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When to Shut Up

Sort 272 looks at the best times not to give advice.

by Dear Jon
August 10, 2004

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Dear Jon,
Is their ever a time when you withhold your advice? How do you know when that time is? How do you withhold your advice without offending the person seeking it?

A Sensitive Soothsayer 

Dear Sooth,

Givers of advice and unsolicited opinions such as myself are not all that interested in withholding our wisdom. We are more likely to offer suggestions even when they are categorically, explicitly and emphatically not being sought. The reason is that we do not like being selfish. Since we know best, we have an obligation to instruct others in what is best.

Even so, there are certain no-win situations. I have learned, after approximately 17,000 mistakes, that the “I told you so” reflex of advice-givers in the aftermath of consequences after being ignored, helps nothing except our own self-esteem. Self-esteem is quite fragile, and can be easily bruised if the person to whom I am saying “I told you so” rearranges my face with a fist.

The “I told you so” also has the annoying habit of being repeated back to an ignored advice giver. Someone who has turned left despite the advice-givers suggestion to turn right, and comes to the goal directly so that your right turn suggestion is proven manifestly incorrect, might say “I told you so” with a feeling of smug and gloating triumph, with that smirk you are just dying to erase with five of your knuckles.

A companion to the “I told you so” reflex is the “You should have…” reflex. Statements prefixed with the past perfect imperative are occasionally useful on those rare occasions when someone is admitting an error and wants to know where things went wrong so that the course can be corrected under similar circumstances in the future. It is not at all useful if the person is not yet seeking out the lesson to be learned. It is least helpful when “You should have…” follows “I told you so” in a one-two combination such as, “As I’ve been saying all along, you should have….”

These are not the only times to stay quiet. The other no-win situation occurs when a woman asks a man for a fashion decision.

Pretend you do not hear her. It is better to be accused of being deaf, or accused with the more emotionally-charged “You never pay attention to me,” than to enter the trap of a woman’s indecision regarding what to wear. If there is no possible way to pretend that you had not heard the question, respond by announcing that you would love to help but you really have to take care of business number 2 in the bathroom, and take with you a novel by Leo Tolstoy.

Please, take my advice. Run away from a woman’s questions along these themes: “Does this make me look fat?” “Which shoes do you like better?” “Does this make me look like a scamp?”

All men everywhere are attracted to sexy women. Men like it when their wives or girlfriends attire themselves so as to be sexy. This makes us shallow, which we freely admit. If the situation ended with the statement, “you have a one-track mind” that would be fine. What happens, though, is that the woman begins to lock-and-load the emotional ammunition. Statements such as, “I can’t BELIEVE you want me to wear THESE shoes!” are followed by a slamming door and an eruption into tears as the woman, who had presented the man with a choice between open-toed 3-inch stilettos and Adidas basketball sneakers, has convinced herself that she is stuck with a sexist pig.

Then there is the friendship trap. At the fifteenth hole of a pretty decent round, your buddy asks your advice on something about which he has already made up his mind. “Should I buy a bigger boat?”

You begin to tell your friend that he needs to wait on financing a new boat because the company is cutting back even on junior executives, and that if he thinks he has extra money he should sock it away for a rainy day, or retirement. The next thing he tells you is that he was going to spend his Christmas bonus because he found a sweet deal and he was signing the papers that afternoon. Although it is only August and you find it presumptuous to assume that the strapped corporation is going to be issuing bonuses, at that point the best thing you can do is congratulate him and hope he invites you to the christening and virgin cruise.

The friendship triangle is the worst. You became friends independently in college with a man and woman who later married. There at the fifteenth hole your male friend, whom you know is suffering financial anxiety when the expected bonuses were delayed, tells you that his wife has turned cold to him, they don’t agree about much so they don’t talk much, and there is this girl in the mailroom who seems to be sending him signals.

No matter what happens, you will probably lose a friend. Even so, in that case the best thing you can do is tell your golfing buddy that he is a blooming idiot.

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