In most ways I am a good mother, wife, and friend, but I realize that I am a bit critical and nitpicky. Even when I make an effort not to, I find myself suggesting that my (adult) daughter’s hair needs combing, or that my husband should stop starting every sentence with “So,” or that my weight-loss buddy should do more lifting and less swimming if she wants to see results. I really am working on keeping my mouth shut. But I fail often. How can I stop myself from giving so much advice?
—Critical in Carolina
Dear C in C,
Funny question to ask an advice columnist! And, indeed, I may be the wrong person to ask because I have been told that I share your problem. But, then again, I may be just the right person if you want the empathy that comes from having walked down that same carping, officious, insufficiently-filtered road.
Let me tell you a story. I used to have an ungainly wolfish dog, whom I’ll call Peaches (although God knows why I am changing her name). Peaches had many issues, one of which was what her trainer, who had a flair for euphemism, called an underdeveloped bite-inhibition reflex. The dog did get better, but she backslid sometimes; and I remember how, on one such occasion, she lunged at my chin. I could see her look of total dismay as, mid-lunge, she remembered all the reasons she really did not want to bite me any more. My laugh as I saw that unmistakable “Oh, shit, now I’ve done it!” expression in her demented blue eyes is probably what saved us both: I doubled over and her jaw clamped shut as the bottom of her snout landed lightly on the top of my head. Peaches slunk off into the back yard and never bit me, or at least hardly ever broke the skin, again.
I have thought of that poor dog and her “Oh, shit!” face more than once while standing by helplessly, listening to myself blurt out some ill-advised suggestion or opinion. (One of my favorites: “But isn’t that more a name for a house pet than a kid?”) And, like her, I have gotten better, but I backslide. Please take the following not as some lofty expert’s gospel but as tentative, but experienced-based, suggestions from a fellow sufferer, as if I were standing before you at your local chapter of Advice-givers Anonymous.
I find that the best way to strengthen the advice-inhibition reflex is through advance planning and dry runs. What are your areas of danger? Perhaps your daughter is coming home for a visit. Visualize her with the most unkempt hair imaginable. Then put clashing orange and fuchsia streaks in it. Then practice not mentioning it. Run through scenarios where you talk to her about any number of matters unrelated to hair, or indeed to appearance. Practice how to respond if she has a fit of daughterly insecurity or wickedness and actually asks for your opinion on her hair, or her clothes, or her piercings, or her tattoos, or whatever else might get to you. Think of how happy you will be to see her. Think of the things you most love about her.
Do the same when you are about to see problematic friends or colleagues, or when you have reason to suspect that your husband is about to launch into a speech full of serial “So”s. Visualize your silence. Visualize appreciating, or at least paying attention to, the content of what your husband is saying. As for your friends, think about recent events in their lives and imagine scenarios where, when you get together, you lead with some thoughtful questions about these events and stay far away from any comments on those unfortunate dad jeans Robert is wearing or those pesky typos in that poem Lydia finally got published.
Tell yourself that almost everybody likes to be listened to, and that almost nobody likes unsolicited advice. You probably know this quite well already, or you would not have written. But keep reminding yourself. And remind yourself further that talking about a problem is not the same thing as soliciting advice. Hell, half the people I know don’t really want advice even when they come out and ask for it. I just hope that the people who write me are in a separate category.
Another tactic I have found useful, although not quite as effective as visualizing specific scenarios, is more general exercises and pep talks. Say: “I will be careful! I will hold my tongue!” And find some inhibiting behavior you think will work for you. Counting to ten—or to five, given our sped-up world—can be useful. But it really does take practice. If people could always remember to stop and count to ten before blurting out unwanted advice and opinions, they could probably always remember not to blurt them out in the first place. You have to make a habit of tricks like counting to ten, or looking at the floor, or pinching yourself. (You also have to know when to break the habit: there are business situations where rapid-fire exchanges, or just getting a word in edgewise, are more important than caution.)
Bear in mind that, where advice and opinions are concerned, it rarely matters how witty and pithy they are, or even whether the advice is sound or the opinions correct. The real issue is most often interpersonal. Are we showing respect? Are we treating people as equals? Are we observing the proper boundaries? Are we helping people maintain their sense of self-worth, including any harmless illusions they may have? Or are we sacrificing any of these in order to establish our own importance or display our own cleverness and expertise?
This is also important: never forget that there are countless implicit, even involuntary ways to convey one’s opinion. Families and close friends can be geniuses at discerning feelings you think, or would like to think, you have managed not to express. You therefore have to be very careful what you say when certain thoughts are uppermost in your mind. If you are thinking about the ineffectiveness of your weight-loss buddy’s swimming routine, this is a good time to say nothing about swimming, or weights, or anything remotely related to either. If your friend knows you well, even a remark like “I think I will only swim ten laps today!” or “I’m so pleased with my progress on the rotary torso machine!” will very likely sound to her like what you are thinking. She will hear what you probably mean—“Stop swimming so much and get into the weight room if you want to get rid of those bingo arms”— and she may be more annoyed than if you had just come out and said it.
You even have to be careful about totally nonverbal cues. If you really want to cut back on the unsolicited advice and opinions, work on your poker face. Just last week I got in big trouble with my family because of what they call The Look, which I apparently deployed after hearing something that bothered me for about three seconds, and then not even very much. I am currently doing some soul-searching about whether there are times when I actually know I am engaging in The Look and am being passive–aggressive or something, or whether I honesty never have any idea what’s going on with my facial expressions.
As for The Silence, don’t even get me started.
I suppose that the only safe way to avoid conveying unwanted opinions is to arrive at a state between neutral and enchanted about every aspect of everyone you know. In the meantime, though, you and I will have to work on our visualizations and do our advice-inhibiting calisthenics.
Peaches died young, of natural causes. Even though it was probably for the best, I still miss her. She really tried, which is all anybody can do.
This weird little thing happened to me the other night. I was on my third date with “Steven,” whom I met on line but who turns out to know a couple of people I went to college with. Our first date was just Starbucks. The next time we walked and talked for a couple hours. The third and most recent time we went out for dinner and a movie. We were getting along very well and I invited him up for coffee. Anyway, we talked and laughed, I showed him some old pictures, and we made out a little.
I got up to go to the bathroom and he went into the kitchen, I assumed for a coffee refill. But on my way back I saw him looking into my spice cabinet. Then he took out my bottle of rosemary and put it in his pocket.
I backed away, really glad that there was music playing to cover my retreat. There was plenty of time to fake a second entrance after Steven had closed the cabinet and returned to the couch. After a few minutes more I told him I was tired and wanted to call it a night. He looked disappointed but was very kind and pleasant, saying what a great time he’d had, kissing me goodbye, and telling me he would keep in touch.
After he left I checked, and the bottle was gone. Isn’t that strange? It was just a regular bottle of the Acme house brand, maybe an ounce.
He left me a voicemail yesterday asking when we should get together again.
How weird is that? And what should I do? I was starting to like Steven, but this seems kind of creepy.
—Weirded Out in West Orange
It seems kind of creepy to me, too. And definitely weird. If he had just taken a pocket pack of Kleenex, or maybe a candy bar, you could reasonably decide that he is a bit thoughtless and rude, but not (depending on the nature and extent of the candy bar in question) necessarily undatable. If he had lifted a pair of gold earrings, you would conclude that he was a thief, stop seeing him, and possibly inform the police. But pocketing one of your spices? This, too, probably makes him undatable, since it points to some kind of abnormality—a compulsion, maybe, or a fetish, or a basic lack of understanding or respect for other people.
You are still at the very start of the dating process. I would advise you to get out now. Best, I think, would be to call things off over the phone. A phone call is kinder (and less permanent!) than a text or email; but safer and easier to terminate, and less of a big deal, than an in-person meeting. If the thought of a live conversation is too unpleasant, go ahead and text. And if, for some reason, you want to talk to him in person, be sure to do so in a neutral public place.
Do you feel the need to ask him about the rosemary? I was going to advise you to avoid an unnecessary argument by just letting Steven’s petty theft go, and making the same “you’re wonderful, but this just isn’t working” speech you would have made if he had never pocketed the rosemary. But then a few things occurred to me. One: Although you don’t have a clear duty to do so, it would be kind to let this guy know that what he did is troubling, not to mention really off-putting, and that he should get help. Two: If you are like me, you will spend more time than it’s worth wondering about it if you never ask for an explanation. Three: It is conceivable, although highly unlikely , that he may actually have an explanation. The only acceptable one I can think of is that there was some misunderstanding. Maybe you will you ask him why he took your rosemary and he will say, in total and credible surprise, that when he heard you coming into the room the first time he called out to you to ask if he could borrow some for a pork roast and was sure you heard him and said yes, but that must have just been the Nina Simone he heard—the music was loud and his back was turned. I just might believe that. But I doubt that he will say any such thing. It is much more likely that he will deny that he took the rosemary (dump him!). Or he may say that he was going to ask if he could borrow it and simply forgot to tell you and is SOOOOOO embarrassed (I do not believe that: unless you know more than I do, dump him!). Or he may confess that he has some sort of problem like kleptomania, or the need to take some small trophy object from a romantic prospect, and is making significant progress in therapy (listen sympathetically, but dump him nevertheless).
Take my sage advice and be very careful.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.