My most recent serving of humble pie came courtesy of a conversation with a friend, or more accurately, her response to a string of quandaries I’d just offloaded in her lap. After I’d finished my vent, she calmly asked: “Do you want my feedback?” I found her question bizarre. Wasn’t it obvious? Of course I wanted feedback. Why else would I divulge my issues if not to elicit some form of reciprocal advice?
Nevertheless, her simple response catalyzed a re-think of my beliefs about advice. I began to notice how automatically I proffered it, often without being asked, and how routinely it was similarly foisted upon me. I became aware of the noise; the cacophony of conflicting opinions and recommendations flying around in my daily life.
Advice was everywhere! Advice on career, advice on losing belly fat, advice on how to score the dream house/job/partner. It was coming at me from all directions — friends, family, media outlets — and I was regurgitating it in equal measure. It felt like I was suddenly tuned in to a dull air conditioner hum. Now that I noticed the sound, I realized how annoying and distracting it was, drowning out my intuition, echoing the white noise of others’ conflicting ideas.
Whilst I’m sure even our early ancestors were busy counseling one another on which stick to use, it’s likely our information age has increased our penchant for churning out wanton advice. With the swathes of content we consume and the ability to Google anything, it’s easy to feel like an expert on everything. What’s more, the voyeuristic nature of social media and reality TV places us in a position of constant commentary, a generation of self-taught therapists and armchair anthropologists.
Advice is one of those things that, on the surface, seems like a well-intentioned offer of service to a fellow human. But despite their similar appearance, advice and service aren’t always so alike.
In a recent Guardian piece discussing the subject, Oliver Burkeman begins by saying: “Here’s a solid gold piece of advice: be wary of anyone offering you solid gold pieces of advice.” Ironically, his article is titled “Why It’s Wise to Give People Advice.” He suggests that in order to make people feel good about themselves, instead of giving them advice, we should ask for it. This is because giving advice essentially reassures us of our own innate wisdom, so being asked for it reminds us how knowledgeable we are. Therein lies the rub: Advice-giving is often a thinly veiled exercise in self-soothing.
I’m certainly guilty of giving advice for the wrong reasons. Often it’s an unconscious means of deflecting my uncertainties, or pasting over someone else’s fears, lest they too accurately mirror my own. Other times, as Burkeman points out, posturing as some wise soothsayer reassures me that my thoughts and opinions are valid and worth sharing. Giving advice feels like a badge of Having My Shit Sorted.
Returning to the conversation with my friend, I later realized how considerate her reaction had been. I’d reached out my hand in a time of need, and instead of using it to pat herself on the back, she’d simply held it in solidarity. By asking if I wanted her feedback, she’d respected my ability to make my own decisions, offering me a supportive space to lay out my thoughts and examine them without interference. Instead of automatically directing me towards the conclusion she thought was best, her actions taught me a lesson in consideration. She didn’t force feed me her opinion, instead she helped me swallow another morsel of that all-too-familiar pie.
Collage by Madeline Montoya.