Wanderings – The value of free advice

Recently a person who I barely know told me what my problem was. I didn’t know about this specific problem. I have many problems – most of my own doing. But I was not aware of this problem.

It was early in the morning and my first coffee had not kicked in, so I was unable to properly verbalize an appropriate response to this individual. I politely said “thank you” and walked away. Ultimately this was the best course of action, as my coffee fueled response may have been moderately inappropriate. Apparently that too is a problem.

Most people like to give free advice. I’m guilty of this as well at times, but only on certain topics. Usually I preface this with “can/may I offer a suggestion?” But even I make faux pas. This last interaction, where I learned that I had a problem, led me to wonder more about why we feel this need to give others advice?

Parents know about free advice giving all too well. Standing in a big box store – waiting – the child (your child) is having a meltdown for whatever reason. A couple looks over from the distance, shaking their heads in disapproval as they watch you struggle with your little human learning how to cope with the word ‘no’. As the couple passes by, one person shares free advice from the 1950s on how to parent your child. So helpful – thanks for that. I’ve often thought of “good” retorts to that oh-so-helpful advice, five minutes after the speaker passes by.

A thumbs up or a comment like “you’re doing a good job” or “Been there, done that, good luck” would have been better than outdated and unwarranted parenting advice. Better yet, the couple not staring and keeping their noses out of someone else’s business was the best option.

Another goodie (for me) is walking into a take out line at a restaurant and the person in-front of you tells you what you should try. If I am going to take unsolicited advice from a stranger of what food to try in a restaurant, that stranger will be a celebrity chef like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey, or Wolfgang Puck. No offence, but I trust those TV chefs’ choices and experiences.

I think this need to offer free and unsolicited advice comes from our need to feel like we are being helpful. There is a certain awkwardness to standing there and perceiving that another person may be struggling.

Offering a piece of advice is like throwing a flotation ring over the side of a boat when you see someone who looks like they’re flailing in the water. That free advice is our way of not standing there, watching someone else sink. The other side of this issue is our inability to read people.

I know I have a difficult time reading certain people. The visual cues some people emote are often lost on me. Either I don’t pay attention or don’t care to look. Many others lack this same ability, or just simply don’t care. In both circumstances, offering advice is a reflex instinct. It’s difficult to break that cycle, but it should be broken.

Instead of offering free and unsolicited advice on how to fix someone’s problem, perhaps the better thing to do is to listen. The person we perceive as ‘needing advice’ may just need to be heard and listened to – or even just to be left alone. Not everything is your business, or my business – leave things be.

As for my problems, well they are my problems and while I do enjoy being informed of what those are, the saying “free advice is worth the price” applies. No offence.

And to those parents out there dealing with the kid in the aisle having a meltdown – been there, done that. You’re doing a good job. You got this. Now I’ll mind my business too.