(Or: I give myself very good advice but I very seldom follow it… What makes you think I’ll treat your advice any differently?)
Well meaning advice and when not to offer it
(Clue: well meaning doesn’t always/ever equal useful.)
One thing I’ve noticed lately is people getting uppity when other people don’t accept their “well meaning advice” with open arms.
An example of this is a friend on FB who had a massive rant yesterday because a friend of his had told him to leave her alone when he offered her “advice” on dealing with her ME. He was absolutely “livid” that she had “had a go” at him for offering advice when he had been “only trying to help”. He also felt like she was “wallowing in self-pity” (because being housebound with ME and chronic pain is the kind of situation that you should just, y’know, snap out of).
This wasn’t about his friend. It was about him and the injustice he had faced because his friend with ME had not gracefully accepted his unsolicited advice. (He does not and has never had ME.)
(*Edited to say: I should have put Myalgic Encephalopathy / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (US) which is the full name. It is generally referred to as ME in the UK. Thank you to Ashley for explaining the US understanding in the comments below!)
Knowing him, and knowing how cantankerous and self-righteous he can be, I asked myself the following questions on his behalf. I call them the When To Offer Well Meaning Advice Test (WTOWMAT).
- Did the person ask for advice? – The answer was almost certainly no, given the reaction.
- Do I have any experience of dealing with this particular issue? – No. He doesn’t have ME. He isn’t housebound in chronic pain.
- Is the advice I am going to give likely to help the person to improve their situation? – No, given she’s housebound and his advice was apparently to get out of the house more and “stop wallowing in self pity”.
- Is the person I’m offering advice to likely to have never encountered this advice before? – No. Given that ME used to be referred to as “yuppie flu” and has only recently been recognised as an actual valid medical condition, and is still controversial – she has probably been told to snap out of it quite a few times.
- Am I particularly qualified to deal with the problem this person is facing? – No. He’s not medically or psychologically qualified in any way.
- Is the advice likely to make the person feel better about the situation? – No. Most people who are suffering don’t tend to react well to being told to snap out of it.
6/6 “No” answers. (I reckon if you answer no to any more than 2 of them, you need to stop and think if it’s the right thing to do, or whether it might be more useful to, I don’t know, make a cup of tea instead.) These are a few basic questions it’s easy to ask yourself before you offer well meaning advice. I’m sure there are many more but just answering these will probably give you a clue about whether the advice you’re thinking of is likely to be gratefully received or not.
So here’s my “advice”, which you can take or leave (I won’t take it personally): Before thinking of giving advice, put it to the WTOWMA Test.
It’s entirely anecdotal, but I’ve found that people are less likely to tell me to get lost and more likely to want to remain friends if I use this test before giving out any advice.
Well meaning advice is not expert advice
I’m always a bit wary of advice. For one thing, as Alice would say, “I give myself very good advice but I very seldom follow it”, so I’m not that great at taking advice full stop. For another, I’m often on the receiving end of well meaning but ultimately unfounded and unsolicited advice and I don’t take it very well (due to my inability to have given birth to a child and as a female in my thirties, which makes me something of a statistical anomaly and magnet for “helpful” advice from fertile friends).
It’s a well known fact that most humans aren’t very good at statistics. They tend to extrapolate from their experience to all experience. They tend to think that one off events are of greater significance than they actually are. The human brain is predisposed to see patterns – and so can’t cope with randomness without trying to make sense of it or attributing it to a benevolent/vengeful deity or a blind watchmaker (depending on your religious persuasion). And also, the majority of humans have a certain level of experience that doesn’t extend to the entire human race and tends to be limited to people who share similar characteristics to themselves – so in statistical terms, their reference group is not representative of the overall population.
So, where does this leave advice?
It means that:
- People often use anecdotal evidence to support an argument – “My sister’s cousin’s husband’s brother’s grandmother was having trouble conceiving but then they were about to give up and went on holiday/took some vitamins/adopted a child and they found out they were pregnant and now they have four kids! Have you tried doing that?”
- Humans are humans so they hope, rather than looking at facts or data, and they see hopeful patterns rather than looking at facts or data – “Everyone I know who has a baby also drinks water so I think maybe you should try drinking water more because I bet that’s the reason they are more fertile than you.”
- People want to feel useful so they will try and come up with solutions even if they are not tested or likely to work – “I read somewhere that if you eat kale whilst howling at the moon and covered in bodypaint made out of ground beetroot then you will ovulate and get pregnant within a month! Why don’t you try it?”
- People want to feel that stuff isn’t just random and that it isn’t their fault, so if they can possibly make it someone else’s fault then they will – because then they don’t have to accept a world where random good and bad stuff happens – and where you’re a reminder that bad stuff might happen to them – “It’s because you work so hard and you’re stressed. If you only focused more on having a family like I’ve done and stop being such a career woman then maybe you’d be more likely to get pregnant. Also you shouldn’t drink / eat chocolate / ever have any fun in your life… even though I conceived my two children whilst drunk.”
- People have something called a confirmation bias, where they see more evidence for stuff that supports what they think, and ignore / don’t see the stuff that contradicts it – “I have noticed that all the people more like me find it easier to get pregnant. (Apart from Marcie. And Helen. And Judy. And Rita. But I mean, we are all doing the right stuff and I’m sure they’ll be pregnant soon.)”
- A lot of people believe that there is a God of some sort who is controlling things so they just have to figure out what it is he wants, and pray a bit, and be good because their life must have meaning; it can’t just be random bad luck – “It’s God’s will that I haven’t yet had a baby. It’s because he has a higher purpose for me. I’ve been called to adopt / remain childless / do IVF… God never gives us more than we can bear and it makes me a better person.”
Massive generalisation, of course, but my background is in stats and data analysis and I have an interest in human interactions (and a human tendency to see patterns in things, ha) so over the years I’ve noticed these things. I’m also not keen on falling out with friends, which I used to do a lot when I was younger, so I have analysed a lot of my behaviour and realised that not listening / not empathising / trying to force people to do exactly what I would do – are all things that tend to make people want to avoid me.
Well meaning advice is not always helpful advice
None so more than in the context of people’s attitudes towards infertility. But this could equally apply to anything where someone’s going through something of which the “adviser” has no direct experience. Or if the advisee hasn’t asked for anyone’s help.
Here’s a clue: If it’s not an intervention, and they haven’t asked for advice – they probably don’t need advice.
And another one: It’s not all about you. Really.
I’ve lost count of the number of people who take it as a personal slight if I’m not interested in their well meaning advice on relationships / work / infertility / anything else. If your advice isn’t heeded: This isn’t because I think you’re a terrible person. It’s just that your advice probably isn’t that helpful to me and I’d rather you didn’t waste your time. I’m on it. Just be my friend.
Everyone’s an expert problem solver
You know when someone’s about to give you advice. It’s like it’s in slo-mo and you are just waiting for them to elicit some kind of personal information from you (“I’m infertile”, “I had a miscarriage”, “I was adopted”) and use it as an excuse to expound their Theory of Everything. (Assumption #1: Your level of acceptance of their advice is a direct correlation with how much you love and respect them as a person, and also how clever / smart / empathetic / wonderful they are.)
Firstly this means that they often think that there is a solution, and that solution is something that they are likely to come up with in the five minutes it takes to have a conversation with you that makes you feel worse about yourself. (Reality check: Some problems don’t have immediate solutions. Some shared experiences are not asking for solutions. Some problems you don’t have the solution for – and that’s okay.)
Secondly, there’s an implicit assumption from people who’ve never experienced it that there must be a reason why they’re okay and you’re not. And that reason is usually that you just haven’t tried the solution that they cleverly came up with a minute ago after thirty seconds of thinking (or probably no thought at all) and all you have to do is implement it, silly. (Reality check: For anyone dealing with something “heavy”, which let’s face it is the usual scenario which elicits the aforementioned well meaning advice – the chances are they’ve been dealing with this for a while. And they’ve probably already thought through all the scenarios you could possibly imagine. And you telling them to try something, when they’ve already explored that, is probably making them feel bad and like you i) think they’re stupid not to have thought of it before, ii) make them feel as though you’re saying it must be their fault because they haven’t tried enough, and iii) minimising their suffering by suggesting there’s a reason for it. Which is not okay.)
Thirdly there is the assumption that because you’re in this situation, you just haven’t tried the solution they are offering (via that often welcomed medium of forced advice). If only you would just try and open your mind, and have the right attitude you would be fine. Just like them. (Reality check: If you are not in a very similar and directly relatable situation then ask yourself the questions on the WTOWMA Test. At a minimum, ask them whether giving this advice is 90%+ likely to give them the desired outcome. If they haven’t asked for your advice then maybe, just maybe, they don’t want it. That is okay, and no reflection on you as a person. Knowing when to STFU is actually a great reflection on your ability to show insight and empathy and friendship. That is awesome.)
Oh, now you’ve made me feel bad! I was only trying to help!
You know what? **** happens. Suck it up, buttercup. Your friend is going through a bad time and it’s your job as a friend to be a friend, not an expert adviser.
As a friend with a friend who’s going through a bad time or facing a problem, it’s pretty damn simple.
- Be there for your friend. Offer hugs, empathy, a shoulder to cry on, hot drinks or a place to crash / night out on the town if the going gets rough.
- Be someone’s 3am person. I know there are friends who, if I called them at 3am, would pick up the phone. I know people who would hop in a taxi / drive across country to save me if I was in a fix and asked for their help. I know others who would sit on the end of a phone and listen to me rant and cry and open a bottle of wine just so I never have to drink alone. Just because you’re there doesn’t mean you ever have to do anything – think of it as being on the stem cell register. Maybe you’ll never need to donate, but it’s enough to know you would if needed.
- Leave the door open. I have a friend who was told they had terminal cancer. It is absolutely horrendous and we don’t live close by or are even in contact very often, but I sent messages saying to call any time or see if we could set up a visit. I knew my friend would be inundated with requests so I didn’t take it personally that we didn’t speak for a while. When my friend felt able (and when the prognosis had improved, thankfully), we had a great, long conversation about everything. I wanted my friend to know I was there, but I also didn’t want to intrude when they were fighting the biggest battle of their life. It wasn’t about me – it was about them. (I’m not perfect by a long shot – but I knew in that case when to shut up.)
Thing is: All you can do is your best, and everyone gets that “well meaning” isn’t badly intended – it’s just that sometimes it hurts.
It hurts to be told when you have cancer that maybe you shouldn’t have tried that cigarette that one time in college, or eaten bacon or not gone to the gym.
It hurts when you don’t have a child that maybe you should just relax, or that IVF is unnatural, or that adopted children will never be like “real” children.
It hurts when you have a disability or painful condition to be told not to feel sorry for yourself and that positive mental attitude is what you need to get through it, by someone who’s never walked in your shoes.
If we know that things are hurtful then we can try and minimise doing those things. Nobody’s perfect, and life is sometimes unfair. But we can make it that little bit nicer by trying to understand the consequences of our actions and by not doing things that we know will hurt others.
Don’t knowingly hurt others.
That’s my free advice to everyone. Take it or leave it – I won’t take it personally!