The Advantages and Perils of Advice-Taking (DE Wave)

Cartoon boy holds picket sign reading Advice $1

A reader writes, “What does it say about a person who offers unsolicited advice without at least a polite shift in the conversation? As an example, as I was serving a guest in a fast-food restaurant where I work, he smilingly said, ‘Take my advice…’ and proceeded to lecture me about changing my gloves to protect gluten-intolerant guests. My own thought was that this behavior was an indication that I somehow needed this advice, as if I couldn’t think for myself. I interpret that as talking down to me. I’m not sure if I should be offended or not.”

The root of any good advice is logic. In practice this means that all good advice should have an “if/then” component. Let’s start with your example. This person lectured you about the supposed importance of wearing gloves for whatever purpose. I am assuming that he didn’t talk in if/then terms, i.e., he didn’t attempt to provide any motivation for you to listen to him. As an alternative, he might have stated, “If you wish to keep your job…” (assuming that wearing gloves for that purpose was a requirement). Or, “You might not know this, but…” in order to appeal to your possible desire to gain new knowledge. Or, “If you’d like to avoid unintentionally harming people, you might want to consider….”

Personally, even if I resented unwarranted advice from a stranger, I’d still be more likely to listen than if he or she launched into a lecture totally out of context. In the latter case, I would simply think, “Who are you to start lecturing me?” One of the most important aspects of human psychology is motivation. We’re not preprogrammed by instinct, as animals are. In order to act a certain way, we must first choose to act, and since most action requires thought, we must first choose to think. In order to think and act by choice, we must possess, establish and (as necessary) re-establish motivation.

Human lives are littered with attempts to sidestep rational motivation. Dictators and authoritarian types do it by getting others to act a certain way by force of law. Criminals do it by attempting to defraud or otherwise coerce people into acting a particular way. But family members, bosses and loved ones make the same mistake too. We attempt to motivate with dogmatic, empty or meaningless “shoulds” without establishing some sort of motivation, i.e., that all-important if/then connection. For example, “If you want to complete your degree, then you have to keep studying.” This is a more effective than the command, “Study!” Similarly, “If you want to keep getting your paycheck to buy the things you want, then you have to go to work today.” That is a lot more motivating than, “Go to work!”

This failure to provide motivation often starts with the parents. Then the child grows up and passes it along to others. I often think of the example from a friend who told me how his mother handled these situations. Even when he was in elementary school, when he wanted to stay up late to watch a show, she wouldn’t say, “No!” Instead, she reasoned, “You can stay up late in this case. But you will still get up on time to go to school.” Rather than giving him an empty, authoritarian requirement, she told him of the choice/consequences (if/then) and allowed him to think it out. The problem with unsolicited advice is that it establishes no context. It simply presumes that, “You require advice, and I’m the one to provide it,” without any pre-established motivation.

So, dear Reader, you’re entirely right to take offense at the unsolicited advice, whether it comes from a stranger or from a person closer to home. Just remember that the advice-giver’s motivation might not always be malevolent. Sometimes he or she is truly interested in the pursuit of objective truth, and hopes to impart the same to you. This failure to establish context could arise from poor communication skills and perhaps a lack of appreciation for our human requirement to act – or react – in response to rational and logical motivation.

Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael  Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1