DRMacIver's Notebook

Would you like some advice?

Would you like some advice?

If you wouldn’t, too bad. You’re here reading my writing, advice is one of the main things my writing is for. If you don’t want my advice, don’t read my writing.

Conversation, however, is different.

Here is a good rule of thumb: When a wide variety of people get annoyed at you for the same behaviour, it’s more likely that you are behaving in an annoying way than that there is some bizarre conspiracy in which everyone has decided to behave irrationally for no good reason.

This seems obvious to me, and yet people persist in offering advice in contexts in which it’s obviously unwanted and then getting surprised when people get annoyed at them for it.

Complaining about things is good, and has many virtues above and beyond problem solving. People complain to process their feelings. People complain as a bonding activity. People complain because they’re angry and want something to direct it. Sometimes people complain because they’re mentioning something annoying in passing as part of a broader point. Complaining is normal, and it is not intrinsically a request for advice on how to solve the thing you are complaining about.

Notably: Often people complain about things where they have thought a great deal about the solution space already.

And then people offer advice anyway, and are surprised when this is just as unwelcome as unrequested advice usually is, and get all huffy about how they were just trying to help.

The prompting incident that made me think of this is that I was in a situation where someone was describing a problem they had. It was a category of problem I was pretty familiar with and was pretty sure I knew how to solve, but they hadn’t asked for my help. This happens to me a lot, as you might imagine, because I listen to a lot of people and also problem solve professionally. Must be frustrating, right?

No it’s not, the solution to this problem is very simple, to the point of being blindingly obvious. I said “I might have some useful advice on this if you’d like it?”, to which he politely thanked me and said he would love some advice, and we had a good conversation about it.

This is what usually happens. Sometimes people say “No thank you”, and I respect that, and we have a good conversation about it.

You know what never happens when I ask something like this though? Nobody ever gets mad at me. Because it’s an obviously reasonable thing to ask, and everyone is pleasantly surprised that I asked rather than leaping in with my opinion, and thanks me not only for my advice but also for checking if it was welcome.

So this is my advice: If you want to give someone advice in response to something they said which was not clearly a request for said advice, ask them if it would be welcome, and if they say no then respect that. Also if they’re obviously going to say no, don’t bother asking and just stay quiet about it rather than wasting their time and yours.