The double edged sword of advice

You should really work from home.” If I had a nickel for every time someone offered me this gem back when I was a copy editor, I wouldn’t have needed to work in the first place. While I know that (in most instances) people were only trying to help by offering me their pearls of wisdom, I wish I’d had the gumption to say, “Wow! Thanks so much, well-meaning mother-in-law/second cousin once removed I see only at funerals/next-door neighbor whose name I can’t remember/random lady sitting on a park bench next to me. Why didn’t I think of that?” Instead, I graciously plastered a smile on my face and responded with what was practically a rehearsed line: “Thanks for the advice. I wish I could, but there are meetings to attend and a lot of other practical reasons it wouldn’t work.” I’m clearly not the only recipient of unsolicited advice. Just ask any new mother how many grannies have stopped her on the street and poked their noses into her carriage, declaring the baby to be overdressed, underdressed or lying on the wrong side. Pardon me, but I don’t remember asking.

Which leads us to a basic question: Do we ever actually heed the advice of friends, relatives and acquaintances? Is it usually helpful? In preparation for this article I sent out a mass email to many of friends and relatives asking them to share the best, strangest, or worst advice they’d ever received, both the kind they actually requested and the unsolicited variety. I got a slew of responses all professing that “nothing comes to mind.” “I’m surprisingly stumped,” answered one editor. I would therefore venture to say that most advice isn’t as lifealtering as it was meant to be by the person who dispensed it. In fact, lots of it seems to roll right off, like water from the back of a duck. Most people don’t even remember it. Psychologists offer a number of reasons most of us are allergic to advice. As Dr. Peter Gray, an author and research professor at Boston College, writes in an article in Psychology Today, “Advice comes across to us as one upmanship, or assertion of dominance, or criticism, or distrust, or failure to consider our own unique goals and priorities.” He has another theory as well: “The underlying answer has to do with our desire to protect our own freedom.” Dr. Gray explains that unsolicited advice from family members is often the worst of all “because of our strong desire to please those persons. It’s hard to ignore advice from loved ones because we implicitly fear that failure to follow it will signal a lack of love or respect.

At the same time, we don’t actually want to follow the advice because we want to retain our autonomy.” While this sounds like the inner workings of the teenage mind, then perhaps none of us really ever grows up. Dr. Gray also says that people shy away from advice given by loved ones in particular because it changes the balance of power in the relationship. Taking their advice can feel like capitulation, as if we are saying, “Yes, dear. You are so much smarter and more knowledgeable, so you must always be right.” Any man who’s tried to “help” his wife fix a problem when all she wanted was a listening ear knows that Dr. Gray is right! However, not all advice is unsolicited, although we often forget that we asked for it in the first place—especially when things go sour. As Joe Queenan recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal article, “Fifty percent of the people who read fitness magazines never actually exercise. Buying a fitness magazine is like buying new workout clothing: It’s a step in the right direction. This is what most advice-seeking is—a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, it just happens to be the opposite direction from the one in which the advice-seeker is headed.” Queenan cites a research paper entitled “Taking Advice: Accepting Help, Improving Judgment and Sharing Responsibility” by Nigel Harvey and Ilan Fischer, which appeared in a 1997 issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: “The more important the decision…the more likely [people] were to seek advice, thereby distributing the responsibility.” Apparently, we all need someone to blame if things don’t work out. But when was the last time you credited your success to someone else’s advice? So if advice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—we don’t want it, usually don’t accept it, and don’t give credit to the person who offered it—why do we continue to dole it out so freely? Elizabeth Anne Scott, a wellness coach, author and health educator, offers some theories: ALTRUISM: “I really want to help my sister.”

FRIENDLINESS: Advice is a conversation starter and a connection forger. EXCITEMENT: “This hand cream is the best thing ever! I need to share my good fortune with the world.” NEED TO BE NEEDED: “I think, therefore I am important.” FEELING HELPLESS: “I can’t just listen to your problems and endless venting, so I’ll give you advice.” IRRITATIONS: “I’m so tired of hearing about your problem. Stop moaning to me about your mother-in-law. Just do X, Y, Z and leave me alone.” NARCISSISM: “I love the sound of my own voice.” ESTABLISHMENT OF DOMINANCE: “I’m the smarter one here.” DESIRE FOR DRAMA: “I love conflict, so let me tell you how wrong you are. Then we can start a debate.” I’ll never know what truly motivated all of those do-gooders who attempted to guide me with their unsolicited career advice. All I know is that it’s really great to work from home. Maybe you should try it too!

Best Advice I Ever Received

Tova: When my husband and I were newlyweds 35 years ago, we were in a store discussing what to buy. A total stranger came over and said to my husband, “Listen to your wife!” We’ve been laughing about it ever since. My husband often tells me, “As the man in the store said, I’d better do what you say!”

Temima: The best advice I ever received was from my mother. She told me to quit my very demanding job as it was affecting my husband and kids. I took a major pay cut in taking a different position, but it was the best thing I ever did. My family is so much happier.

Shoshana: I always thought I was naturally shy and there was nothing I could do about it. In high school I always sat in the back of the classroom and was more of an observer than a participant. Then someone told me that the secret to being a straight-A student is participation: “Be a voice and a leader in the classroom if you want to succeed.” I took this advice. In college I always sat in the front row and was quite vocal—and it affected my whole life. It changed my personality and ended up giving me better job opportunities.

Shiffy: I was once advised that a child’s emotional needs should be tended to before another child’s physical needs. So if the baby is screaming in the bassinet because she’s due for a feeding at the same time an older child comes home from school, giving the older one a hug and asking how her day was comes first. This is great to keep in mind when things get hectic and everyone needs me at once. It helps me sort out my priorities.

Victoria: My grandmother once told me, “If you smile because you look prettier smiling, it will also make you a naturally happier person.” It changed my life by showing me that being stressed doesn’t improve a situation.

Menucha: The best advice I ever got was from a rav about Pesach cleaning. “Pesach cleaning means getting rid of chametz. That’s it!  Pesach cleaning is not spring cleaning! Don’t confuse the two and don’t drive yourself crazy. If you wish, wash all your windows and curtains for Shavuos. But make sure you’re awake at the Seder table.”

Naomi: Before I got married, my mother told me very little about what to expect. She only said, “You don’t have to tell your husband everything.” I had no idea what she meant. My husband wasn’t going to be just anybody; wouldn’t I want to share everything with this man? Then she explained that some couples think they have to discuss every aspect of their day, including inappropriate things they saw or heard, such as things that could be lashon hara or potentially hurtful remarks. Today her words ring truer than ever. Telling my husband everything does not lead to closeness, and when I told him what my mother had said, he was in total agreement. We try to keep it positive, relevant and meaningful, cutting out all the “filler” that doesn’t really need to be shared.

Worst Advice  I Ever Received

Raizy: Probably the worst advice I ever got was from my shadchan. After I was engaged, I started having second thoughts about my chasan. She did not encourage me to elaborate or to specify what those thoughts were. At one point I told her I wanted to break off the engagement. My gut feeling was that something was wrong. Her advice? “Well, do you think you can do any better?”

Chani: After I gave birth to my first child, my friend, who considers herself something of a lactation consultant, told me that it’s perfectly normal for a baby to nurse for three to five minutes on each side. This was in direct contrast to what I’d learned in my prenatal classes, where they had said nursing was a 40-minute affair. My baby weighed only five and a half pounds, so I needed to wake her frequently for feedings. I was still exhausted from the birth, so my friend’s advice sounded much easier to follow. I listened to her—and regret it to this very today. Perhaps my daughter’s nutritional needs were met (or perhaps not as her weight consistently remained in a lower percentile until she was over a year old), but nursing is really about bonding, not about looking at the clock and deciding, “Well, that’s enough.” She’s fine today, but that advice still bugs me.

Chedva: My cleaning lady once told me to smear olive oil on a burn I got from a frying pan. Hatzolah later told me I had only made it sizzle further.

Rochel: Someone advised me not to marry my husband! He wanted to embark on a very difficult career path, and a friend told me it would be too demanding on me. Am I glad that I didn’t listen to her! True, my husband has a demanding job, but he’s always available whenever his family needs him—and that’s the main thing to me.

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