advice on giving unsolicited advice

Reader J. H. writes:

What do you think is the protocol for giving advice? I’ve noticed  sometimes people bitch and moan, only wanting people to hear them out, maybe a bit of validation (but letting them sort out the issue, and not telling them what to do). Other times, one hears a loved one making terrible decisions, and you can’t help but tell them what you think you should do. What’d’ya reckon?

Dear J.H.:

This is a great question, seeing as I just wrote an article over at The Weekly Alibi about writing an advice column. Now I can actually write more about the act of giving advice.

Let’s start with the fact that this bitching and moaning phenomenon is actually something I’ve studied in my time as a linguist. There are some people who, in complaining, are merely seeking someone to commiserate with them. Then there are people who are looking for a solution. It’s a communication style issue, and people don’t actually realize they’re one or the other (unless they take the time to become self aware about their communication style, like we linguists do twice a week).

It sounds to me like you’re a solutionist rather than a commiserater, since you refer to the people complaining as bitching and moaning. I’m going to give you some advice straight away: Commiseraters will actually probably get offended or annoyed if you try to solve their problems for them. They’re looking to develop a sort of intimacy with you by sharing their woes, rather than solving them. They probably know exactly what they need to do to fix the problem, anyway, so your advice will just cue them into the fact that you don’t think they’re smart enough to solve their own problems (even if that’s not what you mean to imply). So my advice is, if you know someone just wants to complain, don’t take it as just bitching and moaning. Listen to them, and then offer some story about how you’ve gone through a similar problem.

Some more advice: women tend to be commiseraters, and men tend to be solutionists, although this isn’t always the case. It’s probably about a 60/40 split either way, so it’s not a failsafe bet, but it’s an interesting trend to look into. On top of that, sometimes commiseraters actually do want advice, and solutionists do just want someone to listen to them. Just be aware that this is a communication style, so if you want to communicate with someone when they’re complaining, you should try and decide which style they talk in and go that route in order to avoid offending them.

I’m a commiserater. I come from a long line of commiserating women, including my mother and sisters. My father is a solutionist. If you want to talk about how you’re going to fix money problems, you call dad; if you start complaining about the money problems with no solution in sight, dad hands the phone to mom. I’ve done linguistic research on my dad in this matter. It’s hilariously predictable once you know what to look for. It’s been great for me, too, because I don’t get offended when I’m complaining and my dad (or anyone else, for that matter) offers a solution. I know he’s offering the solution not to shut me up, but because he loves me.

My best friend from second grade is also a solutionist. It’s hard sometimes for me to give her advice when she sounds like she’s complaining, because as a commiserater, I want to say, “Yeah, buddy, that happens to me, too!” But I know that most of the time, she wants advice. Of course, most of the time, she’ll ask for it directly, anyway.

So here’s my utmost recommendation for you: Unless someone specifically asks, “What do you think?” or, “What should I do?” after laying out all their problems, you probably should keep the advice to yourself. Unless, of course, you’re watching a good friend or family member waltz towards destruction. In that case, an intervention might be a better idea than advice.

Also, if you happen to write an advice column, you can give them backhanded advice without having to push it in their face.


1 Response to “advice on giving unsolicited advice”

  1. 1 Richard
    May 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Interesting. Ever notice at conferences when the speaker asks if there are any questions? Some people blab and blab and then expect a validating yes or no. I now know to mutter “solutionist” instead of coughing “asshole”.

    So, thanks for that speck-o-learnin’

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