Editorial: Unsolicited advice

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File Photo

As you may know, one of the trademark jobs of the editor in chief of Chimes is writing a brief letter to all of you each week, which typically takes the form of a short piece of heartfelt advice from the editor in chief to all of you. So here is my opening piece of advice to all of you: never give other people unsolicited advice.

Not all advice is unsolicited advice, of course: if your friend asks for your help with a difficult situation, feel free to let loose with any nuggets of wisdom that may help them. But in nearly every other situation, it will be better for everyone if you keep your opinions about other people’s behavior to yourself.

I have no doubt that many of you are familiar with what it feels like to have other people giving you unsolicited advice: from family members giving you worse-than-useless dating tips to driving tips that are clearly veiled insults, I can think of almost no situation where unsolicited advice is useful or appreciated.

A step up from this banal irritation is the unsolicited advice given to the entire world rather than a single person. Whether it’s websites telling women what clothing trends to avoid or one of a variety of open letters to various celebrities, media is full of articles that are completely, bizarrely confident that they are more qualified to make your personal decisions than you are.

This confidence is what is truly concerning about unsolicited advice. The implication of unsolicited advice, intended or not, is that the advisee does not have sole dominion over their personal choices, but that they need to take the opinions of the advisor into account before making personal decisions. Giving unsolicited advice can therefore be a subtle way of undermining other people’s agency over their own actions.

There are situations where a person may not have sole dominion over their personal choices, such as in intimate relationships like marriage. This exception actually proves the rule, because even (or perhaps especially) in marriages, unsolicited advice is mostly taken as passive-aggressive sniping.

Similarly, when someone’s actions affect other people severely, they no longer have the right to do whatever they want — but again, the appropriate reaction is a clear examination of the harmful consequences of someone’s actions, or of course disciplinary action, rather than snidely telling them what they should have done.

I should also note that unsolicited advice is a relatively narrow category — you might sometimes say things that sound like unsolicited advice but really aren’t. If a friend is telling me about how they are tired and didn’t eat today, and I reply by telling them that they should eat something and then maybe take a nap, I’m really just expressing concern and sympathy rather than dictating their choices.

Since I think unsolicited advice is so disrespectful to other people’s agency, you may be wondering why I wrote an entire article essentially giving you all unsolicited advice to not give other people unsolicited advice.

I have no defense — I am being entirely hypocritical. The offensive thing about unsolicited advice is that it shows a disrespect for other people’s individual perspectives, but actually respecting other people’s autonomy means that I should respect other people’s decisions to express themselves through unsolicited advice.

I do think it is true that giving other people unsolicited advice is ineffective at best and disrespectful at worst. Hopefully that information is at all useful to you, but you’re never under any obligation to do as I tell you.

About the Author

Joseph Matheson

Joseph Matheson is the Chimes print editor for the 2013-14 school year. Joseph Matheson is a senior, majoring in biology and philosophy, and is also president of the chess club. He’s 6’1″, has phenomenal music taste and rarely feels any emotion besides sleepiness. He consumes bananas by the bushel, once biked 30 miles for a sandwich and suspects that there is something supernatural about Swedish Fish. Biggest fears: children, old people, eyeball cancer.

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