Dear Unsolicited Advisers,
I’m not even going to start this letter off with the lie “Thank you for your concern.” I’m not thankful for your concern. If you were concerned about me in some way, you would know not to intrude into my thoughts and my struggle until you were invited. Some people have good judgement and can read into the nuances of when their help – specifically their help, with special knowledge on a subject and most importantly a thorough understanding of my inner struggles – will actually be helpful. Some people, over many many years of close friendship, have earned my trust on my most sensitive matters. I’m not talking about deep secrets. I’m talking about things that are visible and apparent, things about which I’m thinking out loud and expressing how and why they concern me so much. It’s not asking for advice unless I say “Any advice?” It’s therapeutic self-expression.
Most of us have weak spots that we don’t want people to point out or give advice on. Most of us also have strong or indifferent spots where we like to troll people who try to give advice. I can do the latter with weight issues or skin issues, which are the most visible flaws in my physical appearance by current standards. I will troll the fuck out of you. “You know what’s weird? Every time I go to my doctor, sometimes even when I get weighed again, all she does is, like, talk about the vitamins I’m getting, then stick scraping metal objects into my vagina.”
My weak spot, though, is my hair. It starts with a benign comment like “Why do you always tie your hair back? I’ve never seen you let it out.” I will respond with “My hair and I are sworn enemies and as I’m in control I will oppress it like the despot I am.” At that point, it would be best to say something like “Some hair types are so hard to control” or “I know other people who feel the same way” or “Whatever works for you.” It would be okay to ask if I’ve tried something, to which I’ll respond “Yes, and some other things too, but with the time it takes and the inconsistent results, I’ve decided to stick with what I do.” Most people respond with “You know what you should do?” then list a number of things I’ve heard a hundred times and probably even tried a few times too. That is unsolicited advice, after I’ve made a strong statement about my feelings towards my hair. You are socially impaired if you cannot read between the lines of my polite but unambiguous statement.
Most people won’t care about the success stories you’ve had, or your friends have had, or your friend’s cousin’s sister-in-law have had. This applies to hair, weight, and skin, which are the most visible body issues people often talk about. It applies to other health issues like energy and anxiety and depression. It applies to factors of personal life like relationships and finances and aesthetic choices like wardrobe and decor. Any one of these could be a sensitive issue for the person you’re talking to. Tread lightly and take signs when they first try to steer away from the topic or respond with a call to halt.
It’s not your job to fix other people’s problems. In an episode of Parks and Recreation this past season, a pregnant Ann was complaining about pregnant things to her partner Chris, and Chris in his hyperactive positivity went out and got what he assumed were needed solutions. Their friends sat down with Chris and told him the golden rule of people casually complaining about small things – listen and say “That sucks.”
Please learn from this and apply it broadly. Apply it to things specific to an individual. Apply it to people expressing the effects of not having privilege. You’re not the grand caretaker of the human universe. You are merely a person yourself. You must understand that we are all flawed, and not all things can be so easily fixed – especially not with your unsolicited advice.