As a young mother and as someone who struggles with health issues, I tend to receive a lot of unsolicited advice from strangers. And, like most people, I don’t usually like it.
I don’t like it because strangers don’t see the whole picture of my problems. They don’t understand that I may not have the strength to fix them on my own, even if deep down I know the solution. Moreover, strangers, (if they intend to remain strangers), are not usually willing to devote any real time to help. And finally, most unsolicited advice is given in an impolite and insensitive manner — as if the advice-giver cares only for his cause and not for the human being within that cause.
Many people think that the solution to this is to just ban unsolicited advice entirely— to keep personal issues out of conversations and to stick to surface level small talk with everybody.
But I think the solution to our culture’s problem with unsolicited advice is to give more unsolicited advice— but to give it in the places and times and to the people who really need it from us.
I think that part of the reason strangers can be so coarse and ingenuine when giving advice is because, in general, we don’t even know how to properly give advice to non-strangers. We don’t know how to give advice because we aren’t practicing. We aren’t practicing on the people we really care about. We aren’t learning the art of courtesy because we refuse to participate in the sometimes difficult exchanges which teach it to us.
Such exchanges have become taboo. It has become taboo to inquire into the true well-being of another person because the true well-being of another person involves their values, lifestyles, and moral decisions. Even within families and among very close friends, it is considered inappropriate to discuss or question such things. We live in a culture that says values, lifestyles, and moral decisions are whatever you want them to be — they are mere preferences. It is a ridiculous endeavor for anyone to try to advise me that vanilla ice cream will taste better than chocolate. I prefer chocolate. If values, lifestyles, and moral decisions are just as predisposed and unchanging as ice cream taste, then of course it will seem offensive for anyone to try to advise on them.
But we know that such things are more than harmless preferences. Every one of us has some friend or family member who has made self-destructive choices and we probably felt uncomfortable or afraid of saying anything. But if we can’t talk about these things, if we can’t care about each other when it’s difficult, if we can’t address matters that are sometimes a little awkward, if we aren’t willing to challenge each other, how will our relationships grow? How will we grow as individuals?
Consequently, many relationships remain stagnant and dishonest. Of course, people still give advice. But they give it to strangers because strangers don’t hold them accountable. Strangers don’t require the follow-up that loved ones do. They don’t require the sacrifice. It can be so much easier to express concern to a stranger than it is to express concern to somebody we love. And so we have the phenomenon of people berating each other, without any courtesy, over the Internet about everything from breastfeeding to sexuality to eating gluten, but those same people refuse to say to a friend, with sensitivity and kindness, I’m really worried about you.
The solution is humility. The ability to give and receive advice lovingly begins with admiting that sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes our values, lifestyles, and moral decisions need to be refined. We need to be open to help and advice. We need to learn to not automatically take offense when we are challenged lovingly. I think part of the reason we do take offense is because we tend to feel like we are the sum of our weaknesses. But we aren’t the sum of our weaknesses. There is a core within us that is deeper than our weaknesses and those who love us love us for that core.
We must also learn to separate our egos from the knowledge we give or receive. I feel like there is this running competition (especially in the Internet world), of who can discover more knowledge more quickly. People advise with a haughty heart, taking pride in their tips and their research, taking pride that they figured things out first. We shouldn’t feel insulted if somebody else has to teach us something. Isn’t that why we have relationships in the first place? To guide and help each other, to make each other better and happier? We can’t do that if we aren’t willing to bring things up, unsolicted, every now and then. And the unsolicited stuff from strangers that drives us crazy — it’s not going to get any better if we don’t start practicing the art of courtesy where it matters most.