve any purpose whatsoever, yet we continue to do them anyway. Does unsolicited advice fall into that same category? Or could there possibly be a good reason for this compulsion we have to tell other people what’s best for them, despite the fact that they aren’t interested in hearing it?

I don’t know about you, but when I go to a friend with a problem and pour my heart out, that doesn’t mean I’m asking for advice. I don’t want her to solve my problem; I just want her to listen to me. When I want advice, I’ll ask for it. If I don’t ask for it, it doesn’t matter if it’s the best advice in the world, I’m not receptive to it. Aren’t most people like that? The only time we respond well to unsolicited advice is when someone advises us to do something we wanted to do all along. Otherwise, put a sock in it!

Knowing this, advice-givers will often find well-disguised ways to get their message across. There’s the stealth advisor, who sneaks his directives under the radar by asking innocent questions like, “Were there any instructions in the box?” Or the disclaim-er who thinks she can clear the way for receptivity by preceding her prescription with, “I don’t mean to be telling you what to do, but…” The one I find most endearing is the yarn spinner, who opens with, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” Is this going to be a stroll down memory lane, or is it a story with an agenda?

Now, there are clearly some people who simply enjoy telling others what they ought to do. I suspect it gives them a feeling of superiority. And there are also those who are insufferable control freaks who will jump at every opportunity to push other people around. But what about all the people who truly mean well when they freely offer up their pearls of advice without being asked?

My children are the recipients of unsolicited advice on a regular basis. I know this because I’m their unsolicited adviser. They roll their eyes and sigh while I say my piece. Then they proceed to do what they want to. I realize that’s the way it works, but I can’t help myself. I have to dish it out like great big heaps of mashed potatoes. Why?

Well, here’s the thing. When they were little they needed me to guide them. If I hadn’t, they probably wouldn’t be here today. They needed me to tell them things like, “Don't play with rattlesnakes 30 minutes after you've eaten.” Then, as they grew in independence, my guidance wasn’t needed like it once was, and I tried to keep my mouth shut as much as possible. Yet, I still find myself saying things like, “It’s never smart to make the minimum payment on your credit card.” Or, “Please promise me you wear a condom when you have sex.” Through the years, the content of my advice has changed. But my need to offer it hasn’t. And, that may be the key to understanding why I do it. I do it because I need to be needed. It’s not that I think Gretchen and Ben are incompetent to figure these things out on their own. They’re both smart people, and I know they don’t need me to give them advice. Yes, they’ll end up doing whatever they choose, despite anything I might say to them. But when I offer them advice, it’s not for them, it’s for me.

When you love someone, your happiness is intricately connected to theirs. You want to protect them because, if they’re not safe, you’re not safe. You don’t want them to mess their lives up because when they do, it messes up your life, too. When they pay the price for their mistakes, you pay the price as well. Their heartbreak breaks your heart. Their failures leave you feeling defeated. Their wounds make you bleed. That’s why we have no choice but to offer advice to those we love, whether they ask for it or not. Yes, it may be annoying as hell for them, but hopefully they’ll understand that offering unsolicited advice is just another variation on “I love you.”

No comments: