Unsolicited advice

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We have a strong volunteer force, Miss Manners has observed. Everyone is already helping everyone else all the time, and generally without even waiting for the formality of a request.

Absolute strangers will offer help in the form of health advice, such as "Do you know that that stuff you're eating is poisoning your system?" Mere acquaintances will help out by recommending exercise programs, diets and changes in hair style and wardrobe -- all on the assumption that you couldn't really look the way you do on purpose. Friends and relations are especially helpful in evaluating your other intimate ties. "She's no good for you" and "You ought to know that everyone but you realizes he's a jerk" are only the surface remarks. Analyses are also available, such as "What you're really looking for is a mother" or "What you think is love is only unresolved guilt." The truly conscientious will not limit themselves to helping with the more exciting parts of life. They are also scrupulous about offering helpful suggestions regarding such mundane matters as your household arrangements, work habits, mannerisms and use of the language. There is nothing like a good friend to help you out when you are not in trouble.

Life's little helpers reason that the first step toward improvement is the realization that things need to be improved. That is why they feel justified in approaching you when you are perfectly content in order to point out that everything you do, eat, and love is a dreadful mistake. Because they themselves are so full of good wishes for the rest of humanity, they do not expect their beneficiaries to be petty. They figure that upon being told how you have mismanaged your life, you will be grateful for the offer of assistance and reassured that others are watching out for you. It stands to reason that one who obviously does not know what is best for himself would be relieved to find that others are willing to take on that responsibility.

After all, they don't just stop after telling you that is wrong, but always go on to explain in detail how you can do things the way they do them. In other words, the right way.

Miss Manners would like gently to propose that everyone just cut out all this helpfulness right now. She suggest this first as a matter of manners. It is rude to call people's attention to their shortcomings, no matter how much you have their welfare at heart. It is rude to assume that anyone other than minors in your custody is less capable than you are of making minor and major decisions about how to live. No, it doesn't count if you prepare the way by attempting to convince people who don't realize it just how badly in need of help they are. In the etiquette lexicon, the statements necessary to break down a person's self-satisfaction to the point where he admits that he was in worse shape than he had fondly imagined are still called "insults."

The following statements are all insults:

  • "You really ought to be going out more."
  • "Keep on smoking like that, and you'll be dead in five years, and you won't be able to say I didn't warn you."
  • "Why do you waste your time reading that trash?"
  • "How can you let anyone treat you like that? If you had any self respect, you'd tell him where to go."
  • "A good plastic surgeon could fix that."
  • "Now's the time for you to have children, while you're still young enough to cope with them."
  • "You just think you're in love."
  • "You ought to have your colors done."

Miss Manners might also point out that many matters commonly the subject of unsolicited help -- such as looks and character evaluations -- are purely subjective. Why should one person's estimation of what kind of haircut would flatter you be better than another's or than your own? On questions where there is generally conceded to be danger, the person who chooses to ignore the danger is bound to know that he is doing so at some risk. That smoking is bad for you, or that it is statistically perilous to marry someone who has had a dozen spouses who died mysteriously, has not escaped the awareness of the person who has decided to do this anyway. All that is added by helpful criticism in such a case is the information that others are standing by, expecting the worst.

-- Judith Martin, Miss Manners' Guide For The Turn-Of-The-Millenium

To offer a man unsolicited advice is to presume that he doesn't know what to do or that he can't do it on his own.

-- John Gray

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